Teaching Lacking at Harvard, Say Undergraduates

Joshua Billings, 22, says he did not come to Harvard for the teaching.

“You’d be stupid if you came to Harvard for the teaching,” said Mr. Billings, who will graduate this spring and then go to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. “You go to a liberal arts college for the teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.”

And that is pretty much how the thinking has gone here at Harvard for several decades. As one of the world’s most renowned research universities, Harvard is where academic superstars are continually expected to revolutionize their fields of knowledge. Cutting-edge research is emphasized, and recognized with tangible rewards: tenure, money, prestige, prizes, fame.

But now, with strong support from the university’s interim president, Derek Bok, nine prominent professors are leading an effort to rethink the culture of undergraduate teaching and learning. Headed by Theda Skocpol, a social scientist, the group has issued a report calling for sweeping institutional change, including continuing evaluation and assessment of teaching and learning, and a proposal that teaching be weighed equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments.

“It’s about the pursuit of excellence in teaching,” said Professor Skocpol, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. We can’t just mention excellent teachers occasionally. We have to notice and reward their efforts consistently.”

The report, at, is among the initiatives that Drew Gilpin Faust is expected to address when she takes over as president in July.

“It’s well known that there are many other colleges where students are much more satisfied with their academic experience,” said Paul Buttenwieser, a psychiatrist and author who is a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and who favors the report. “Amherst is always pointed to. Harvard should be as great at teaching as Amherst.”

As Professor Skocpol put it, “People at Harvard are concerned when they hear that some of our undergraduates can go through four years here and not know a faculty member well enough to get a letter of recommendation.”

The effort here comes as the federal government and state accrediting agencies, as well as students and parents, press universities nationwide to provide more accountability for how well their faculties are teaching. “If we don’t do it ourselves,” President Bok said of the government pressure, “they’re going to make us do it their way.”

The nation’s leading research universities have been looking for ways to better balance research and teaching for the past decade. Some institutions, like Yale and Princeton, are known for their commitment to both. Columbia is reviewing its undergraduate curriculum, including evaluating the teaching.

But because of Harvard’s standing, its effort is being closely watched around the country.

“They’ve staked out a position that other people have to pay attention to,” said Robert Connor, president of the Teagle Foundation, which gives colleges and universities money to encourage innovation in teaching.

Columbia is taking the Harvard report into account as it moves through its own review, said Alan Brinkley, Columbia’s provost. “If we’re going to ask some undergraduates to pay as much as $47,000 a year to come to these elite universities,” he said, “then we have an obligation to make sure they get a great education.”

One of the most significant aspects of the report, Dr. Connor said, is the stature of the professors who worked on it. In addition to Professor Skocpol, the group includes Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian; Xiao-Li Meng, the chairman of the statistics department; and Eric Mazur, a physicist who is known for his innovative teaching as well as his research.

The aim of the report is not to de-emphasize research in any way, but to bring about a greater institutional focus on teaching, Professor Ulrich said. “This is not a report that says we’re going to hire teachers who are not also scholars,” she said. “We want both.”

Still, despite the perception that some of the greatest minds at Harvard are not all that committed to teaching, Professor Skocpol said the reality was more complicated.

“In all our meetings, faculty would tell us, ‘I enjoy teaching, I find a lot of satisfaction in contact with students, in improving my courses, but I don’t feel the institution values it or rewards it or cares about it,’ ” she said. “It’s about institutional culture and reward.”