You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.
29 March 2005

Harvard undergrads unsatisfied? Never!

Apparently, Harvard undergrads are unhappy about several features of the educational experience.

One thing I hate to tell them, but Harvard is a research
university.  Research universities are not really oriented toward
the undergraduate experience.  They exist to create, support, and
disseminate new knowledge, and all other goals are pretty secondary to
that.  I’m not sayng it should be this way, but it is, and the model is much larger than simply Harvard.

But right now, students can go through four years on campus with
limited contact with professors. They often take large lecture classes,
divided into sections headed by graduate student ”teaching fellows.”
Small classes are frequently taught by temporary instructors instead of
regular, tenure-track professors. And in many cases, advisers are not
professors, either, but graduate students, administrators, or full-time

”I’ve definitely had great professors, but most of the time you have
to chase them down and show initiative if you want to get to know
them,” said Kathy Lee, a junior majoring in psychology. ”I’ve had a
lot of trouble getting to know enough faculty to get the
recommendations I need for medical school.”

This is pretty much the same as at Berkeley and every large university
of my acquaintance.  You have to work hard to get what you
want.  Faculty do not chase after students.  They do not
generally take an interest in that way.  Faculty expect that
students who want to work with them will come to them, taking
initiative.  From what I can tell, most faculty would prefer to
work with the motivated students who come to office hours, who
demonstrate that they are reliable, and who can do independent
work.  Faculty work is fairly independent, lonely stuff, and
undergrads who work with faculty should expect that they will do lots
of independent work by themselves.  And, to be honest, with so
many demands on the faculty’s time, I think that faculty often want to
make sure that their interactions with undergrads (and grads, too) will
be high quality and high intensity.

Look, faculty may have 500 students a semester, if they teach a large
lecture course.  Even if they teach a moderate one of 150
students, there’s no time to interact with those students.  Say
you gave 5 minutes of interaction to half of that 150 person class each
week.  That’s 375 minutes, or more than 6 hours a week in student
contact time.  That’s six fewer hours to prep lectures (and
faculty can spend hours writing each one), six fewer hours to do
research, six fewer hours to interact with colleagues, via e-mail,
meetings, or conferences, and if you think that faculty should simply
do this on top of normal duties, six fewer hours with
family/friends.  And none of this enhances faculty professionally,
in terms of tenure or advancement.

Also, I know faculty who have indicated their willingness to spend time
with students, eating lunch with them in the houses and such, and it’s
a fairly small percentage of any class that takes advantage of this
chance.  Maybe ten percent, from what I have seen so far.

“Chasing faculty down” serves as the self-selection mechanism, so you
can see who’s serious about knowing or working wiht you.  When I
was in college, I got to know two of my professors quite well. 
Both Gary and Scott gave
me increasing contact and mentoring as I progressed in showing them
that I was up to the work put before me.  And neither of them
sought me out–I had to go to office hours, ask if there was anything
that I could do to do research for them, and keep showing
initiative.  Faculty contact is, in my experience, something
earned.  And in addition, some faculty, just by dint of
personality, are more generous with their time, just as some undergrads
will or won’t come to office hours, based on their own personalities.

Students’ experiences also vary widely from department to department.
Some of the most popular — and thus overburdened — majors, such as
economics or government, have fairly low ratings on internal student
surveys, while small majors like classics and philosophy get better

On the social front, students complain that Harvard lacks places where
students can socialize and has so many rules that it is difficult to
hold a party on-campus, where almost all undergraduates live.

The Harvard administration has also been working hard in the last few
years to improve social life. The school has been experimenting with
popular ”pub nights” on some Fridays, and has allowed campus parties
to stay open an hour later, until 2 a.m. They have tried other novelty
programs from dodge ball tournaments to speed dating, and doubled the
amount of athletic equipment in the main gym used by undergraduates.

Hey, in the large majors, we do our best.  But here in
government, we have about 600 students (excluding frosh).  There’s
only so much that can be done.  I’d venture that it’s easier to
dislike the government experience, since it’s bound to be less
personal.  In a small department, you know the people, and so you
can probably think of specific experiences to base your opinion upon;
in a large program, it’s more likely to be impressionistic and

Socially, I can think of one improvement we could use here–a student
union.  I can see how students find it hard to socialize across
houses.  And perhaps the party regulations could be loosened
(although in my examination of them, they seem no more strenuous than
those at my undergraduate school; again, the rules seem to create a
minimum of motivation and organization necessary on the part of the
students, so parties will be well-planned and organized).  And I’d
be interested to see how much student-initiated social activity is
going on.  If the administration is getting in the way of good
stuff that the students want to do, then we need to loosen up to foster
students’ creativity.  But students still need to initiate most of
the content of their social lives.

Be Sociable, Share!

5 Responses to “Harvard undergrads unsatisfied? Never!”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I think you’re right that Harvard is not all that different from other big prestigious research universities. I sort of agree with Matt Yglesias that the problem isn’t Harvard, it’s Harvard undergrads, who are just the sort of obsessive, driven, depressive people who would be unhappy anywhere (I say this as a former Harvard undergrad). (Matt summed it up as follows: “Basically, the admissions office seems to me to put a high premium on psychologically disturbed obsessive individuals who are unlikely to become well-adjusted members of human society.”) I doubt that a student union would help that much, because we already have Loker and no one uses it (yes, Loker is pretty lame, but part of the reason it’s lame is because it’s full of us Harvard kids, who are ourselves pretty lame).

    On the “taking initiative” point, I agree – that’s one thing that annoyed me about Ross Douthat’s screed against Harvard – he seemed to be complaining that no one forced him to work hard and take rigorous classes.

  2. Nate Says:

    You should have read the screed I thought about sending to the Atlantic
    after that Douthat piece. I agree that he basically whined that no one
    challenged him. Most undergrads don’t seem to get that the faculty at
    their university don’t spend much time thinking about them. Undergrads
    don’t get you tenure or advance you in your career–as an economist
    would say, the relationship between faculty and undergrad isn’t
    incentivized in the direction of undergraduates.  And depending,
    it can be similar for grads.As a grad student, I was even told
    recently that I might be spending too much time with undergrads, taking
    away from my real work.  This may be true, but I think it may also
    be indicative.

  3. david hart Says:

    perhaps the comment from ms. lee says it all: ”I’ve had a lot of trouble getting to know enough faculty to get the recommendations I need for medical school.” is this the goal of higher education–getting a recommendation for medical school? what about learning for learning’s sake, or to understand the world better, or out of intellectual curiosity. had ms. lee complained about how difficult it is to track down professors for the purpose of a deeper understanding of the material, i would likely feel more sympathy for her.

  4. Nate Says:


    I’m sympathetic, but what you describe is not the attitude of most undergrads today. They’re here to get a credential so they can go make money. So for them, college is just what you need to get to med school. Learning for learning’s sake they would say is a nice idea, but it’s not very profitable.

    But I agree. I don’t have much sympathy. In fact, most of us who teach undergrads can tell when they are getting to know us for such instrumental reasons, because we’re better at such stuff than they are, so we can spot it easily. Perhaps the reason this student (and similar others) have a problem getting to know “enough” faculty is that they don’t want to get to know someone who’s just using them and does not share their priorities. Bluntly, the faculty may not be interested in getting to know a student who just wants a letter out of the relationship.

  5. Liz Renner Says:

    “As a grad student, I was even told recently that I might be spending too much time with undergrads”

    Would having class in my sorority house so we could all eat breakfast count? Nate, one of the things I LOVED about you as a GSI was the fact that you would talk to us about our personal lives as well as our studies. It made me enjoy the classes all that much more.

    And I’m not just saying that because of the law school rec you wrote me. 🙂