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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

avoiding a fall after summers

A recent anonymous commentor offered some good reasons why we undergrads should care about our presidents' resignation. In particular, they note that this is an important opportunity to reassess and clarify our own priorities for our undergraduate education--priorities we want the next president to take up. After this year's UC elections, I proposed coming up with a wish list for the coming year; now, I think another exercise in envisioning and articulating is in order.

If we don't start talking now about what we want from our future head honcho, we doom ourselves to complacency in what may be, as Francisco predicts, a continuation of the same old problems (does the corporation have the real power anyway?).

What do we want our new president to advocate for? What changes do we wish to see? (more in expanded post)

I, for one, agree with the aforementioned commentor that the continuation of financial aid improvement is a top priority. Students' financial situations make a huge difference in their Harvard experience--from feeling annoyed when peers casually discuss plans to jet-set to Paris for spring break, to having to work multiple jobs in order to get a head start on paying off loans. A president should be committed to recruiting low-income students and supporting them while they're here.

A new president should have more respect than Summers had for the social sciences. Desiring to improve the 'hard,' 'empirical' sciences is all well and good, but faculty in the humanities also deserve respect, attention, and support. Holding up the science departments as bastions of real truth while relegating humanities fields to a mere means of filling out a liberal arts education implies a dangerous tendency to ignore the ways that science is embedded in social practices (courses in the history of science department offer some fascinating perspectives on this).

A new president should seek innovative ways of building community among undergraduates, transforming the mosaic-style diversity of Harvard--where groups self-segregate and there are too few consistent attempts to bridge them--into a more mobile, fluid, kaleidoscopic diversity. Expanding social space, as the anonymous commentor noted, should be one of the new president's concerns, but so should capitalizing on what positive momentum was created by last year's summers scandal (whether or not you think it was blown out of proportion, the Women and Minorities Task force that was created as a result could become a major asset in promoting diversity among faculty in general and within certain departments specifically).

Finally, it seems to me that the both the FAS faculty and the new president will have to come up with more effective, satisfactory way of communicating. Maybe the problems had a lot to do with Summers' personality and style of interaction, but perhaps if the faculty had some mechanism for airing grievances before they grow so out-of-hand as to warrant a call for a no-confidence vote, it could create a more open relationship between faculty and administration so that the president doesn't have to be a bulldozer in order to get things done. Maybe I'm naive in thinking that this sort of improvement can be made, but it seems to me that a president should be able to persuasively advocate a vision for reforms while still being able to take faculty feedback into consideration.

Those who know more about this and all things Harvard than I do, please share some wisdom. What's on your wish list for the post-Summers era?

2 Comments:

At 2:08 AM, Anonymous c said...

personally, i think that summers' manner of leaving office sets a dangerous precedent for the new president, whoever she may be. the FAS faculty have won out in a battle that they had no business fighting, and whoever wins the unenviable task of replacing larry will have to deal with a faculty high on their own power. the inmates are in charge of their own institution now, and the new harvard president will be under tremendous pressure not to stick her neck out for ANYTHING. harvard continues its descent into overfunded mediocrity.

one of the things i thought was best about larry summers was that he was a principled man (i used to feel more strongly about this; i was disappointed when he gave in to pressure to repeal his comments about women in science; i thought he should have stuck to his guns instead of trying to appease too many people). i think we've had some important debates on campus because of his efforts, and i worry that the newly empowered faculty will muzzle any new president's efforts to continue important dialogues about the future of harvard as an institution.

 
At 11:39 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Yeah, I definitely see what you mean, and I think the issue of the FAS faculty being able to wield so much power is a concern for a lot of people.

Do you think a balance can be struck wherein faculty feel like their voices are being heard yet accept that the president ultimately calls the shots? Would such a compromise simply be a matter of getting a president with better people skills (no matter how principled you are, I think as a president it's important to be able to work respectfully with others--I don't really understand why some people seem to glorify the bulldozer approach), or should some institutional mechanism be installed so grievances can be recorded and given serious attention? Are the faculty--particularly non-tenured teachers--simply interchangeable pieces whose opinions on how the school ought to be run should carry no weight whatsoever? If they should carry some weight, how much?

I've heard some people suggest that there ought to be some kind of body composed of representatives from all the different schools, since the disproportionate influence of FAS in this affair may be inappropriate (I say "may be" because some have argued that FAS should have more influence anyway since the College is basically the foundation of Harvard's reputation as a brand name. I don't know whether I agree with that, but I thought I'd put it out there again).

 

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