Four Years After Trying Term, Lewis Content to Work Behind the Scenes
Plan for deanship nearly all checked off after four years
Harry R. Lewis '68 burst into the position of dean of the College four years ago with a series of sweeping plans that led some to dub him a bold innovator and others to demonize him.
But in the three and a half years since that tumultuous first semester, Lewis has become much less visible on campus.
He no longer provokes angry protests--as he did when he announced his intention to reorganize the Phillips Brooks House (PBH)--and he doesn't grab the headlines.
But a few things have remained the same. Lewis still has the same purposed, direct leadership style. And he has maintained a focus on educational issues to the partial exclusion of the quality-of-life issues championed by outgoing Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.
In fact, it seems that Lewis came to the deanship with an agenda that he has roughly stuck to throughout. By now, the dean has brought most of the issues on his agenda to the fore and so sees little reason to court controversy.
Lewis' remaining plans are more gradual and less controversial--and when Lewis eventually leaves his post, he may well be remembered as a low-profile dean.
The Man With a Plan
Unlike any other dean of the College in recent history, Lewis came to his office with a clear plan of action: the 78-page "Report on the Structure of Harvard College"--known as the Maull-Lewis report--produced by a committee he co-chaired and co-authored with Administrative Dean Nancy L. Maull.
Lewis began his job convinced that several big changes to the College structure were necessary.
His predecessor, L. Fred Jewett '57, was a former dean of admissions who was renowned for building consensus.
"One could argue that what my style would lead to is  years of never doing anything," Jewett, now quips.
But unlike Jewett, Lewis was committed to accomplishing change quickly--consensus or not.
The new dean oversaw the randomization of the Houses--a decision announced by Jewett but strongly endorsed by the Maull-Lewis report--and reorganized PBH, bringing in a new associate dean who reports to him and oversees the organization.
"It was reasonable that he should be activist at the outset," says Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. '59, who has also served as dean of the College. "He had just spent an enormous amount of time inquiring into every nook and cranny of the College." These two initiatives--both of which were protested for impinging upon on student autonomy--were the proposals in the report with the most radical, controversial impact on student life. The alcohol crackdown Lewis pursued during his first semester also drew protests.
But since then, Lewis has made no decision that touches so deeply on students' lives.
"A change in how you choose your Houses is as fundamental as anything, and PBH affects so many students on campus," says Undergraduate Council President Noah Z. Seton '00. "They'd have to go and really deconstruct one major aspect of student life to make as big an impact."
A Straight Shooter
Some say Lewis has also softened the candid style that led University President Neil L. Rudenstine to dub him "a very straight shooter" during his first term.
But the essential components of his personality remain the same--students still describe him as direct and to the point.
"If we discuss something and he doesn't think it's feasible, he'll very bluntly tell me that it's not," Seton says. "He never leads you in the direction of thinking something's going to happen if it's not."
Lewis' candor reflects his background as a professor confident in his own authority. Epps calls him "one of the smartest deans we've had for sheer intelligence."
Lewis' direct style, Epps says, contrasts with that of the conciliatory Jewett.
"They seem to me to always reflect their previous experience," says Epps, who has served under seven deans of the College." Fred Jewett was chair of admissions. He was avuncular...he would be open and weigh things, and was really known for his wise judgement."
Coming on the heels of Jewett's consensus-oriented style, Lewis' take-charge attitude put off some students at first.
"When I was a freshman, hearing from older Undergraduate Council members...they always felt they were getting a no," Seton says.
Lewis says he has always been interested in speaking to students about their concerns.
"I think I've been pretty consistent about wanting to have conversations," he says. "I'll talk to pretty much anybody and I'll answer e-mail from literally anybody."
But Lewis adds that he has become more patient during his time as dean, and Epps says his style of interacting with students has changed as well.
"He's more personable [now], and that's essential for a dean," Epps says.
Part of a Pattern
If Lewis has come to pursue more gradual projects in a more patient fashion, some say this is to be expected.
Sweeping changes and protests, Epps suggests, are unusual events.
"College life is usually this way," Epps says.
Indeed, Harvard has a history of deans of the College who implement sweeping changes early in their terms. Fox restructured the housing system, ending upperclass housing in the Yard, during his first semester as dean. And Ernest R. May--who served as Dean of the College for just two years--had to deal with the tensions of the 1969 University Hall takeover from his first day on the job.
Fox suggests it is typical for administrators to spend some time playing preserver or slowly implementing policy rather than always trying to innovate.
"There isn't necessarily a single style to a single executive," Fox says. "Most people in responsible positions have to have several different ways of contributing to the agency or whatever they're responsible for."
"He was very active at the outset," Fox adds. "He may be active again after the glass on Radcliffe clears."
Three Quiet Years
Lewis, however, says he has not changed his goals or focus since he assumed the position of Dean of the College. And of the initiatives he outlined in the Maull-Lewis report just before entering the deanship, the most controversial issues were dealt with early on.
Over the past three years, he has spent much of his time working on some of the less dramatic recommendations of the report.
"He did take that report to be a tentative plan for what he's done," Maull says.
"He's been very self-conscious about, in some of his work, taking the recommendations of that report--trying them out, testing them, seeing if they work," she adds.
Lewis wrote in an e-mail message that the report "wasn't a blueprint of a checklist, but few people could have ever gone into an office like this with more detailed notice of how their minds work!"
Both Maull and Lewis point to some of his initiatives not discussed in the report--the status of women in the College and the appropriate place of athletics at Harvard, for example. But these, too, have been gradual initiatives which have had little direct impact on most undergraduates.
Still, while Lewis' recent pursuits lack what he calls "the lightning rod quality" of his early work, some say they helped restructure the administration for the better.
This year, Lewis eliminated the dean of students position, replacing it with an associate dean post he considered more appropriate for the responsibilities involved. As for the controversial PBH reorganization, administrators say this move helped make the administration of that organization more efficient.
Lewis says he has streamlined the College administrative structure, making the responsibilities associated with each position clear and holding administrators accountable.
"I've tried to get different parts of Harvard that are dealing with students to talk to each other," Lewis says. "A lot of this is gradual work."
Epps says Lewis' managerial methods have centralized his administrative authority.
"His management style is through the computer, tending to centralize authority more because he is able to communicate with so many people," Epps says.
"He will help complete the modernization of Harvard College," Epps adds.
Lewis himself says he takes particular pride in the appointments he has made, including an unusually large number of House masters and a handful of associate deans.
He also issued a report on advising and counseling which prompted some departments to change their advising systems but provoked no unilateral action.
Most recently, in the wake of the Radcliffe merger, Lewis has held fast to the idea that no programs open to only one gender will be permitted within the College--a move which Fox says is more consistent with being a conserver of the College's traditions than being an innovator.
But if the past three years have seen Lewis act more conservatively, focusing on gradual change and defending existing policies, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says this role is appropriate and important.
"As to style, I don't think that colleges respond so well to Grand Sweeping Statements (which...are often forgotten or lost after the rhetoric wears thin), but are actually improved by continual incremental changes," Knowles wrote in an e-mail message.
"For much of what we all do, whether it's recruiting new Faculty, renovating classrooms, or shaping the curriculum, improving a little every day can be a better strategy," Knowles added.
A Professor's Priorities
Student leaders say that Lewis' focus on education and academic life at Harvard have had a quiet influence over the success or failure of student-driven proposals.
A lifelong academic who studied his way to a summa cum laude College degree during the tumultuous '60s, Lewis says he evaluates all projects in light of their contribution to the College's educational mission.
"There are controversies all the time and I've always tried to address every one of these issues by pulling them back to `What is our educational mission here?'" Lewis says.
Lewis is the only one of seven deans of the College since the 1940s to also be a professional academic--the other was dean-professor May, who is now Warren Professor of American History.
Administrators say Lewis' professorial background makes it easier for him to interact with professors and students.
"He has a closer, grittier sense of what students' life is like as a consequence," Maull says.
"But while Lewis says his educational framework places value on activities that take place outside the classroom, he has not always seen eye-to-eye with students on the importance of social activity and quality-of-life concerns.
For example, while Epps and the undergraduate Council championed the idea of a new student center, Lewis committed to satisfying groups' office space by finding space in existing building--a proposal which would provide office space to extracurricular groups but offer little social space.
"If Dean Epps ran the show--Dean Lewis would probably laugh at this, but--we might have a student center," Seton says.
And while Seton says Lewis is responsive to the council, he added that when he doesn't see eye-to-eye with the group, their proposals have little chance of success.
"His position certainly has an impact on the things that the council wants to do that need administrative approval," Seton says.
"If he's working on advising and we're working on it, then we're in an advantaged position," he explains. "On the other side, when we want a student center and he's not interested, that puts us in a disadvantaged position."
Subtle influence aside, the priorities high on Lewis' agenda nowadays are unlikely to match the controversy of his earlier term.
He says improving Harvard's advising system, changing the role of women in the College, greater support for extracurriculars and the "good functioning of the Houses" are four of his most important concerns.
"I do think that issues relating to the ways students and faculty interact are going to take a longer time to improve," Lewis added in an e-mail message.
These issues may also prove more intractable.
Any across-the-board advising change, for example, would have to go through the full Faculty, and longstanding tradition allows departments to dictate their own advising policy--so while Lewis says his report has raised awareness of the advising issue, it has not yet produced large-scale changes.
A Teacher First and Foremost
Although Lewis says he does not know how long he will continue on as dean, he says he still considers himself more of a professor than an administrator.
"I still identify myself as a computer scientist and a teacher," he says. "I get the most satisfaction out of my work with individual students."
Lewis has taught a computer science course--Computer Science 121, "Introduction to Formal Systems and Computation"--every year throughout his term.
"Absolutely the best part of the week is the three hours I'm working with students," he says. "I consider myself a teacher first and foremost before any of those other roles."
The Maull-Lewis report endorses the idea of Faculty working in the administration--its fifth recommendation is that the dean of the Faculty "recognize the various benefits of having professors serve, even part-time and briefly, in the administration of the Faculty."
But it also suggests that those Faculty members may serve the University best by spending several years in the administration and then returning to teaching.
"In serving under the dean of Faculty for a few years and returning to their departments to take up teaching and research, faculty would bring to their colleagues a better sense of the rationale and process for administrative decisions which affect them," the report says.
Lewis says he has not planned ahead far enough to tell when he will leave the deanship or what he will do.
"I am not a person who looks far into the future," he wrote. "I think the most interesting things in life are unexpected."
But Lewis, who has repeatedly refused to "personalize" his accomplishments, which he says are a result of a team effort, says he does not think he will settle into his administrative post permanently, as Epps did.
"Most of what's happened here is the work of lots of other people and not mine personally," Lewis says. "And I have other things to do."