Unheard Voices of the BSC


The seemingly silent restructuring of the BSC. 


Over the last several years, the College has made several major decisions without consulting the same undergraduate community that the decision impacts. Need I remind anyone about the Stillman Infirmary closing debacle? One would think that after so much student blowback and activism on campus, the College and other Harvard officials wouldn’t continue making major decisions from within their brick offices that are apparently sound-proofed to ignore student voices. One would think that the College would do more than send an email to all undergraduates stating that the Bureau of Study Counsel will be restructured. This ‘act now, ask forgiveness later’ M.O. isn’t working for me, nor is it working for my peers. While I want to spend some time airing my frustrations about the structuring, I do also want to clarify some of the details about restructuring and give my thoughts on how students and College administrators can move forward.

About two weeks ago, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay Harris emailed the Harvard populace about the change in structure and services at the Bureau of Study Counsel.  “We are writing to you today to share some details about this change and to solicit your feedback in how we can further enhance the services that the BSC offers to support you as students,” he writes. Stripping away the flowery language of the BSC’s “homecoming,” the decision rests upon the change in oversight of the BSC from University Health Services (UHS) to the College. This change in oversight means that student files and other confidential information will no longer be protected by the Health Insurances Portability and Accountablilty Act (HIPAA), but will instead fall under the purview of the Family and Educational Rights Protection Act (FERPA). (This detail regarding the change in federal law protection was omitted from Dean Harris’ original email).

Why was the decision made to switch what department oversees the BSC? Well, the College in its recent desire to make everything ‘mission aligned,’ felt that the BSC was not carrying out its original mission of “promoting students’ capacities for meaningful and effective engagement with academic life and learning.” The switch in oversight will “allow its professional staff to consult more easily with other individuals helping students in their academic and personal development at Harvard.” This ability to consult more easily is because of the switch from HIPAA to FERPA. Under the FERPA protection laws, students’ files may be shared with academic advisors and resident deans in certain situations. There have been no specific protocols of how this would work set forth yet, but I digress.

The College and UHS administers including Dean Harris and Dr. Paul Barreira (the director of UHS) tried to assuage student dissatisfaction by hosting a town hall meeting on April 8th in the Phillips Brooks House. What frustrated me most about the town hall was the long and defensive answers each person on the panel gave. It seemed like student voice was once again stifled by way of not leaving enough time for students to ask questions and for the questions that they were able to ask getting round-about public-relations-perfect answers.

For a session that was meant to be a space to include student voice, there seemed to be another agenda of ‘we know what’s best for you and you will appreciate our decision in the long run.’ It was especially disheartening to see the defensive attitude come out when students raised the stigmatization of mental health on campus and how moving a lot of the BSC’s counseling services to UHS’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) would further discourage students from utilizing the resources around them.

I was, however, glad to see that there was a strong UC presence at the town hall. UC president Ava Nasrollahzadeh ’16, and representatives Manik Kuchroo ’16, Jacob Steinberg-Otter ’16, and William Greenlaw ’17 were present. Each asked questions about how the restructuring will affect students, how administrators plan to include student voice moving forward, and how the College and UHS plan to make the external review that was completed in 2011 transparent to students.

The UC, noting the growing student activism around mental health on campus, invited Dr. Barreira to a question and answer session during their general meeting last Sunday. The UC outlined three main points of inquiry regarding the BSC: 1) what does the change in privacy mean, 2) What did (does) student input look like and where is this external review, and 3) what are the larger implications of the BSC shifting its staffing model. Within the next week or so, the UC will also announce its official response to the BSC’s restructuring and how they plan to represent student voice moving forward.

At the UC meeting, Steinberg-Otter questioned Dr. Barreira on how the decision was made and what did the external review process look like. Dr. Barreria said, “You’ll want to see the task force review.” He continues, “There’s nothing in there students shouldn’t see.” Greenlaw also pushed Barreira to think about writing up a clear policy on how student information could potentially be shared within the BSC and other academic supports after the restructuring is in place (which I completely agree with — students want clarity and inclusion in the process!).

With Dr. Barreira admitting that “We screwed up the Urgent Care decision. People get caught up in policy and money that we forget student voice,” I think the next step for students is to capitalize on this admission and make their voices heard. Even though the restructuring is not ideal and the process to come to that decision was not the most inclusive, we cannot spend our energy talking about what should have been done differently in these upcoming meetings. We need to instead focus on how do we make this mostly unfavorable decision work in favor of the students. Even though some of the solutions needed are long-term like destigmatizing going to UHS for counseling, there are still arenas where student voice is absolutely critical moving forward. For example, students can come up with the policy regarding how the BSC can share information in compliance with FERPA.

There is so much student activism happening right now on campus and so many students are talking about mental health and the various resources available to us that we need to capitalize on all of this energy.

Shaquilla Harrigan ’16 (sharrigan01@college.harvard.edu) thinks that the ‘One Harvard’ dream will happen when student activists come together for change.