Course evaluation at Harvard College originated in 1925, when The Crimson solicited student responses to some of the largest courses offered on campus, in a compilation called the “Confidential Guide of College Courses,” according to the Office of the Registrar’s website.
With the consolidation of the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) in 1973, the process of course evaluations became formalized. The CUE published their first guide in 1975—popularly known as the CUE Guide.
Within the next decade, the content of the CUE guide became largely administered by students who contacted professors and requested to conduct surveys evaluating their performance throughout the duration of a course.
“We took the results and had them computerized,” said Barbara S. Okun ’86, former editor-in-chief of the CUE Guide. “We also had a staff of writers and editors who read through all of the surveys to make a write-up of each course.”
Although Okun emphasized that the editors were committed to accurately reflecting student opinions in their write-ups, Harvard administrators demanded changes to the contents of the 1985 CUE Guide that would ultimately alter the administration of course evaluations and the interactions of faculty and students within the larger University community.
During the final weeks of production for the CUE Guide in July 1960, Director of the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation Dean K. Whitla approached staff members regarding the harsh tone of several write-ups that he reviewed to predict Core course enrollments.
Okun said that his objections to the write-ups arose in light of a technical question pertaining to how the Guide would be printed and distributed, leading Whitla to examine its contents.
“We took great care in the accuracy of our surveys, and we only included the words that students wrote in their questionnaires,” she said. “There were instances where students complained about professors being ‘arrogant’ and ‘condescending,’ among other negative comments, and we were pressured to remove these statements.”
In a 1960 interview with The Crimson, Okun added that Whitla threatened to fire the staff members and cancel the 1985 CUE Guide unless the changes—which he referred to as “suggestions”—were implemented.
These alterations to the CUE Guide would have deleted or tempered criticisms included in 17 out of the roughly 250 write-ups contained in the Guide in descriptions of Professors Bernard Bailyn, Stephen J. Gould, Brendan Maher, and Lewis H. Lockwood.
The staff members responded to these demands in a note to readers without official administrative review responding that the altered write-ups “fail to convey the intensity of the criticism” and “sometimes misrepresent the nature” of the anonymous student course evaluations that the CUE Guide is composed of.
When The Crimson asked Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Steven E. Ozment about whether the changes constituted censorship in 1960, he responded, “If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, I guess it’s a duck.”
Then-Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence said that he and other Harvard administrators were incorrect in requesting that write-ups in the CUE Guide be modified or omitted. While the University funded the Guide and administrators retained final authority over the editorial content, staff members countered that they were under the impression that the book was to be produced and edited solely by students.
Spence acknowledged that “there was a lack of explanation on the part of the administration on exactly what the policy was” regarding editing the guide. As no documents existed delegating final say over the Guide’s content, Spence requested a full review of the CUE Guide to address numerous overarching concerns.