Harvard to Supply Life’s Meaning To Students

Since the dawn of time, humankind has sought an explanation for our being on this planet, and some have looked for an answer in “liberal arts” education. But now – at Harvard at least – this profound search for meaning has apparently been transferred from the liberal arts department, where definitive answers have been rare, over to the student life bureaucracy, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Crimson staff writer Jamila M. Coleman, wrote that. The Freshman Dean’s office, which for several years has been under the leadership of Dean of Students Thomas Dingman, is focusing on “reflective programming” for Harvard’s presumably benighted and meaning-bereft undergraduates. The most recent step is the creation of a position for a “Fellow for College Programs and Initiatives.” According to the Crimson, this new hire will “attempt to enhance the experience of students by working…on ways to foster personal growth during their four years as undergraduates.”

One of Dean Dingman’s proliferating underlings, Director of College Initiatives and Student Development Katherine W. Steele, explained that the purpose of this new administrator’s work would be to “create experiences where people can dig into these questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What’s my purpose?’”

What does this position entail? An explanation was given to the student paper not by Dean Dingman himself, but rather by one of his countless assistants. Reported the Crimson:

The fellow will attempt to enhance the experience of students by working closely with Katherine W. Steele, the Director of College Initiatives and Student Development at the FDO [Freshman Dean’s Office], on ways to foster personal growth during their four years as undergraduates.

“What does this mean?” you understandably ask. The Crimson continues:

We realized that through doing this kind of programming, you can really create experiences where people can dig into these questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ’What’s my purpose?’” Steele said. “Thinking about those questions now may help you later when you’re deciding what to do after you graduate.”

Of course, guiding students in such a profound pursuit is too large a task for one bureaucrat. So the Freshman Dean’s Office plans to ensure that “[t]he Fellow will work closely with Resident Deans, Faculty Deans, Tutors, and Proctors to provide reflective guidance for students and formulate new approaches to community conversations, a required program during Opening days,” according to Steele. “It’s brand new,” Steele gushed to the Crimson reporter. “This job’s never existed before…we’re going to be a start-up basically, within Harvard.”

And therein lies the value of this initiative: As a start-up, it will doubtless require the hiring of many more administrators to assist the illustrious ranks of Resident Deans, Faculty Deans, Tutors, and Proctors, plus student-life administrative staff. As the Crimson reports, Steele hopes “to run focus groups with recent graduates during the summer, using their reflections to provide direction for new programming.”

The philosophical justification for this new, personnel-heavy and likely expensive initiative is, according to Steele, rooted in a 2006 study by Graduate School of Education Professor Richard J. Light. “Seniors said they learned a lot from chemistry and history and whatnot, but never really learned how to live life,” Steele told the Crimson. Hence the need for this profound new initiative headed by the student life bureaucracy. “The position is a very college focused role and is not necessarily just a response to a need that we’re seeing here at the Freshman Dean’s office,” Steele assured the reporter. And because this lacuna in Harvard’s curriculum “is not isolated to freshman year, this person will focus on personally transformative programming across the four years,” she said.

Of course, such a profound four-year initiative cannot be the sole province of Director Steele and the soon-to-be-hired Fellow for College Programs and Initiatives.  And so the Crimson reported that Dean for Administration and Finance Sheila C. Thimba “wrote that she approves of the new position’s goal of fostering personal growth among students.” “I’m glad we can support this nascent programming in personal transformation,” Dean Thimba said.

This new initiative is not altogether unexpected, but rather is the latest piece of a larger and longer-standing effort to direct students’ personal growth.

Reports the Crimson:

“Administrators have in recent years attempted to bolster College programming focused on student reflection. In 2015, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana pushed for additional reflection seminars and retreats during winter session.”

And, of course, when the powerful Dean of the College pushes, the rest of the ample bureaucracy responds with creative new initiatives, and, of course, new hires.

All of this makes for rather interesting reading. But it does appear that certain fundamental questions are not being asked, much less answered: Is it not the role of the faculty of a liberal arts college to spend four years helping students think about questions such as “Who am I?” and “What’s my purpose?” And is it not the province of the students to answer these highly personal questions themselves, without micromanagement by student-life administrators? With these fundamental questions asked and presumably answered by the bureaucrats assembled by the Freshman Dean’s office, what role will remain for the learned Harvard faculty, or indeed, for the student meaning-seekers themselves?

It’s a troubling – if not entirely surprising – fact that administrators now vastly outnumber faculty members in our institutions of higher education. According to one analysis, the ratio of full-time administrators to tenured or tenure-track professors in 2008 was roughly 2:1. I’d bet that in the past eight years since this study was done, the ratio has tilted even more dramatically in favor of administrators. What we don’t know is why this has come to be. Perhaps an inquiry into administrative bloat should be the next focus of the Harvard Freshman Dean’s office. This weighty task will, of course, doubtless require several new administrative hires.

A version of this article ran on WGBF News, Boston and is reprinted with permission.


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

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8 thoughts on “Harvard to Supply Life’s Meaning To Students

  1. I’d advise students not to spend too much time sitting cross-legged in a circle with a bunch of deans. Your fellow students are busy grabbing all the great jobs at Goldman and McKinsey while you reflect.

  2. “Is it not the role of the faculty of a liberal arts college to spend four years helping students think about questions such as “Who am I?” and “What’s my purpose?” And is it not the province of the students to answer these highly personal questions themselves, without micromanagement by student-life administrators?”

    Nooooo!!! Of course not. Suppose they got the answer WRONG? What then? Suppose they thought incorrectly? Came to inappropriate conclusions? Suppose they decided bad-thinking things? OMG! What a disaster!

    Clearly there are Good Thoughts and Bad Thoughts and Right Purposes and Wrong and surely Harvard wants to ensure that each of its graduates is Right Purposed & Good Thoughted! Suppose those foolish children decided that family was more important than a self-actualized career that provides an appropriately upper-tiered income? Suppose female grads decided to pursue stereotypically female professions? Suppose they chose against STEM when we so desperately need more women in STEM (gotta get those numbers right — regardless of what they actually want to do)? Suppose we saw them veering Conservative, Religious. or Right — wouldn’t we want to yank them back on course??

    And who better to do this programming than the Stepford Dean of Student Life is Good. Just make a few adjustments here and there, introduce a few new do-loops and subroutines, change a chip or two and everything is perfect, there at HarvardWorld (movie release pending!)

  3. As you suggest, it may very well be the “role of the faculty” to engage students in these deep questions, but the incentive structures for faculty tend to nudge them toward researching and publishing in ever-narrower niches. I imagine a program like this would provide at least some incentives/opportunities (through grants, service-relief, co-teaching) for faculty to develop courses and research projects that allow students and faculty both to “zoom out.” Sounds like a welcomed, albeit mild, shift. That the initiative is “housed” in administration means that someone will be responsible for making sure the idea doesn’t die in the idea phase… I don’t see a major problem with that in principle (of course, implementation is part of your worry, and that seems like a legitimate concern).

  4. You don’t find life’s meaning by navel gazing with other 18-year olds. You find it by making choices about how to spend your time and allocate your attention, making mistakes, and listening to people who are much older. And being exposed to thought/belief systems of the past that created meaning for others. Not that navel-gazing isn’t a phase that many of us go through; just that it’s a weak substitute for study and experience.

  5. The larger issue here has been the shift from “universal knowledge” to indoctrination. This started with Marcouse 40 years ago, was the underlying aspect of “political correctness”, and is why psychologists (i.e. Student Life administrators) are inexorably replacing scholars (i.e. professors) in academia.
    It’s really quite Orwellian…

  6. Harvey, I agree that there are far too many administrators. But in my view, you’re condemning one of the few good administrative jobs: someone developing programs to help students think more deeply about serious issues. What’s wrong with that?

    1. Do you really believe that mid-level university bureaucrats are going to be successful in helping students think more deeply about serious issues? I am a university faculty member and I’ll tell you that the concept is laughable.

      It used to be that students were immersed in Western civilization (and in the best of other civilizations) — philosophy, history, literature — and gained insights that helped them address life’s questions. And they gained insights from their religion (gasp!) and from our culture. All of those things are just about gone, so students now feel empty and purposeless. A response of navel-gazing or discussion among culturally ignorant and morally inane students (or faculty or, God help us, administrators) is not going to fill the breach.

      I think at lot of the campus PC insanity today is in part a desperate attempt by morally-adrift students to give their lives purpose.

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