September 20, 2014
Dear Harvard College Students,
Now that shopping week is behind us and study cards have been submitted, I hope you have all found classes that are engaging and inspiring. This is the first time in many years that I am not teaching, and I am envious of my colleagues who are in the classroom with you this semester.
At this year’s Convocation, I asked the Class of 2018 to think about the difference between a transactional education and a transformational education. A transactional education is characterized by adding lines to your resume, accepting the status quo, and, in the process, skimming the surface of what a Harvard education has to offer. On the other hand, a transformational education is characterized by seeking academic, social, and personal experiences that truly challenge you to step out of your comfort zone. The pursuit of transformation is the more difficult path, and I believe that in order to go down this path, we need to make time in our very busy schedules for self-reflection and meaningful conversations with peers and mentors.
Many of you have shared with me that between your courses and extracurricular commitments, you feel stretched to your limit. After a little bit of investigating, I have learned that this is more than an anecdotal characterization of Harvard life. Our own student surveys show a sharp increase over the past three years in the amount of organized non-academic activity.1 In 2010, 2011, and 2013, we asked seniors to self-report the number of hours they spent on extracurricular activities in a typical week. The fraction of seniors who report spending less than six hours a week on such activities has decreased from 49 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2013. The fraction of students spending more than 10 hours per week has increased from 27 percent to 43 percent. The fraction who spend between six and 10 hours has remained relatively stable over the three-year period at about 26 percent.
Several freshmen have already mentioned to me the social pressure they feel to quickly decide which activities to “comp” before having time to explore what might interest them. I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about the role of extracurricular activities on campus and, specifically, about the following questions: What explains the significant increase in the number of hours devoted to these activities? How might we have a meaningful conversation about the forces affecting our academic, social, and personal well-being at the College? How can we use this conversation to move ourselves in ways that we would like to go? Please feel free to post your anonymous thoughts about this topic here, as well as your suggestions for how we can work together to create an environment more conducive to intellectual, social, and personal transformation at Harvard. I will share what I have learned with you in future communications.
As we think about the kind of culture we want to create at the College, I also want to take this opportunity to share some important updates on sexual assault and our work on belonging and inclusiveness at Harvard. Our community can and should take a leadership role in creating the type of campus culture in which every person feels safe and respected. And we can and should be a model for the type of attitudes and values of inclusion that we would like to see in the world. You have already been invited to participate in discussions regarding new policies around sexual assault and harassment within our community. Again, here are some resources you should be aware of:
- The University’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault last week launched a new Web portal – share.harvard.edu – that consolidates in one location all the resources Harvard provides to respond to and support students who have experienced sexual misconduct.
- The FAS Committee on Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures continues to seek input from the community, including undergraduates. Please refer to this calendar for ways to participate.
Professor Walton and his working group on inclusion at Harvard will be gathering student input on how we should continue to advance an inclusive learning environment that ensures success in achieving our liberal arts and sciences educational and service mission. I urge you to take advantage of these opportunities to make your voices heard.
If you have any questions about Harvard’s sexual assault policy, please contact your resident dean, our College Title IX coordinators Emily Miller and Will Cooper, or Alicia Oeser and her dedicated team of staff and student leaders at the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR). If you want to learn more about the Inclusion and Belonging Working Group, please contact Emelyn Dela Pena, Assistant Dean of Student Life for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
As always, please be in touch with me if you have thoughts, suggestions, or concerns about topics discussed in this letter or any other issues. I believe that it is critical for us to engage as a community in important conversations about this institution and the kind of education you are seeking here. I have learned so much already from meeting and talking with so many of you in the Yard, on the shuttle, and walking around Harvard Square. I feel very fortunate to be part of such an inspiring community.
1 Every research method has strengths and weaknesses. The strength of the senior survey is that it includes the entire population of graduating seniors, not a sample. Its weakness is that the data is self-reported. Consequently, we should not leap to assert any simple causal model between the growth in extracurricular commitments and the time bind that students described in my conversations. The culture of a group is most powerfully expressed not in a survey, but in the collective performances of everyday life. Perhaps we should accept at face value the common response I hear when I ask the question: “How are you?” and the response of, “Busy but good.” By the way, this is also my reflexive response to that question, whether I am feeling “good” or not.