A Harvard Graduate School of Education team completed a report to the Committee on Student Life examining Harvard’s comps, which recommended that student organizations increase the transparency of the processes by which they admit new members.
Over the past month, a team of graduate students led by HGSE Professor Richard J. Light compiled research on student, faculty, and staff perceptions of “comps,” the procedures required for membership in many student organizations at the College. Students and administrators have long debated whether the College needs more sweeping comp reform, citing their sometimes-exclusive nature. The processes can range from brief auditions to semester-long ordeals.
The CSL — an advisory body comprised of Harvard administrators, faculty deans, house committee chairs, and Undergraduate Council representatives — first discussed the review in October. In the CSL’s Dec. 4 meeting, the HGSE team conveyed 14 recommendations to the committee, each of which fell into one of the following categories: “Inclusion And Belonging,” “Campus Collaboration,” “Clear, Transparent Communication,” and “Continuous Learning and Improvement.”
The group collected data for the study via dozens of student survey responses and interviews, including both current students and alumni. They also culled opinions from administrators, faculty, and staff, and looked at student organization culture at peer institutions across the country.
According to the report, 52 percent of recognized undergraduate student organizations conduct some form of comp, which the HGSE team defined as having “at least 1 membership requirement.” While most surveyed students were “satisfied” with the comp process, the research group found that 65 percent of students “do not feel that the comping process is clear,” and 68 percent feel “the comping process is a time burden.”
The report made recommendations aimed at both organizations and administrators. On the administrative side, the report suggested staff training on how to better inform freshmen about the nature of comping, as well as asking the DSO to offer implicit bias training.
Some interviewees also reported that the comp process “impedes'' student engagement and creates a “time burden” for students.
In response to those concerns, the HGSE group recommended that organizations develop “tiered” membership structures. They also proposed a rolling comp timeline to help alleviate time pressures.
Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair and Assistant Dean Kate T. Colleran said during the meeting that they were impressed by the report’s thoroughness. O’Dair wrote in an email that she was surprised by the range of comping formats the study uncovered, but was concerned how negative aspects of some comps — particularly a lack of transparency — affect students looking to find a place at the College.
“Unsurprisingly, the problems seem to emerge when students see processes as opaque and exclusionary with no real set of criteria for what is required for membership,” she wrote. “Students, particularly first year students, often want to try a new skill or interest area and are looking for that opportunity.”
The DSO will work with the Undergraduate Council, student organization leaders, and the CSL to consider how to put the recommendations into practice, O’Dair added. On the DSO’s part, that work could take the form of the suggested bias training or providing information for individual organizations, but that reform will likely hinge upon student action, she wrote.
“Many of the recommendations will rely on the student organizations themselves to implement, but we will do all we can to act on these,” O'Dair wrote.
The Dec. 4 meeting also marked the first involvement of the new UC president and vice president, Noah A. Harris ’22 and Jenny Y. Gan ’22, who now will become sitting members of the committee. Harris and Gan were officially sworn in to their new roles on the UC Sunday.
Harris said he hopes the UC can collaborate with student organizations to implement changes and serve as a resource in changing the comp culture on campus.
Several comp recommendations advised both the DSO and student groups to increase communication around comps, especially to freshmen. Gan said the UC will work with student organizations, as well as within its caucus system, to examine some of the recommendations.
“I think that part of the reason why comps are unknowable is there isn’t a lot of communication around them,” she said. “There are reasons why there are comps, and it’s a problem when it becomes a time burden, or when it disadvantages students from different groups.”
Harris also said the process of reforming comps will last past their departure from the UC.
“If we are able to build those long term channels, even if we can’t completely change the culture during our one year, we know that three, four years down the line, our work will have been the first step to something bigger,” he said.
—Staff writer Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.