Campus & Community

Letter to FAS from Dean Kirby

5 min read

Dear Colleagues:

Almost 30 years ago this Faculty undertook a comprehensive re-examination of undergraduate education. That multiyear review led to the introduction of the Core Program and to a number of significant changes in other parts of the curriculum.

I write today to suggest that it is time for another such review. To undertake a review at this time is to do so from a position of strength. It is a testament to the success of the initiatives of three decades ago that Harvard College remains a vibrant academic institution and that our programs have been emulated by institutions of higher learning around the world.

But as we embark on our own self-examination, we should not shy away from the simplest – and hardest – questions. What will it mean to be an educated woman or man in the first quarter of the 21st century? What are the enduring goals of a liberal education, and how can they be provided in the setting of a modern research university? If, as I believe, there is to be a shared foundation, or “core,” to a Harvard undergraduate education, how should it be conceived and how might it best be taught? What should a Harvard graduate know in-depth about a discipline or area? How can we give our students the freedom to shape their own education through elective choices, and the opportunities to learn, not at a distance, but directly from our faculty? How do we teach, at home and abroad, a generation of students who will live and work in all corners of our planet? In addressing these and other questions, we may also ask: How can we best take advantage of the fact that the College, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole, reside within a great University with outstanding scholars in our sister Faculties?

It is healthy for any university to review periodically the purpose and means of undergraduate education. Harvard College has a rich modern history of self-examination and rejuvenation. President Eliot’s “free elective” system would be revisited (and laden with requirements) by President Lowell. Dean Buck and President Conant’s conception of a shared, “general education” as the foundation of a democratic society would, more than 30 years later, be replaced by our Core Curriculum, which stresses the distinctive approaches to knowledge of different academic disciplines. Even since the last broad review, we have made numerous changes to the curriculum – to the Core, the concentrations, to freshman seminars – all with the aim to increase the opportunities available to our students.

The number of recent changes alone suggests the need for a holistic curricular review, to understand better the interactions among the various parts of our undergraduate education. But the most compelling reason for a broad review is that our interconnected worlds of scholarship and teaching – the center of what we do here – have changed significantly in many fields in the past decades. What was true when Dean Rosovsky wrote to the Faculty in 1974 is no less true today: “[T]he extraordinary accumulation of information, the development of new fields and methodologies, and changes in the character of the academic profession itself cannot help but affect what we do in the classroom.” As scholars and teachers with the responsibility to educate our students, we must take some time to think, collectively, about what we teach and how we should teach it.

How then to begin? I believe that this should be a year for thought, discussion, and reflection, not for legislation. I have asked our dean for undergraduate education, Benedict Gross, to work closely with me as we start this conversation. As an initial step, I would like to invite members of the Faculty to share with Dean Gross and me their views about the questions that should be addressed, as well as how best to structure the process, to ensure broad participation. I have also asked Dean Gross to solicit the views of our undergraduates on their educational experience, and to invite comments from our graduate students and others holding instructional appointments, who share with us responsibility for teaching and mentoring undergraduates. I would be grateful too for the views of our alumni and alumnae, who can assess the strengths of a Harvard education on the basis of later experience.

There will be a series of symposia in the fall, on the Core, and on other models for undergraduate education, to stimulate thought and discussion. I hope that before the end of this term, we will have defined a structure for detailed consideration of the many issues raised.

Dean Gross and I look forward to hearing from you. We welcome the opportunity to work together, as a Faculty, to shape undergraduate education at Harvard for the coming decades.


William C. Kirby

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences