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Harvard Sciences Dean Stubbs Says Generative AI is ‘Top of the List’ of Challenges

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Harvard Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs said that incorporating generative AI was “top of the list” of his challenges in an interview with The Crimson last Wednesday.

Stubbs also shared his thoughts on new University anti-bullying policies, academic advising, and strategic planning at the University.

Generative AI — which can emulate input data to produce content like text, images, and audio — is “an extremely powerful tool” and its usage “a seductive shortcut for time,” Stubbs said.

The advent of ChatGPT and the rapid proliferation of other AI technologies has compelled the University to quickly adapt its curriculum and academic policies to the tools’ versatile functions, which can easily be applied to essay composition, coding, and mathematical problem-solving. The Office of Undergraduate Education released broad AI use guidelines at the start of the semester that proposed different approaches professors could take but did not impose any FAS-wide policy on AI use in courses.

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Generative AI tools “can pretty much do every single homework assignment that we have ever given,” Stubbs said.

“How do we incentivize undergraduates to invest the level of effort to gain mastery in some domain where they view that being their primary interest?” Stubbs added.

Though some classes ban the use of generative AI, Stubbs believes it “absolutely” has a role in Harvard education, as several classes this semester encourage its use.

Incorporating generative AI into the classroom means reconceptualizing the essentials of education that form the crux of the University’s mission, Stubbs said.

“I think this is a great opportunity to reassess everything from the ground up,” he said. “Basically, what are our fundamental learning objectives?”

“I view my role as making sure that our instructors are fully informed and educate themselves about how generative AI impacts what they’re trying to achieve in their classes,” he added.

In addition, Stubbs also discussed the new University-wide anti-bullying policies that took effect in September.

“I welcome the fact that we’ve more clearly articulated our conduct expectations for all members of our community,” he said. “What I hope to do is to make sure that we identify opportunities to improve people’s conduct long before it reaches the stage of being any kind of policy violation.”

In particular, graduate students in the sciences have raised concerns about power imbalances in faculty-student advising relationships. In light of recent allegations of bullying against professor Daniel P. Schrag, graduate students in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department have called for departmental reform and greater accountability for dealing with misconduct.

Stubbs said the graduate programs are seeking a more “student-centric” approach to advising relationships, including “one-to-many” advising structures that allow students to seek guidance from multiple sources instead of a “one-to-one” dynamic.

He recommended that students build strong mentorship structures early on, “long before you need it in that kind of way.”

On the topic of FAS strategic planning, which is in its third and final year and was discussed in a faculty retreat in August, Stubbs said he helped coordinate a potential “competitive process” idea where faculty can apply to start term-limited programs in new fields of inquiry at Harvard.

Stubbs said this idea is shifting from the “conceptual approval stage” to “the stage of us writing up a real concrete proposal with resource estimates and implementation details.”

“We have departments, we have centers, we have programs, we have undergraduate concentrations, we have Ph.D. programs, and those are not all 100 percent aligned with each other,” he said.

He hopes the competitive process can “nucleate new collaborations across the institution to identify new fields of inquiry.”

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @jasmine_palma_.

—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at austin.wang@thecrimson.com.

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