Late last spring, Harvard University released its first undergraduate curricular review in 30 years, recommending broad changes that were strikingly similar to those put forth by the Committee on Yale College Education in April 2003.
Of 13 major recommendations in Harvard’s report, 11 were similar to recommendations made in Yale’s academic review or were moves to bring Harvard’s undergraduate experience in line with Yale’s.
Harvard’s committee of administrators, faculty and students recommended eliminating the university’s core curriculum and replacing it with a system of “general education.” The committee suggested requiring students to take courses in the humanities, social sciences and life and physical sciences — a system similar to Yale’s current distributional requirements and those suggested in Yale’s academic review.
Like Yale’s report, the Harvard report recommends emphasizing international study, deepening students’ understanding of science and promoting closer interaction with senior professors through smaller class sizes, an expanded faculty and an enhanced academic advising system.
The analogous recommendations in both reports speak to a common educational philosophy at the two Ivy League schools, administrators and professors at both schools said. After all, they said, both universities have similar students and faculty.
“We’re all responding to our times, so it’s really not very surprising that there would be similarities in the reports,” said Harvard College Associate Dean Jeff Wolcowitz, who drafted much of the report. “We deal with similar students and similar faculty.”
While professors and students at Yale largely praised the Yale report, the Harvard report has received mixed reviews at the Cambridge, Mass., campus.
The Harvard report’s critics say its flaws lie in its lack of an overriding thesis connecting all of its 57 specific recommendations. Further complicating the review’s efforts is a perception among professors that Harvard President Lawrence Summers played too heavy a role in the review.
When he launched the review in 2002, Summers laid out his vision for the undergraduate curriculum before surveying the faculty and students, Harvard history professor Mark Kishlansky said. As such, the report was “directed from the top,” Kishlansky said.
But William Kirby, Harvard’s dean of the faculty, said he feels “very positive” about the report, adding that the recommendations are only provisional and are open to debate among the faculty and student body.
“We’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of letters from faculty and students and alumni about it,” Kirby said.
Yale College Associate Dean Penelope Laurans, who helped draft Yale’s review, said the strength of Yale’s report is its overall philosophy of emphasizing teaching and interdisciplinary education. The Yale faculty have embraced this ethos, Laurans said.
Despite the reports’ differences in philosophy and response, there remain many similarities. But Yale administrators say it is difficult to say if Yale’s report served as a model for Harvard.
The reason for the similarities is simple, Harvard’s Kishlansky said.
“It’s kind of like mutual fund managers,” Kishlansky said of Harvard and Yale. “If you look at their portfolios, they pretty much all wind up mimicking one another, and that way they don’t lose any customers.”