Thursday, March 31, 2005

This afternoon a good friend sent in the wire story about the leaked survey that documents relative dissatisfaction among Harvard students.

Personally, I’m a little suprised it took this long for that survey to be leaked. I had to sift through it about a year ago -- while between jobs, I worked briefly as a temp in University Hall -- and there’s some pretty damning stuff in there.

Most of that stuff is case-specific, but after looking over the data there were two more general conclusions I came to.

The first has to do with the students themselves, who I'd say have impossibly high expectations when they arrive. Since Harvard enjoys a certain mythic status in our culture, my guess is that at least part of the disappointment has to do with discovering that fair Harvard isn't quite the Edenic academy it's made out to be. (For fear of boring you with percentages and details, please trust me when I say the results attest to this.)

The second conclusion: Harvard is plagued by bureaucratic excess. Across the board, the most consistent cause of dissatisfaction was frustration with departmental and university offices. From my own experience, I can certainly bear that out. Harvard’s facilities may be cutting-edge, but organizationally speaking, the school is stuck in the 17th century. There are so many overlapping boards, committees, and deans that at times you end up feeling like the protagonist in Kafka’s novel The Trial; not only are you getting endlessly shunted from office to office, you're also getting interrogated ab initio at every step of the way. After four years, it's enough to make you paranoid, and not the least bit crazy. (Just ask my family, who are still wondering just what happened to me.)

Yet in my view what needs to be changed most is the school's attitude, which is that the students exist to serve the university rather than vice versa. Harvard can get away with this because in point of fact, the students do need the school more than the school needs them -- there's only one "Harvard," after all, whereas there are numerous qualified students.

However, as I noted two days ago, just because you can get away with something doesn't mean you should. If Harvard truly prides itself on excellence, it surely ought to recognize this.


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