Harvard faculty has yet to vote on reforms

Current concern that the Harvard College Curricular Review will be delayed by the departure of the university’s two top administrators highlights major differences between the HCCR and a similarly expansive Yale curricular review that began in 2001.

The Harvard review, now in its fourth year, has not yet produced votes on its major recommendations following conflict over both proposals and the structure of the review, which incorporated a wide range of students and faculty in a decentralized process. At the same time, many of the recommendations by the more centralized Committee on Yale College Education — including revised graduation requirements — have been ratified by the faculty, and further progress has been made on long-term proposals.

In both cases, the university presidents played a major role in initiating the curricular reviews. Harvard President Lawrence Summers launched his review in his second year as president of Harvard, after a decade working in Washington, D.C., while Yale President Richard Levin waited until his 10th year as president to appoint the CYCE. In early 2005, Summers stepped down from his post as an ex officio member of the Committee on General Education, which reviewed the Core Curriculum, after faculty — many of whom ultimately forced Summers’ resignation last week — said he was exerting too much pressure on its recommendations.

Yale College Associate Dean Penelope Laurans, who attended every committee and subcommittee meeting of the CYCE, said she thinks Levin took a hands-off approach to the academic review. The committee and subcommittee meetings were too frequent for the president to attend consistently, Laurans said, and his presence might have made faculty discussions less candid.

“It’s difficult not to defer,” Laurans said. “When a president is in the room, it does make a difference.”

At Harvard, after a single large committee produced a set of recommendations in April 2004, those recommendations were given to eight smaller committees — which included members not involved in the original review — for further study.

By contrast, Yale’s CYCE comprised a single committee of 42 people. Committee member and current Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the committee consulted a wide array of students, faculty and representatives of other universities about the demands of undergraduate education in the 21st century.

“We engaged in a lot of outreach, with the idea that by the time we issued our recommendations, the audiences for the report would have had many opportunities for input,” Salovey said.

Harvard professor David Laibson, who served on Harvard’s Educational Policy Committee, said the system of multiple committees — less centralized than Yale’s single committee — made it possible to involve many more faculty members in the review. He said it allowed committee members to focus on a more manageable slice of the Harvard experience.

“If you’re building a Space Shuttle, everyone doesn’t work on every piece of it,” Laibson said. “It’s sufficiently large and there are significantly many moving parts that one committee couldn’t do it all.”

But Matthew Greenfield, a Harvard sophomore and student government representative who worked with student participants in the Harvard review, said its decentralized system inhibited communication between different committees. Student representatives from each committee met weekly with Undergraduate Council members, Greenfield said, and they found that different committees did not know what other groups were working on, even when they had overlapping mandates.

“Because we were able to centralize and maintain one apparatus of representation, we probably had the best comprehensive idea of what was going on on each of the committees,” Greenfield said.

Yale’s report was successful in large part because the committee members were able to reach consensus on all of the recommendations before it was presented to the entire faculty, Laurans said.

“The whole thing was all of a piece, and that’s the only way I think that something like this can get implemented,” she said.

Laurans said she thinks the cohesive community created by members of CYCE helped persuade the faculty to support many of its more controversial proposals, such as the revised language requirement. Since the members of the committee were also faculty members, Laurans said, they were seen as representative of faculty interests.

“If they trust their representatives, they will in the end, after discussion, usually vote their way,” Laurans said. “I think the fact that the committee was united made a big difference in [the] faculty vote.”

Within two years of the release of Yale’s CYCE report, several of its major recommendations were enacted by the faculty. In November 2004, the faculty approved a revised system of distributional requirements, including new writing and quantitative reasoning components, for the Class of 2009 and later classes. That fall, members of the Class of 2008 were the first to enroll in a program of freshman seminars. While some recommendations, including the proposed construction of a science center to parallel the new Writing Center, are not yet fully implemented, new initiatives including Yale’s International Summer Awards are helping more students study abroad, a central recommendation of the report.

In contrast, the Harvard faculty have not yet reached consensus — much less voted — on key suggestions to delay concentration choice and to eliminate the Core Curriculum. Faculty in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences voted in early February to support two statements expressing concern about both of those changes.

“It’s certainly not unanimous, and there are certain chunks of the faculty that have concerns,” Laibson said.

Even some professors on curricular review committees may be skeptical of their group’s recommendations. Professor Louis Menand, who served on the Harvard Committee on General Education, told the Harvard Crimson this week that some members of the committee “wouldn’t mind revisiting” the proposal before the changes are made.

Before his resignation in late January, Harvard Dean of the Faculty William Kirby announced that he wanted the faculty to vote on major proposals before the end of the semester. But that timetable has now been thrown in jeopardy by his departure.

The HCCR will be the subject of an “emergency convention” of Harvard students tomorrow evening, organized by representatives of the Undergraduate Council to express students’ interest in the implementation of the HCCR recommendations. Greenfield said students generally agree that the Core Curriculum needs to be replaced quickly, despite the departure of Summers and Kirby.

“Considering how much is at stake, there’s a lot less attention being paid to it than [there] should be,” Greenfield said.

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