Harvard’s Committee Concentrations Stand In Between Departments

Nine of Harvard’s 50 concentrations are committees, which often struggle with limited resources.

Elena Ramos

When asked to distinguish between a department and curricular committee, Folklore and Mythology Chair Stephen A. Mitchell referenced a quote about actors Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

“You know that old line about Ginger Rogers, ‘she did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in heels,’” Mitchell said. “That's like being a committee.”

Nine of the 49 undergraduate concentrations, excluding special concentrations, are tied to multiple departments. These nine — Chemical and Physical Biology; Environmental Science and Public Policy; Folklore and Mythology; History and Literature; Neuroscience; Social Studies; the Study of Religion; Theater, Dance and Media; and Women, Gender, and Sexuality — are standing committees.

The committees “administer undergraduate concentrations outside of the departmental structure,” according to the Office of the Secretary’s website. Without a departmental structure, these committees generally cannot tenure their own faculty or run their own Ph.D. programs.

The Faculty must vote to establish a standing committee or to dissolve one. The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in conjunction with the Faculty Council, can also dissolve a standing committee with its permission.

“Being a committee is basically an executive order, you can just click and it's gone,” Mitchell said. “Being a department's a little bit more like being a law that's been passed. There is an established, institutional sense that you have a certain structure within the institution.”

Every faculty member interviewed said being able to traverse different departments is an essential strength of standing committees, which are interdisciplinary in nature.

“The committees are formed when it is a feeling that an intellectual area. . .doesn't fit well within an existing department,” he said. “They do enable a way to explore intellectual spaces, which aren't represented by traditional departments.”

The Study of Religion, like other standing committees, benefits from an interdisciplinary structure, according to the program’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Courtney B. Lamberth.

“It is, I think, an ideal way of bringing together the humanities and the social sciences,” she said. “The committee allows for the multiplicity and the complexity of religious experience, religion and culture to be engaged.”

A Joint Commitment

Standing committees generally cannot tenure faculty and must instead rely on appointments in similar departments and non-tenure track lecturers.

“Because you're not a department, you have very little influence, direct influence on, for example, the hiring of new faculty. Because that's something that's done by a department,” ESPP Head Tutor Paul R. Moorcroft said.

Most committees are composed of jointly appointed faculty and lecturers who often have limited terms.

“[This] can be a good thing, because we have a very interdisciplinary faculty from all different kinds of departments,” WGS Director of Undergraduate Studies Caroline Light said.

Meanwhile, faculty who conduct research related to a standing committee’s field of study must often be placed in departments that are broader than their focus area, according to Neuroscience Associate Concentration Advisor Laura M. Magnotti. For example, prospective faculty cannot be appointed to Neuroscience but instead must join an existing FAS department, like Molecular and Cellular Biology or Psychology.

“But just because their title includes the designation of MCB or Psych doesn’t mean that their research doesn’t fall solidly in the realm of Neuroscience,” Magnotti wrote in an email.

Currently, only one standing committee can hire faculty — WGS. In January 2016, an external committee submitted a report arguing that WGS should be able to hire its own ladder faculty.

“The Review Committee showed that nationally, the strongest WGS programs and departments have faculty who are hired solely in WGS, and that Harvard's Program would become even more successful by doing the same,” wrote inactive WGS Chair Robin Bernstein, who is currently on sabbatical.

Shortly after, WGS launched a faculty search and ultimately hired Assistant Professor Durba Mitra and Professor Robert Reid-Pharr.

One disadvantage jointly appointed faculty face is that they must split their time between their home department and the committee.

“That can be really hard, especially if you are a junior faculty member who is jointly appointed through a committee on one hand, and a department on the other,” Light said. “The department tends to have more power and a larger structure, and can make heavier demands upon that faculty member.”

Ali S. Asani ’77, professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures and one of the first Study of Religion concentrators, said he personally struggled with balancing commitments arising from his joint appointments when he was a junior faculty member.

“It was hard, you know, to negotiate, because you always have two bosses,” Asani said. “From a faculty perspective, that was difficult, I think the hiring perspective is also difficult, because [committees are] always beholden to find a partner.”

Seeking Consistency in the Classroom

The lack of tenured faculty often leaves gaps in standing committees’ curricula and inhibits the predictability of their course offerings.

Moorcroft said committees sometimes struggle to provide a diverse range of classes because they cannot recruit specific faculty who are experts in those areas.

“Sometimes that can make things a little challenging because we think ‘wouldn't it be really great if we could hire a person in a particular area?’ but we don't have the capability to do that. That goes out to the department,” Moorcroft said.

Several students said they have noticed this issue in their own concentrations.

Though ESPP concentrator Yasmin Yacoby ’19 called her concentration “probably the best part of [her] Harvard experience,” she said the committee needed to offer a more diverse curriculum.

“I don't think that that's a lack of initiative on the part of the faculty,” Yacoby said. “I think that is a lack of resources, and there should be more people making the push for environmental justice classes to be taught or more Af-Am classes to be integrated into the curriculum.”

Committees sometimes face difficulties offering a consistent curriculum year to year due to the high turnover rates of lecturers and tutors within the committees. Lecturers and tutors tend to work on fixed-year contracts, unlike ladder faculty who can receive tenure.

Julia H. Fine ’19 said the only negative aspect of her time as a concentrator in History and Literature, Harvard’s oldest concentration, was that the tutors can only stay “for about three years.”

“The fact that the turnover is so high is kind of sad, because it would have been great if some of them could stay with Hist and Lit for a longer period of time,” Fine said.

Committees like WGS and Folklore and Mythology, which lack Ph.D. students, often have to do a “bit of scrambling” every year to find teaching fellows for courses, according to Light.

Light added that, for WGS, it is important that these graduate students are trained properly because of the sensitive nature of the course material.

“We can't just drop people in the classroom who have never had any training in gender studies, because a lot of times — I would say more often than not — the courses that we're offering in this program address what can be very sensitive topics for our students,” she said.

Some committees offer a secondary field for graduate students. Though these committees can then draw upon that pool of students to serve as teaching fellows, asking them to split their time can put them in an “awkward position,” according to Light.

“When we come to them and ask them if they want to teach for us, we never want to do that in a way that might jeopardize their good standing in their home department,” she said.

‘The Best of Both Worlds’

The strength of the committee structure lies in its focus on undergraduate education, according to Light. Because many committees do not have graduate programs, they are able to prioritize undergraduates.

Many committees are also relatively small, allowing concentrators to develop close relationships with faculty in seminar-style classes. Several students cited the smaller size of their committee concentrations as beneficial to their undergraduate experience.

“A lot of the work you do, you do in small groups with people who are also very interested in the topic as opposed to sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a professor talk,” History and Literature and TDM joint concentrator Tiffany Y. Lau ’19 said.

Smaller committees, however, sometimes struggle to procure comparable levels of funding to departments, according to Moorcroft. One reason for this is that newer committees lack the historical endowments some departments possess.

FAS Committee Checklist

ESPP, for example, does not have any “ongoing funding,” Moorcroft said. The committee has trouble funding annual weeklong field trips for its concentrators, a feature that some departments are able to provide.

Though grateful for the funds FAS has already provided Folklore and Mythology, Mitchell said the difference between the extent of resources available to committees and to departments is palpable.

“I mean, it’d be terrific to be able to offer what some departments just a few buildings away are able to offer their students,” Mitchell said.

Many concentrators said they did not notice any issues arising from a lack of funds. They instead praised the flexibility offered by committees and the close advising relationships they formed with professors and lecturers.

For instance, some standing committee concentrations, like Neuroscience and CPB, arose from broader departments. Concentrators in these committees can focus on more specialized fields of study and draw from departments related to the committee.

Lily Xu ’19, a CPB concentrator, described CPB and Neuroscience as “offshoots” of the MCB department. Xu said that her own committee concentration’s close relationship with a full-fledged department simultaneously allowed for structure and flexibility.

“I think the uniqueness of CPB as a standing committee, compared to maybe some of the other standing committees is that we are lucky to have a lot of the MCB department’s resources and support,” Xu said.

The ties between standing committees and larger departments provide students with broader networks of potential faculty advisors.

Fine described her thesis advising as the “best of both worlds” because she was able to gain the perspective of both a History professor and a History and Literature tutor.

Unlike most committees, the Study of Religion has its own Ph.D. program and ties to a graduate school, the Harvard Divinity School. These connections provide a constant stream of faculty and graduate student mentorship for undergraduates.

“I think the Div School connections have been really essential to having a big support network, that a small number of undergrads can really take advantage of,” Study of Religion concentrator Sarah E. Coady ’19 said.

Most of the seniors interviewed for this article said they were not aware that their concentration was not a part of a department.

“I suppose it’s a little hard to know what you’re missing out on when you’re not super aware of it,” History and Literature concentrator Julissa Higgins ’19 said. “But I do think that if [Hist & Lit] were a department, it would elevate the student experience.”

The Road to Departmentalization

The road to departmental status remains unclear as very few committees have successfully made the transition.

The African and African American Studies department, which started out as a “program” in April 1968, is one such example. Students protested its status as a “program” in April 1969, and by the end of the month the faculty had agreed to their demands to establish Afro-American Studies as a distinct department.

In June 2012, the Study of Religion seemed poised to make a similar transition. Former University President Drew G. Faust commissioned a task force that recommended Harvard “give serious consideration to creating a department of religious studies,” per the task force’s report.

Instead of implementing this recommendation, Faust created a working group that looked into ways to address the task force’s concerns without making Study of Religion a department, according to Lamberth.

One barrier to creating new departments is the financial investment required. For instance, Harvard has refused to create a formalized ethnic studies program despite decades-long activism by affiliates, in part because of a lack of financial resources.

FAS Committees Icons

Faust wrote in a 2012 emailed statement that establishing a Study of Religion department would “divert resources” from the rest of FAS.

Despite financial barriers, some committees believe departmentalizing would make their programs more cohesive and would give them resources to better serve both undergraduate and graduate students.

“There’s really no reason, from what I see, to keep the committee structure,” Asani said. “It's a legacy of the past and we have to be cognizant that we live in a different world and the study of religion is a discipline of its own. FAS needs to recognize that it's a discipline, it's a subject of its own right, and it should be its own department.”

Since its creation in 1986, WGS has moved to departmentalize by expanding its course offerings and recruiting more faculty and concentrators.

“I think we feel more confident, slowly ramping up to a point where we're ready to become a department,” Light said. “I want to make sure that we have everything in place, all the structures in place to maintain not just an excellent system for undergraduates, but all the scaffolding we need to ensure that Ph.D. students are going to have the best possible experience.”

Bernstein wrote in an emailed statement that official departmentalization will have implications beyond just Harvard.

“Departmentalization would make a powerful statement, at Harvard and beyond, about the vitality of the study of women, gender, and sexuality,” she wrote. “Departmentalization would appropriately reflect the significant contributions that WGS makes to Harvard University.”

Not all committees would like to transition into a department, however.

Some faculty say departmentalization is unnecessary and could inhibit the scope and flexibility of committees’ fields of study.

“I think if things are functioning as they are, where people from different departments are working well in this interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary area, I don't think it's necessarily the case that it either should or could or would become a department,” Moorcroft said.

The interdisciplinary nature of committees is one of their greatest strengths, according to Folklore and Mythology Head Tutor Lowell A. Brower.

“We play so well with so many departments so we have such a wide range committee, and that flexibility and that possibility to speak across the College really serves our students well,” Brower said. “If becoming a department would foreclose that or would kind of work against that, I think that would be a difficult decision.”

— Staff writer Elizabeth X. Guo can be reached at elizabeth.guo@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethxguo.

— Staff writer Ruth A. Hailu can be reached at ruth.hailu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @ruth_hailu_.