Cross-registration woes: does Harvard “University” even exist?


Another registration season has passed at Harvard Law School, complete with all the trials, tribulations, and technical glitches of the MyPlan system, the arbitrary course caps that will have to be manually adjusted by the Registrar next spring, and the frustration of students who have had to deal with clinical, elective, and “multi-section” course registration periods situated weeks apart. Pity the poor law student who wishes to sign up for all three types of class, for whom registration takes up more time than outlining, and whose Google Calendar is littered with the detritus of unfulfilled classroom hopes and dreams.

HLS’ vast menu of courses is one of the school’s main attractions, a standout reason why many choose this buzzing hive of over 2,000 students, faculty, and affiliates over more intimate law schools – in sunnier climes. As Dean Elena Kagan ’86 never grew tired of pointing out, the options also extend to other schools of Harvard University, offering students the ability to work outside the law school with renowned members of the Harvard faculty as a whole. But sadly, the challenges of registering into law school courses pale in comparison to the daunting feat of cross-registration between Harvard schools.

Consider: to supplement one’s legal education with a Graduate School of Arts and Sciences course, a student must first wait practically until the new semester begins, when GSAS finally releases its course schedules. Then, and only then, can a law student begin to plan when to take such a class, well after he or she will have had to already register for law school courses.

Students must then bring their signed cross-registration form to the GSAS Registrar’s Office. (One might expect it to be an affair similar to the modest office suite that holds the law school’s registrar staff. In reality, it is a palatial, three story building complete with columns and an expansive lobby.) After finally locating the relevant line, and a requisite wait, students are sent away to fill out a bubble sheet similar to those used to fill in answers on standardized tests. Then they must get back in line to submit the completed materials.

A rare example of administrative efficiency ensures students will not have to traipse back to the law school’s registrar to gain approval from that office as well. But such fixes beg the question: if the university was able, recently, to coordinate its exam schedule to facilitate cross-registration, why can’t it coordinate the release of a course schedule? And why can’t the whole process – professors’ approvals included – be moved online?

At least part of the problem seems to be that Harvard’s various schools operate less like organs of a single body than as independent organisms that hardly acknowledge one another’s existence. The schools’ individual approaches to professorial discretion on registration are a case in point. At HLS, professors complain that the system makes it difficult to shepherd in students who they think should be able to take their courses. But at the Kennedy School, professorial discretion reigns supreme.

A shocking example emerged earlier this fall in a Kennedy School class taught by Rory Stewart. Stewart has achieved some fame for trekking across Afghanistan during the opening chapters of the war against the Taliban, and for later serving as governor of a province in Iraq. It was understandable, then, that the relatively small classroom the school had allotted him for his course on interventionism couldn’t accommodate the number of interested students, many of whom had also come from schools with which Harvard has cross registration agreements, such as Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Stewart’s solution was not to ask the Kennedy School for a larger classroom, but to make aspiring cross-registrants apply for slots as auditors. Of these, he would select only eight (out of the dozens who were hoping to register) who would not only have to give up any seats to interested Kennedy School students, but would not be allowed to participate in class discussion at all.

The plan provoked outrage among the Tufts students, who petitioned their administration. One even emailed Stewart – and the rest of the class – directly, with a strongly-worded message asserting that Tufts would never treat a Harvard cross-registrant as he had treated the visitors from Tufts.

Whether the Stewart case was an illustration of Harvard’s strained relations with other universities, a demonstration that these schools could stand up for their rights better than students from other Harvard schools, or an indication that other universities’ cross-registrants might be taking up class seats that ought to have gone to Harvard students, it is clear that Harvard University as a whole needs to reevaluate its cross-registration system – not only because interdisciplinary studies are the future of many fields, but because without the easy ability for students and faculties to interact across institutional lines, Harvard is no more than a sum of its many parts – and the idea of the “University” as an institution is rendered both hollow and meaningless.