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Revising Advising

Harvard’s newest associate dean seeks to put early bumps behind her

Although Monique Rinere’s goal for her first months at Harvard was to make the Class of 2010’s introduction to the College as smooth as possible, her own introduction has been anything but.

By all accounts, she was a popular figure on Princeton University’s campus during her half-decade as head of a residential college. In December, Harvard hired her away and made her its first-ever associate dean of academic advising.

On Feb. 27, she arrived here to spearhead the much-heralded overhaul of the College’s advising system. But her honeymoon was short.

On her sixth day at the new job, Rinere met with the board of the 20-year-old, undergraduate-run Prefect Program and told them they would be “morphed” into a peer advising system.

It would be a Kafkaesque metamorphosis—that is to say, an involuntary one.

Rinere invited the prefect officers to serve on a new Student Advisory Board (SAB), but they were far from mollified. “The Prefect Program has been disbanded effective next year, from above, and without consultation with the Prefect Board,” the officers wrote in an e-mail to program participants early the next day.

The prefects’ protests stunned College administrators. “I honestly am baffled by how it unfolded,” says Suzy M. Nelson, the associate dean of residential life.

“If anything,” Nelson says, the new program “should have been embraced by the prefects as an upgrade to their position.”

Though her colleagues never saw it coming, Rinere suddenly found herself facing furious student reaction.

‘DIFFICULT TO NAVIGATE’

Even without opposition from prefects, Rinere would have faced an uphill battle in changing Harvard’s advising system.

The advising structure at the College is “highly decentralized” and “difficult to navigate,” according to a student-faculty committee report issued in December.

The report, part of the ongoing curricular review, found that some students do not know who their advisers are. The report stated that advisers are not held accountable for their performances—or lack thereof.

The committee called for a new dean who would “help to improve the effectiveness of all our advising.” One component of the dean’s charge would be to “replace and augment” the Prefect Program with a new advising system.

Rinere had a “clear mandate,” says Cabot House Master Jay M. Harris, a member of the student-faculty committee. She was “given the report and told, ‘Please try to make this a reality,’” says Inge-Lise Ameer, assistant dean for upperclassman advising.

In a December interview with The Crimson, Rinere said that she was “perfectly happy” at Princeton, but the Harvard post presented “a fabulous opportunity.”

It was an opportunity fraught with potential pitfalls.

THE PEACE PROCESS

One night after the Prefect Program’s protest, Rinere met again with the program’s student leaders.

The prefects didn’t object to Rinere’s peer-advising agenda.

The path mapped out by the student-faculty committee’s report, which would expand the peer advising system’s academic counseling role, was the “direction [the prefect leadership] wanted to see itself go,” says Lindsay C. Page, the proctor-adviser to the prefects. The program’s student leaders understood that they “would lose some of their autonomy,” Page adds.

Two years ago, the Prefect Program board submitted a proposal asking for more training on academic advising, says board member Haining Gouinlock ’07. “But it was surprising how quickly it happened,” Gouinlock says of Rinere’s reforms. “We had assumed that we would have a transition year and get some more institutional support.”

Gouinlock says the board was furthermore upset by the timing of Rinere’s announcement because it came two weeks into the prefect application process for the next academic year.

But after the prefects’ second meeting with Rinere, Gouinlock said that administrators had adopted a “more conciliatory” attitude toward the prefect leaders. All nine prefect board members accepted spots on the SAB.

And according to Danny F. Yagan ’06, a member of the student-faculty committee on advising who now sits on the SAB, Rinere has been receptive to SAB suggestions. “Outsiders would be surprised and impressed by the amount which she acted on student recommendations,” he says.

Still, even with the prefects signing onto the peer-advising system, Rinere’s trials were not over yet.

SELECTION BIAS?

Rinere and the SAB launched a Peer Advising Fellowship program, which will match upperclassman fellows with 10 freshmen each based on shared academic interests.

The fellows will assume the Prefect Program’s function of fostering entryway camaraderie. Each fellow will be assigned to a specific entryway and will organize its events.

But unlike prefects, who volunteered their time, the peer-advising fellows will make $1,000 a year.

“We did not want to exclude students who are on financial aid and would have to choose between this and some other activity,” Rinere says.

The decision to offer a stipend to fellows was supported by the SAB but not without opposition from members concerned that it would attract applicants for the wrong reasons.

Still, Rinere responds, “I think the application process weeded out anybody who was interested in it just for the money—frankly there are many other ways to make $1,000 in a year.”

Whether or not they were lured by the stipend, over 480 undergraduates applied for the 190 fellowships, whereas around 150 students had applied to be prefects in previous years.

Rinere and her office were confronted with their next challenge: wading through all those applications.

The advising office accepted an initial round of 90 fellows without interviews. That move raised eyebrows.

“If they’re going to do interviews, they should probably interview everyone,” SAB member Michael I. Levin-Gesundheit ’08 told The Crimson. He added that interviews are important, “especially since it really matters that people are approachable and down to earth.”

Rinere defends her approach. “Four to six sets of eyes reviewed each application,” she says. “[The] names of the applicants were sent to all of the resident deans of freshmen and the Houses, and we checked many references.”

“What we did was something similar to what admissions does,” Rinere says. “If you can’t interview everybody yourself, then you rely on proxies.” Rinere also says her office “may refine the process somewhat next year after assessing this year’s process.”

NEXT STEPS

As she quells the uproar over the peer-advising system, Rinere is seeking to bring more faculty members on board as advisers—non-faculty residential proctors shoulder the bulk of the freshman advising burden now. She also will work to consolidate advising resources in her office and on the Web and to improve advising within concentrations.

With these challenges looming even as the Prefect Program uproar quiets down, it seems almost certain that Harvard hasn’t heard the last of its first advising dean.

—Staff writer Nina L. Vizcarrondo can be reached at nvizcarr@fas.harvard.edu.
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