Campus & Community

Faculty Committee to study residency requirement

3 min read

New technology, programs force rethinking of old standard

With new technology driving education reform, a host of new programs, disciplines, and teaching configurations are emerging, from packages that combine elements of traditional classroom teaching with distance learning components to intensive continuing education programs that are intended to replace more traditional full-time campus classes.

The programs are rising out of changes driven by modern times and technologies, times when mid-career executives can often no longer afford to put their work on hold for a year to upgrade their skills, times when technology-savvy students are demanding that classes meet their expectations, and times when the higher-education market is encouraging innovation.

As Harvard’s Schools and Colleges experiment with different types of programs, President Lawrence H. Summers and Provost Steven Hyman have convened an ad hoc faculty committee to examine Harvard’s residency requirement: a University-wide standard that mandates students attend classes on campus for at least one year before any degree is awarded.

The committee is made up of faculty members from each of Harvard’s 10 faculties and will report to Summers and Hyman by the end of the academic year.

“President Summers has indicated that this is an excellent time to take a fresh look at the residency statute and a set of related questions concerning emerging academic programs across the University and shared equities in a Harvard degree,” said Assistant Provost and Chief Information Officer Daniel Moriarty, who serves on the committee in an advisory capacity.

The current requirement was adopted in 1877 as part of a revision of the University Statutes. It states “A residence at the University of at least one year spent in full-time study at the full tuition rate is required for each degree, except in the case of candidates for the degree of Associate of Arts or Bachelor of Arts in Extension Studies.”

The requirement has come under increasing scrutiny as technology has improved to the point where schools have begun to consider more and more nontraditional programs.

Todd Rakoff, Byrne Professor of Administrative Law and Dean of the Law School’s J.D. Program, said the question before the committee really isn’t whether new and innovative program structures should exist on campus, but whether full degrees – rather than certificates – should be awarded for them.

“It’s not a question of whether Harvard is going to be in the business of educating mid-career people or people who can’t come back long term, it’s a question of whether we’re going to give them degrees,” Rakoff said.

Professor of Education Catherine Elgin said she thought the main challenge of the committee is the diversity represented by members from different schools. Each of those schools has different educational requirements, different resources, and different visions of the future.

Elgin said the residency requirement may not make as much sense as it did before recent rapid technological changes, but it isn’t a sure thing that it will be revised. Committee members have to weigh the advantages offered by the newer, nontraditional education structures against the benefits of the residential setting.

The committee’s five-point charge includes reviewing the history of the original requirements as well as the benefits of being in residence. They are charged with considering the implications of changing the requirement or of interpreting it more liberally and considering how new technology and societal changes should affect decisions on residency. They must also propose an approval process for new degree programs, particularly with respect to residency, and propose quality assurance measures for the new programs, such as hours of contact with faculty, grades, admissions criteria, and academic results.