The Changing Faces of a Harvard Education

To meet this uncertain moment, each figure within Harvard’s multifaceted model of education will need to face one another and work in tandem, producing a kaleidoscopic vision of our University’s future in which all students, affiliates, and graduates may see themselves accurately reflected amidst ongoing change.
By The Crimson Editorial Board

By Sami E. Turner

As our graduating seniors smile in cap and gown, bidding adieu to their Cantabrigian lives, it is hardly difficult to imagine how change has been central to their Harvard experiences: From moving to online instruction just months into their college careers to this year’s introduction of double concentrations, much has evolved for the ’23 ton — including long-held notions of what it means to graduate with a Harvard education.

This past school year, our first without the widespread restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, was no exception to this trend. Just like the lives of our graduating seniors, education at Harvard and beyond has transformed rapidly over the past year.

With such changes, we have been forced to reconsider not only what models and forms of knowledge are valued at America’s oldest university, but also which faces embody — both literally and figuratively — a Harvard education.

Under One, Many Faces

Harvard, in large part, is constituted by the experiences, worldviews, and scholarship of its students. In recent decades, a diverse student body has offered perspectives that are reflective of the kaleidoscope of knowledge within the United States and the global community. Accordingly, future changes in the demographics of the student body will inevitably change the knowledge pursued and valued at Harvard.

With the years-long case against Harvard’s affirmative action policy set to come to a close this summer, the conservative court’s ruling will likely overturn decades of precedent and make prioritizing diversity a Sisyphean task for the University. With this ruling, a Harvard education will lose something consequential and ineffable — the perspectives that underrepresented students bring, and with those perspectives, the drive to act on them.

These perspectives often push Harvard to uphold its commitment to veritas, provoking us to ponder: Whose histories, figures, or vernaculars do we find important to uplift in the pursuit of knowledge?

Filipino languages and Ethnic Studies provide two of several novel answers to that question. This past year has seen more Ethnic Studies “cluster” hires, expanding the reach of a historically marginalized yet critically important field of study. The decades-long push for an instructor in Filipino languages has also finally come to fruition, bringing Harvard closer than ever to giving Southeast Asian studies the recognition it deserves. Together, such student-driven victories open up new possibilities to include, offer, and reimagine the knowledge embedded in Harvard’s storied curriculums, marking positive steps towards cultivating a university worth its motto.

The Asia Center — which has long advocated for the expansion of Southeast Asian studies at Harvard — is housed within the Center for Government and International Studies South building.
The Asia Center — which has long advocated for the expansion of Southeast Asian studies at Harvard — is housed within the Center for Government and International Studies South building. By Julian J. Giordano

Yet these steps in the right direction are just that — discrete, preliminary steps. With the impending judiciary ruling against diversity in higher education, more work needs to be done to protect threatened perspectives at both Harvard and the national level, especially when knowledge about the experiences of marginalized communities is under blatant legislative attack.

Should Harvard fail to act decisively, the depth and breadth our curriculum has enjoyed from student diversity will be reduced over time to the mere residue of an ephemeral dream.

The Faculty Faces that Do — and Don’t — Get to Stay

Like students, faculty contribute to Harvard’s pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, constituting the other literal “faces” of a Harvard education.

Yet despite their centrality to the University’s academic mission, many faculty — especially those not holding tenure-track positions — report that they often fail to receive adequate institutional support, facing precarious pecuniary and working conditions as a result. This year’s drive for unionization by non-tenure track faculty marked a positive step towards alleviating such pressures, hopefully leading to greater protections for some of the University’s most influential and generative academic workers.

This year also revealed the struggles of other educators who form the logistical bedrock of a Harvard education — namely, course assistants and teaching fellows. Given the precarity of this CA and TF-led model of education, where non-tenured faculty perform much of the daily work of engaging with students with little pay or security, the University should give CAs and TFs the support they need, and compensate them commensurate with the duties they perform.

However, financial stability and job security for educators are just the first steps in protecting knowledge generation at Harvard.

As faculty push the frontiers of scholarship through their research, the issue of academic freedom — and the chilling effects of its culling — loom large over their pursuits. We remain steadfast that encouraging rigorous on-campus debates is important for academic discourse at Harvard and that such efforts prove more productive than decrying a simplistic, inaccurate dichotomy of liberal versus conservative faculty.

Furthermore, we continue to be wary of a conflation between freedom of speech and freedom from accountability, and of new faculty-led initiatives that appear to encourage such an elision. While we applauded the principles motivating the recent creation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, we were disquieted by the group’s seemingly one-sided view of academic freedom – particularly as some notorious members advanced dangerously incorrect scholarship yet were allowed to remain steadfast in both their academic positions and their falsehoods, while former professors like Cornell R. West ’74 and Lorgia Garcia Peña were denied tenure at Harvard seemingly on the basis of their advocacy.

In due course, our changing conceptualization of what constitutes academic freedom — and not only the types of inquiry, but also the very figures and faces that should be protected under its terms — will inevitably shape the knowledge advanced, approved, and valued by Harvard, creating ripple effects at the faculty level that we have yet to fully comprehend.

Putting a Face to the Name (and Vice Versa)

Changes to the faces of Harvard’s students and faculty also coincide with changes in Harvard’s reputation — the outward face of Harvard to the public.

Emerging from a pandemic wherein the nuts and bolts of education were radically reimagined, this school year has forced us to reconsider: What does it mean to receive a Harvard education, one that many revere as a prized possession — and to what extent is the value of that education tied to the prestige of the Harvard name stamped on our diplomas?

The choices of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School to drop out of the U.S. News ranking system this year reflected a symbolic break away from a system that prioritizes the patina of prestige over substantive education. This move suggested that the value of a Harvard education should not be tied to the elitism that comes with it — and that perhaps even the College itself should do away with ranking systems that motivate perverse incentives.

Harvard Law School withdrew from the U.S. News ranking system last November.
Harvard Law School withdrew from the U.S. News ranking system last November. By Julian J. Giordano

Yet ranking systems weren’t the only public indicator of Harvard’s name-brand reputation that made headlines this year. The recent $300 million donation by Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 — and the subsequent choice of our University to rename the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after a Governor Ron DeSantis megadonor — reflected how our campus infrastructure has been controversially altered by the pretty penny of well-monied donors.

As Harvard makes alumni, and in turn, alumni remake Harvard, we cannot turn a blind eye to the undercurrents of money and prestige that guide each one’s engagement with the other, nor to the material effects this entanglement leaves on the meaning — or even the very name — of a Harvard education.

Ultimately, it is up to each new batch of soon-to-be graduates to ensure that their engagement with the world under the Harvard name is guided by values beyond the moneyed exclusivity that has become synonymous with our University’s public face, and to demonstrate that bastions of elite knowledge are not valuable simply for being elite.

‘A Transformative Experience’: Preparing Students to Face the World

Aside from changes in the figures and explicit elements that make up a Harvard education, the abstract purpose of pursuing knowledge at our University has evolved in the post-pandemic world, forcing us to reconsider a nearly four-century old question: What is the ideological “face” of Harvard?

The College’s oft-stated mission suggests that a Harvard education is meant to educate citizens and citizen-leaders and help them learn how best they can serve the world. In today’s precarious economy, however, the pursuit of prestige and security has increasingly pushed Harvard students into fields like big tech, which often appear to place a higher premium on the company name of an internship than a commitment to doing lasting good in the world.

The purpose of a liberal arts education is seemingly moving from the pursuit of public service towards the cultivation of economic efficiency — a shift in the ideology behind a Harvard education that has only been reinforced at the institutional level through decisions like the elimination of Shopping Week, which restrict students’ ability to explore alternative fields in favor of the safe or the comfortable.

In some ways, this increasing trend of funneling graduates towards finance, tech, and consulting suggests that our precious liberal arts education is being hollowed out to optimize for individual financial success.

However, even as older purposes of a Harvard education have faced challenges in recent years, novel ideologies of knowledge generation have also emerged, offering interdisciplinary approaches to tackle emerging global issues. We celebrate that through an increasingly “blended” model of education, we can have our code and eat our Camus, too, and find that the blown-out-of-proportion frenzy around the “death of the humanities” belies a functional misunderstanding regarding both the purpose of humanities and of STEM. Both fields, inherently ambiguous and multifaceted, offer possibilities to advance the public good as the demands of global citizenry evolve in accordance with increasingly interdisciplinary challenges to human society.

Towards a Faceless Model of Education?

One such emerging issue is the rapid integration of artificial intelligence into our daily lives — including the transmission, evaluation, and generation of knowledge at Harvard. With the rise of generative AI models in the educational realm, students and educators have been presented with fundamentally new ways of learning, adding a not-quite-human face to a Harvard education whose contours and influence we have yet to fully comprehend.

This year’s launch of ChatGPT — an AI chatbot that can summarize papers, produce snippets of code, or write entire essays — forced us to reflect on the value of completing knowledge-related tasks instead of outsourcing to convenient open-access tools. Like others, we have been cautious of the effects of machine learning models such as ChatGPT on our generative abilities, believing that while these tools seemingly mimic the work done by humans, the value and cultivation of human creativity is lost in the process.

Furthermore, the ability of such faceless chat models to create human-like responses raises far-reaching questions about what it means to be a bearer of knowledge and intelligence altogether. The boundless extent of AI systems’ potential capabilities, paired with a lack of comprehensive oversight on their development and deployment, also makes serious ethical concerns about their disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities all the more urgent.

The AI face of education is only nascent, making it difficult to offer a conclusive judgment of its effects at Harvard and beyond. Yet grappling with the impact of AI on how we learn — and who we are to call ourselves learners — will be a generation-defining task.

To meet this uncertain moment, each figure within Harvard’s multifaceted model of education will need to face one another and work in tandem, producing a kaleidoscopic vision of our University’s future in which all students, affiliates, and graduates — present company included — may see themselves accurately reflected amidst ongoing change.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

EditorialsCommencement 2023