Review at Harvard is imperiled

Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’ resignation last week threatens to delay one of his major initiatives — the undergraduate curricular review that he launched in 2002.

The Harvard review, which was launched about a year after the Committee on Yale College Education began a similar assessment of the undergraduate experience at Yale, has gone through several incarnations without any faculty votes on specific recommendations. As Harvard faces the task of replacing Summers and Dean of the Faculty William Kirby, both of whom were heavily involved in the curricular review, progress towards a vote on the recommendations remains uncertain.

In January, Kirby laid out a schedule for voting on recommendations regarding undergraduate concentrations and general education this semester. But about one week later, Kirby resigned his position — and a month later, Summers also resigned. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who must eventually approve changes to undergraduate requirements, clashed with Summers over his management style as well as his statements about women’s intrinsic aptitude for science and reports that Summers fired Kirby.

Harvard economics professor David Laibson, a member of the review’s Educational Policy Committee, said “no one is conjecturing” as to when the faculty will vote on the curricular changes, though he wants to see the review regain momentum.

“We’re eager to get the train back on the tracks, and how that will produce a process is anybody’s guess,” Laibson said.

In a letter to the Harvard community announcing his resignation, Summers said he first called for the curricular review because he saw evidence suggesting that the quality of Harvard’s undergraduate experience was inferior to the quality of the faculty.

“Much lies ahead as the curricular review moves forward,” he wrote. “We can all share the hope that, whatever the result, it will be one that puts the needs of our students at the center of our educational design.”

Laibson said the review has already taken several years in part because of the conflict over Summers’ leadership, which first erupted early last year, but also because of the challenge in getting broad faculty consensus on the recommendations. Among other proposals, the curricular review recommended eliminating Harvard’s current Core Curriculum in favor of a system of distributional requirements — similar to Yale’s — and pushing back concentration choice from the end of freshman year to the middle of sophomore year.

Science and engineering professors at Harvard have expressed concern about the recommended shift in concentration choice, Laibson said, because of the volume of coursework needed to complete those degrees.

“It’s one of these things where it’s really not enough to just have an overwhelming majority of the faculty,” he said. “We really want to get everyone on board.”

Though Summers initiated the curricular review, the debates over the curricular review often cut across the lines of support for his presidency among the faculty.

Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom, who supported Summers before he resigned, said he thinks the Core is worth keeping since it creates a common educational experience for all Harvard undergraduates.

“The Core gave birth to a lot of fantastically good courses that would not have existed in all likelihood without that kind of general education or core requirement,” Thernstrom said.

But Harvard professor Judith Ryan, who proposed a motion of no confidence in Summers earlier this month, said she supported moving to a system of distributional groups.

“Students, by and large, have felt the Core was at least partly broken because they had a hard time understanding the categories,” she said.

Laibson said concern about Summers’ leadership has slowed the report, but that Dean Kirby’s departure is a more pressing concern since he was largely responsible for guiding the review toward its final proposals. Some professors have suggested that the review should be put on hold until Kirby’s replacement takes office, so that the new dean can have some influence on the process.

Harvard professor Edward Glaeser said he thinks changes to the curriculum can stand to wait if the faculty needs additional time due to the administrative tumult of recent months.

“I certainly think Harvard has a lot of room for improvement, but I also don’t think this is any sort of crisis situation,” he said. “If it takes a couple of extra years, time is wasted but it’s probably not terrible.”

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