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UPDATED: April 4, 2017 at 3:58 p.m.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana fielded criticism and questions from students disappointed by his recent decision to reject a proposed summer program for low-income students at a tense Undergraduate Council meeting Sunday evening.
In a public 45-minute question-and-answer session, UC members asked Khurana why he dismissed the proposal and whether the College will establish a similar initiative in the future. Roughly 30 non-UC members and Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 attended the meeting, held in Harvard Hall, and some students grew visibly emotional during the questioning. Dingman also spoke and answered students’ questions.
The proposal—dubbed the First Year Institute—calls for a three-day freshman pre-orientation program to help low-income students adjust to Harvard. In lieu of this program, the College plans to create a new, part-time position in the Freshman Dean’s Office called the “First-Gen Low Income Student Advocate” who will specifically advise first generation and low-income students, according to College spokesperson Rachael Dane.
At Sunday’s meeting, several UC members questioned whether this new adviser will be able to fully meet the needs of low-income and first generation students at the College. One in five Harvard undergraduates receives full financial aid, and roughly 15 percent of students are the first in their families to attend college.
“We have like 400 students in every class that identify as first-gen and the stopgap measure of providing one part-time counselor in one of our offices to reach out to all these students doesn’t seem like a requisite measure to be taking here,” Mather House representative Eduardo A. Gonzalez ’18 said.
Kirkland House representative Laura S. Chang ‘17-'18 also spoke at the meeting, echoing Gonzalez’s concerns. She asked Khurana how he expected “one person in the Freshman Dean’s Office” to address all low-income students’ concerns.
“No one from my background ever came to a school like Harvard,” Chang said. “So my question is just, how can you expect us to be satisfied with the answer of having one part-time employee to serve all these different functions for us?”
In response, Khurana said he agreed students should not settle for the status quo.
“I don’t expect you to be satisfied, I’m not satisfied, we want to use this as an opportunity to learn,” Khurana said. “If this is inadequate, we will make sure that we are able to support students the way they need to be supported.”
Pressed to give a reason for rejecting the proposed summer program, Khurana said he believes it is important to focus on low-income students’ academic experiences at Harvard. He pointed to the “Emerging Scholars Program,” an initiative recently debuted by the Math Department that allows students from under-resourced high schools to stay on campus the summer between freshman and sophomore year to take additional math classes.
After listening to Khurana’s reasoning, Gonzalez asked whether the Dean was currently considering a longer opt-in academic program tailored to low-income students at Harvard. He also demanded to know why the College has not pursued such a program in the past.
“Give us reasons,” Gonzalez said.
Khurana replied that he believed Gonzalez’s questions merited “careful study” and added that the College is “continually open” to figuring out how to best serve its students. Disappointed with Khurana’s answer, Gonzalez followed up with one more query, overriding the objections of UC President Yasmin Z. Sachee ’18.
“Would you give me a yes or no answer as to whether a large turnout academic program has been seriously considered by means of a committee or proposal in the past or is that something that is not yet being done?” Gonzalez asked.
Khurana declined to answer the question.
“So I’m not familiar enough with that specific type of program to give you an answer that I feel like it’s the right answer,” Khurana said. “I don’t feel like I have enough information to say that.”
Near the end of the question-and-answer session, Khurana reflected on the College’s progress addressing issues facing low-income students.
“I’m not satisfied with where we are, I think we have a lot of work to do, but I pledge to you this is a motivation for...me in this role,” Khurana said. “If I can do something worthwhile with my life, it will be to allow talented people to achieve their dreams and that’s what makes my life feel meaningful.”
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannah_natanson.
—Staff writer Andrew J. Zucker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewJZucker.
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