Big, Structural Change, Somewhere Else

For years, some of our most daunting challenges have gone unaddressed. The very institutions that are supposed to represent us have withered and are seen, at least by marginalized groups, as untrustworthy, or simply a joke. This malaise has led to a proliferation of political movements for change: These movements have called for a political revolution, or big, structural change, or even the outright abolition of traditionally prominent governing institutions.

If you didn’t click the links above, go back and check them now. (Or just take my word for it). Half of them are about national news, and the rest have to do with goings-on on our own campus. The parallels — our collective discontent, our disenchantment with the process meant to bring about change, our readiness to throw it all out and start again — are striking. If you ask members of the Harvard community, which leans heavily left, many will express genuine enthusiasm for these deep structural calls for reform on the national scene.

So why, when it comes to Harvard’s own campus, are we entangled in the same kinds of seemingly intractable structural problems? If our shared methodological belief about systemic structural problems is that their solutions require fundamental transformations of the systems that perpetuate them, how come some University administrators support some form of universal healthcare coverage, but not genuinely accessible mental healthcare for all University affiliates?

One relatively simple answer is that, while such initiatives might be popular, they do not have the support of University administration. But this explanation demands interrogation: Why don’t they? Does it just so happen that the relatively smaller number of people on our campus whose worldview sees progress as incremental and is skeptical of structural change all occupy leadership roles in the administration? If so, this would be a notable statistical anomaly, unless candidates for leadership were selected with that view in mind.

And that selection process, if it occurred, would not in and of itself be indefensible. Incremental theories of progress are intellectually legitimate. If the University’s leadership sees its collective worldview as starkly opposed to that of a large portion of its students and faculty on this core methodological question of how organizations and societies improve themselves, that seems like an important conversation we should be having together as a community.


But, in the absence of such a conversation, I’m doubtful that, coincidentally, everyone in the administration is skeptical of big, structural change in the abstract. It seems more likely that, for national issues, many leaders of the University are sympathetic to political movements that seek to solve major societal problems like income inequality or inadequate healthcare coverage with sweeping governmental action. But that sort of belief has not translated — for the most part — to concrete action to transform the circumstances that perpetuate our biggest on-campus concerns.

For instance, a task force commissioned by the University acknowledges that financial insecurity plays a serious role in perpetuating mental health concerns among graduate students and that undergraduates feel “perpetually overwhelmed.” But classes have gotten longer and the University and the graduate student union are at an impasse over, among other things, compensation. Not that shorter classes or a better compensation package are the only — or even, on their own, sufficient — solutions to mental health issues on campus.

But, whatever new programs the University’s mental health task force recommends, they seem unlikely to constitute a genuine cultural and structural transformation of the workload and expectations placed on students by, say, capping homework hours, or offering sufficiently generous benefits that nobody suffers from financial stresses while at Harvard. Failure to account for the structural factors at play in our biggest problems — the stress inherent in competing for high grades, prestigious extracurriculars, and ultimately, a job, or the rising cost of childcare and housing — will make any prospective reform unlikely to really succeed.

There is one notable exception to the University’s track record of not wading into the waters of structural change. Efforts to get rid of the final clubs pointed, at varying times, to a culture of exclusivity, discrimination, and sexual assault and harassment as reasons why they contributed to a toxic culture on campus. The actual efficacy of the proposal, as well as counter-proposals about how the University could better ensure that everyone found a social home on campus, matter less than that the University actually sought to transform the social institutions of undergraduate life in pursuit of a better reality for a larger number of people. And that effort offers proof-of-concept that the administration is sympathetic to methods of structural reform, though notably only in a case where the structures in question were not their own. And in implementation, even that seems to have withered into hardly any change at all.

And this brings us to the catch with big, structural change: It’s really hard. Building consensus for a particular institutional transformation, even if the idea of some transformation is popular, can be difficult. Even when you do, there’s no sure bet it’s going to work. And most of all, for leaders to even admit that it’s necessary in their own institutions requires a serious act of intellectual honesty: recognizing their institution’s role in perpetuating the system that produces the very problems they seek to solve.

For those of us who believe that enduring structural problems require enduring structural change, recognizing that fact and internalizing it as we ourselves prepare — one day — to leave Harvard and become leaders in our own right, is the first step to achieving meaningful progress. Leaders of institutions become inculcated into a set of procedures, an institutional culture that works from a status quo. So, when those procedures are challenged for producing bad outcomes, whether it be income inequality, racial disparities in institutional trust, or social isolation, we have to be willing to interrogate our own deeply held beliefs and our institutional commitments if we are to see the full set of ways we can use — and change — our institutions for the better.

Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.