Campus insider

Heavy requirements not in Harvard's stars

By Peter Schworm and Tracy Jan
April 5, 2009
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Harvard's astronomy and astrophysics program, one of the university's least-popular majors, has followed in the steps of the Classics Department and toned down its requirements in an attempt to attract more undergraduates.

Effective September, students will no longer be required to write a senior thesis, and they will only have to take 12 classes to graduate instead of 16. They will have five new courses to choose from, including one on exoplanets - those beyond the solar system - "because we think we'll start finding Earth-like planets and looking for life in the next decade," said David Charbonneau, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in the department.

Students will also be able to enroll in a class that takes them to a remote mountaintop in Arizona and use a world-class telescope to see "something no one has seen before," he said. "It can be a career-changing moment."

"The most basic questions of astronomy are unanswered: Is there life elsewhere in the universe? How old is the universe? What is the ultimate fate of the universe?" Charbonneau said. "Those are the questions we are working to answer. It's an incredibly exciting moment in astrophysics."

For the record, he said, students are beginning to warm to the topic. The department has not five majors - as the university registrar's records show - but 13. He can list every single one of them by name.

Tweet, wash, fold
For those who doubt the power - or even the point - of Twitter, behold. A student at Olin College, an engineering school in Needham, has unleashed the microblogging tool upon a critical campus concern: the status of the laundry room.

More than 80 students now use the automated service to receive updates on how many washers and dryers are free. The messages are a bit dry - "one of two washers available, one of two dryers available" - but efficiently succinct, and often extend into the small hours of the morning.

In a light-hearted touch, the service's website,, even includes a short biography of the laundry room that reads: "I am a laundry room at Olin College. I have two washers, two dryers, and a condom dispenser." Fair enough.

SAT be gone
Joining the growing ranks of colleges dropping the SAT requirement, Fairfield University has announced that applicants next fall can write an essay on Fairfield's "mission and strategic vision" in lieu of SAT scores.

The Connecticut school made the decision after several years of internal research indicated that students' grades were a better predictor of college success than their board scores. College officials also noted that SAT scores closely correlate with family income, making them an unreliable gauge, and said they hoped the new policy would help attract a more economically diverse group of students.

Last spring, Smith College and Wake Forest University dropped the SAT as a requirement, two of the most prominent schools to do so.

UMass vote
In a maneuver that is raising hackles, three candidates on the ballot for the UMass Amherst Alumni Association's board of directors had served on the six-person nominating committee that assembled the slate.

The committee members are among the candidates now running in the board election, prompting some alumni to criticize the selection process as slanted and exclusive. But Anna Symington, executive director of the alumni association, said it is not unusual for members of the nominating committee to be named to the ballot, and they must recuse themselves from votes on their own applications, which include essays and interviews. "It's an open, transparent process," she said.

Voting for five directors will close Friday.

MIT officers punished
The two MIT police officers who tossed hundreds of copies of the student paper last month are paying for their actions.

One has been fired, and the other remains suspended without pay, The Tech newspaper last week. Their identities have not been released by the university.

The officers had grabbed stacks of the twice-weekly papers from its newsstands and thrown them into recycling bins, apparently upset with the paper's coverage of a fellow officer's arrest for drug trafficking.

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