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The Plot Against Harvard

By Adam Goldenberg, None

It’s sales pitch season here in Cambridge. As our well-heeled alumni, parents, and combinations thereof converge on campus for Commencement week, Harvard is back to pulling out all the stops.

For miles around, you can hear the white noise of endless small talk and the clinking of rented crystal. Listen closely—that’s the sound of blood being drained from a stone.

It’s not all smoke and mirrors, of course. If Harvard is as good as the experts say it is, then it should be tough to bitch and moan here without coming across as spoiled. But not all complaints are created equal, and one, in particular, carries weight.

In Harvard’s bureaucratic mire, lesser administrators tend to get bulldozed by their Olympian overlords, to their students’ detriment. Harvard University has enjoyed a long, symbiotic romance with its incidental undergraduate component, Harvard College. But there’s no question that the manure only ever flows downhill. Or, in Harvard’s case, down the stairs from the third floor of University Hall—home to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), of which the College is a formal subsidiary—to the Harvard College Dean’s Office on the first. At Harvard, tradition keeps the College firmly pinioned under the short end of the stick.

Boosters claim that undergraduates comprise the heart of the University. If they’re right, Harvard is habitually on the brink of cardiac arrest.

Current affairs make the case pretty clearly. As the new Dean of the College, Evelynn M. Hammonds, finishes moving in this week, some members of her staff are being forced to contemplate moving out.

According to two sources close to the College administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity last week, Dean of FAS Michael D. Smith has been hard at work on plans to shuffle much of the College administration out of University Hall and into loftier perches—aloof from the undergraduates they ostensibly serve—in the Holyoke Centre.

The move has been hotly contested by Smith’s subordinates in the College Dean’s Office. In closed-door meetings with the boys upstairs, both Hammonds and outgoing Interim Dean David R. Pilbeam have insisted on the decision’s lack of wisdom. Yet all signs still point to the imminent departure of some of the College’s vital organs from the centre of the Yard to across Massachusetts Avenue.

Smith intends to requisition some of the College’s choice office space for FAS administrators. Offices that once housed bureaucrats preoccupied with undergraduate matters will instead be the home of the Faculty’s apparatchiks. Peer Advising Fellows will have to swipe their ID cards and traipse through the Holyoke Centre’s profane architectural morass before they can file the receipts for their study breaks, but the staff of the Divisional Dean of the Social Sciences may well soon have a priceless view of Harvard Yard.

What ought to be a building that serves undergraduates, at least indirectly, could become dominated by the Faculty, many of whose members have regrettably proved themselves to be less than inclined to give a hoot about the undergraduates they are occasionally required to teach.

Commentators on the state of undergraduate education at Harvard frequently bemoan the slow, sad deterioration of the Faculty’s role in governing their ostensible charges. As Masters of Education have replaced Doctors of Philosophy in positions of College governance, the argument goes, Harvard has slowly abdicated its proper place as its students’ matron and guide. Bread and circuses have supplanted education and virtue. The end is nigh.

But Harvard’s faculty members have consistently failed to hold up their end of the bargain. The vast majority can’t be bothered to attend Faculty meetings, so much so that when administrators attempted to lower the level of attendance required for quorum earlier this year, they were prevented from doing so because they lacked the quorum necessary to change the rules.

It would be lovely, indeed, if the faculty would take a more active role in the undergraduate component of Harvard, but they have shown little desire to do so. Instead, they’re quite content to leave the day-to-day affairs of the College to professional administrators, even though they treat those administrators like pestilent vermin not only when they interact with them, but also behind their backs. The non-faculty administrators soon to be booted from the geographical and symbolic centre of Harvard College care both personally and professionally about the undergraduates they serve. The same cannot reliably be said of the Faculty.

Harvard’s administrative structure does not guarantee that undergraduates are left out of the calculus when important or symbolic decisions are made, but it explicitly empowers administrators to do so. The fact that Dean Smith, who has otherwise distinguished himself from his predecessors through his uncharacteristic concern for undergraduates, would have to be restrained by his underlings from evicting Harvard College from University Hall speaks volumes about the biases within the system, which place just about everyone else’s interests higher on the pecking order than undergraduates’.

The point is not that the University neglects its undergraduates wholesale. It does not. President Drew G. Faust’s remarks to graduating seniors at Tuesday’s Baccalaureate service suggested, for instance, a deep personal attachment to the College and its students, and this is exciting, indeed. The issue is not that individual University leaders are prejudiced against the College, but rather that the system itself crushes undergraduates under a blubbering mass of bureaucratic goo.

This University is damned good at marketing itself to its alumni and to the world. Graduates give generously, comforted by the knowledge that their gifts support the work of the world’s greatest university, whose triumphs make the realities of Harvard College easy to gloss over. Recent events suggest that this university is failing to make the one sales pitch that its history and its future demand the most—to its own undergraduates

Adam Goldenberg ‘08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.

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