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News Flash: Harvard's Student-Life Bureaucracy To Provide Meaning To Student's Lives

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Harvard University is initiating new "reflective programming" to guide students.
Tim Sackton/Flickr

Since the dawn of time, and right up until Monte Python’s “The Meaning of Life”, mankind has searched for some explanation for our being on this planet, and for some plan to guide us during our short stay. In the West, academics have long posited this search for meaning as one of the central quests of higher learning, particularly in what has come to be known as “liberal arts” education. The answer to this elusive question – what is the meaning of life? – has long been a subject that students ponder, traditionally with some guidance from their professors.

But this profound task of deep philosophical inquiry has now seemingly been transferred – at Harvard at least – from the liberal arts faculty to the student life bureaucracy, if one is to understand properly a recent report in The Harvard Crimson.

Crimson staff writer Jamila M. Coleman, a first year student, broke the news. The Freshman Dean’s office, which for several years has been under the leadership of Dean of Students Thomas Dingman, announced earlier this week that it is getting into the business of focusing on “reflective programming” for Harvard’s presumably benighted undergraduates. The most recent step is the creation of a position for a “Fellow for College Programs and Initiatives.” According to the Crimson, this new hire will “attempt to enhance the experience of students by working…on ways to foster personal growth during their four years as undergraduates.” 

One of Dean Dingman’s many underlings, Director of College Initiatives and Student Development Katherine W. Steele, explained that the purpose of this new administrator’s work will be to “create experiences where people can dig into these questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What’s my purpose?’”
 
What does this position entail? An explanation was given to the student paper not by Dean Dingman himself, but rather by one of his many, many assistants. Reported the Crimson:

The fellow will attempt to enhance the experience of students by working closely with Katherine W. Steele, the Director of College Initiatives and Student Development at the FDO [Freshman Dean’s Office], on ways to foster personal growth during their four years as undergraduates.
 
“What does this mean?” you understandably ask. The Crimson continues:

We realized that through doing this kind of programming, you can really create experiences where people can dig into these questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ’What’s my purpose?’,” Steele said. “Thinking about those questions now may help you later when you’re deciding what to do after you graduate.”

Of course, guiding students in such a profound pursuit is too large a task for one bureaucrat, and so the Freshman Dean’s Office plans to ensure, according to Director Steele, that “[t]he Fellow will work closely with Resident Deans, Faculty Deans, Tutors, and Proctors to provide reflective guidance for students and formulate new approaches to community conversations, a required program during Opening days.” “It’s brand new,” Director Steele gushed to the Crimson reporter. “This job’s never existed before…we’re going to be a start-up basically, within Harvard.”

And therein lies the value of this initiative: It is new, a start-up. By the time the initiative gets going, it will doubtless require the hiring of many more administrators to assist the new Fellow for College Programs and Initiatives, joining the illustrious ranks of Resident Deans, Faculty Deans, Tutors, and Proctors. Indeed, ramping up the program will probably require a considerable addition to the student life administrative staff, since, as the Crimson reports, Director Steele hopes “to run focus groups with recent graduates during the summer, using their reflections to provide direction for new programming.”

The philosophical justification for this new, personnel-heavy and likely expensive initiative is, according to Director Steele, rooted in a 2006 study by Graduate School of Education Professor Richard J. Light. “Seniors said they learned a lot from chemistry and history and whatnot, but never really learned how to live life,” Director Steele told the Crimson. Hence the need for this profound new initiative headed by the student life bureaucracy. “The position is a very college focused role and is not necessarily just a response to a need that we’re seeing here at the Freshman Dean’s office,” Director Steele assured the reporter. And because this lacuna in Harvard’s curriculum “is not isolated to freshman year,” added Director Steele, “this person will focus on personally transformative programming across the four years.”

Of course, such a profound four-year initiative cannot be the sole province of Director Steele and the soon-to-be-hired Fellow for College Programs and Initiatives.  And so the Crimson reported that Dean for Administration and Finance Sheila C. Thimba “wrote that she approves of the new position’s goal of fostering personal growth among students.” “I’m glad we can support this nascent programming in personal transformation,” Dean Thimba said.

This new initiative does not come out of the blue, but rather is the latest piece of a larger and longer-standing effort to direct students’ personal growth. 

Reports the Crimson:  

“Administrators have in recent years attempted to bolster College programming focused on student reflection. In 2015, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana pushed for additional reflection seminars and retreats during wintersession.” 

And, of course, when the powerful Dean of the College pushes, the rest of the ample bureaucracy responds with creative new initiatives, and, of course, new hires.

All of this makes for rather interesting reading. But it does appear that certain fundamental questions are not being asked, much less answered: Is it not the role of the faculty of a liberal arts college to spend four years helping students think about questions such as “Who am I?” and “What’s my purpose?” And is it not the province of the students to answer these highly personal questions without micromanagement by student life administrators? With these fundamental questions asked and presumably answered by the bureaucrats assembled by the Freshman Dean’s office, what role will remain for the learned Harvard faculty, or indeed for the students themselves? 

It’s a troubling – if not entirely surprising – fact that administrators now vastly outnumber faculty members in our institutions of higher education. According to one analysis, the ratio of full-time administrators to tenured or tenure-track professors in 2008 was roughly 2:1; I’d bet that in the past eight years since this study was done, the ratio has tilted even more dramatically in favor of administrators. What we don’t know is why this has come to be. Perhaps an inquiry into administrative bloat should be the next focus of the Harvard Freshman Dean’s office. This weighty task will, of course, doubtless require several new administrative hires.

(Harvey Silverglate (www.HarveySilverglate.com), a lawyer and of counsel to the Boston law firm Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP (www.Zalkindlaw.com), is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (The Free Press division of Simon & Schuster, 1998), and the co-founder and current member of the Board of Directors of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org) . He is the “Freedom Watch” columnist for WGBH/News. The author acknowledges with thanks the research and editorial assistance of Samantha Miller.)

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