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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said he thinks Harvard’s new lottery system for General Education courses marks a “significant improvement” over the previous process in an interview Tuesday.
“It created confusion, stress, and was uncoordinated — that is, that people heard at different times about whether they got into one Gen Ed or not,” Khurana said of the previous system. “They couldn't make a fully informed decision, and that left a lot of uncertainty on their schedule and that impacted other classes.”
“Since Gen Ed is required, we thought it was really important to try to at least improve the system,” he added.
Under the new lottery system, students can rank up to five Gen Ed courses on their my.harvard online student portal. The Gen Ed office then uses a unified ranked-choice system to assign students to their highest possible preferences.
Khurana characterized the lottery’s launch as highly successful, pointing to the fact that roughly 87 percent of undergraduates participating in the lottery were granted either their first or second-ranked course choice this semester.
The Gen Ed office began working to create a new lottery system last summer with Harvard University Information Technology, the Advising Programs Office, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar’s Office, and the Office of Undergraduate Education. The initiative to revamp the system came after College administrators observed that some students successfully lotteried into multiple courses while others failed to lottery into any.
The new Gen Ed lottery complements a broadly refreshed Gen Ed program, which was unveiled in the fall of 2019 after a four-year-long overhaul.
The Gen Ed office caps its courses at a maximum of 250 students, though professors can choose to impose stricter enrollment caps if they wish. The office implements lotteries for courses if interest exceeds the cap.
Khurana said he sympathized with students who do not get seats in desired courses — Gen Ed and otherwise — because the College faces a perennial problem of overflowing classes.
“I still have enough of a memory of how frustrating it was as an undergraduate not to get a course with someone that you really liked, or wanted to take,” he said.
Still, Khurana said he thinks some professors must limit their course sizes to successfully engage a small group of students in more intensive discussion.
“I think we really respect the faculty's creative expertise and decisions on doing that,” he said. “One of the hallmarks of Harvard College education is that opportunity to take some of those smaller classes that allow you to have that interaction with your peers, as well as with faculty, in a kind of smaller setting.”
Khurana also suggested some potential methods to maintain face-to-face instruction while also meeting student interest, including adding more course sections, finding other instructors to take over for professors on sabbatical, and experimenting with classroom formats.
“Our goal is to allow students to take full advantage of the Harvard College curriculum,” he said.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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