All things, good and bad, must eventually come to an end. That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment last week following the announcement that John B. Fog Jr. '59 would be leaving his post as Dean of the College. Since he won't oc doing so for a while, and may not depart University Hall 4 until the end of the next academic year, a full post-mortem treatment would be premature. With rumor beginning to circulate about a successor, however, a few words about Fox and the post he will leave behind seem more than appropriate.
First, there are good things to say about John Fox. According to all accounts, he is among the most effective administrators at Harvard. To his credit, he has in has nine years as the College's top official done many things which people will remember, which have noticeably affected the quality of undergraduate life and which stand to make his legacy an impressive one. Surely, he's had his failings--an aborted attempt in the late 1970s to save money by criminating hot breakfasts in the Houses is perhaps the most memorable example. But what House Masters and others who recall his successes mention foremost is Fox's establishment of the current form of the House system, quite a contrast to the dissociated setup of three-and four-year Houses and a mixed-class Yard left over from before the Harvard-Radcliffe merger.
Among a string of other efforts, Fox has improved the lot of athlete throughout the College, helping to shape new facilities and giving women competitors a host of new opportunities. And, Fox has given the Houses the new the they needed after years of neglected maintenance, heading up the massive renovation program that has already repaired River Houses residences to their former glory.
With due respect for his contribution to the needs of the College, there's also a flip side to John Fox. Not that he hasn't done a fine job of watching out for the College's needs. He has. And it is perhaps because of Fox's notable record that one must pause upon hearing what some of his colleagues had to say, privately, when they heard last week that he will be leaving. I ankly, many House Masters--who work closely with Fox-acknowledged their relief at his upcoming departure. Saying in confidence what those students who've dealt with Fox have been saying in public for years, they cited the dean's intransigent nature, an undue preoccupation with finances, a seeming concern for the needs of the institution over those of the individual, as among the reasons that Fox has never gained their complete trust. Often, his critics point out, he has placed long-term goals above the need to alleviate immediate problems for undergraduates in a given four-year time period, standing behind the rules and ideology of the system rather than attacking preemptively what students see as tangible and pressing problems. This may seem a harsh conclusion, but the feelings which underlie it presume perhaps a different conception of the office than Fox has used in supervising the lives of undergraduates over the last decade.
Do you even know what the Dean of the College does? Most students do not, according to a Crimson poll of two years back. And have you ever met or dealt with Fox? Most of you have not. Does it or should it matter? Indeed, we think it should. As the top person responsible for the lives of Harvard undergraduates, the dean of the College is someone whose contact with students should extend beyond the closed-door meetings of the mysterious Administrative Board and the limited forum of student-faculty committees, attended regularly by but a select few Undergraduate Council members. More than a dean of students, whose primary job at this school is to oversee extracurricular activities, the dean of the College at Harvard oversees housing, advising and counseling, discipline, athletics--the entirety of the Harvard experience outside of the classroom. Part of that job is taking an active interest in what undergraduates are doing, thinking, and saying, tasks which the current dean has done only erratically.
During John Fox's tenure, the deanship has become primarily a crisis-management position. When Mather House students complained about their crowded rooms, Fox was there. When North House students wanted to complain about the renovation plan. Fox was there. As for anticipating problems or soothing feathers before they've been fully ruffled, however, Fox has long been reluctant to address directly the concerns of irate undergraduates on a variety of issues. Only last year did he accede to persistent requests that he establish open office hours for those students too intimidated to go through his normal appointment-making routine. Surely, Fox gets around to see students. He attends basketball games and some hockey games, too. He even eats occasionally in the Houses and speaks in the Yard with students. But that happens mostly by request and invitation on the part of students, and rarely to satisfy his own curiosity. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but one would think that someone with the title of Dean of the College would want to make his presence known as a receptive individual and one willing to take student concerns into account before making hard and fast policy. Without question, Fox has moved closer to that ideal in the two years since the council has been around. But in general, people who know him say John Fox engenders a sense of suspicion more than assurance, making him someone hard to approach and his office one unreasonably detached in understanding and reality from those who should feel most comfortable there: all members of the College community, House Masters and undergraduates in particular.
IN THE COMING WEEKS and months, Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence, to whom the dean of the College reports, will choose a method for finding Fox's successor. He may choose, according to his wont, to name an insider, to look nationwide, to reorganize the College's administration entirely. Whatever he does, we hope that he will speak directly to those familiar with Fox's successes and failures, his style and methods, before deciding what to do in the wake of Fox's departure. Specifically, Spence should solicit more than the views of those who are here for longer than four years. Undergraduates, who will most assuredly be affected by the choice of the next dean, should be involved in the selection process. Besides Undergraduate Council members, we suggest that Spence select at random at least one student from each House and Yard area, who may not necessarily have the council members' familiarity with the College. That way, Spence can get a feeling for how average Harvard students feel about University Hall doings, if they care at all.
Above all, Spence should realize that this appointment, his most significant since taking office this year, will indicate a lot about what the role of the dean of the college is, and the type of person best suited to fill it. While John Fox has many significant achievements to his credit, he has not been as receptive and outgoing as we would wish a dean of the College to be. We hope that the next dean will be not only a highly efficient administrator, but also a compassionate listener, someone less concerned with the bottom line than with the real needs of students.