The College's Missing Dean
One year ago, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 announced that the dean of students position, formerly held by Archie C. Epps III, would be dissolved, the duties divided among three associate deans of the College. Intended to reflect a changing administrative structure, the decision represented the removal of the only administrative position that, by natural consequence, was intimately concerned with students' social experiences. Although it is too early to judge how well the new associate deans have adapted to the administrative gap left by Epps, it is clear that students will remain underprioritized.
Most of Epps' responsibilities have fallen on the shoulders of David P. Illingworth '71, the new associate dean of the College for extracurricular activities. As is to be expected of someone who has only been on the job for six months, Illingworth has kept a low profile, absorbing information from students and Faculty while avoiding any articulation of broad policies or long-term visions. By most accounts, he is a friendly and down-to-earth administrator who is eager to make the most of his position.
The problem, however, is that Illingworth is not a dean of students. He is an associate dean responsible for one segment of one part of student life. He reports to a dean who is responsible for the whole of the College and whose position makes it impractical for him to regard student interests as his chief priority. The administrative gap that exists in between is quite large. And while the dean of students once helped to fill that gap, the current administration seems content to look the other way.
If classes and student groups constituted the whole of the Harvard experience, we'd all complain a little less and sleep a lot more. But Harvard students, not unlike other college students, lead complicated lives. As Lewis is fond of saying, students can build these lives around both College institutions as well around personal relationships that have nothing to do with Harvard. Consequently, Lewis argues, the College's role in student life should be to support "localized efforts based around residential or extracurricular life."
To some extent, Lewis is right--students should not rely solely on the College to provide social experiences. Nor should the College dictate to students how to live their lives outside the classroom. But having an administrator who is responsible solely for student life does not necessarily signify a move toward paternalism. Instead it will better equip the administration to deal with the student life issues that are presently ignored.
It is not the College's role to tell students how involved they should be in student organizations, how to choose their blockmates or how to spend their Friday nights. But this does not preclude the administration from appointing someone who can objectively observe how these decisions are made and determine if students are unhappy with the choices presented to them. If, for example, the students spent all of their spare time surfing the web, alone in dark rooms, one hopes the College would take notice. And if students were doing so because they were frustrated with the lack of other options available to them, one hopes that there would be an administrator whose job it would be to realize this and provide a framework for students to choose other types of social interaction. Students don't want their social lives to be handed to them by the College, but they deserve an adequate structure on which healthy student life can be built.
Certainly, localized residential or extracurricular efforts are one part of this structure. But there are other parts that are equally important. The College has, in the past, vocally condemned the final clubs because they are sexist and promote a dangerous atmosphere. If, despite this condemnation, large numbers of students choose to make these institutions a central part of their weekend experience at Harvard, a serious problem exists. Without an administrator in charge of student life, though, the College must rely on primarily passive means.
We need an administrator who will make it a priority to find ways to limit the disproportionate and destructive influence of final clubs. We need an administrator who can objectively consider--in the face of administrative opposition--the solution of building a student center or loosening the currently stifling rules regarding curfew and gatherings in student rooms. We need an administrator who realizes that extracurricular activities are but one of the many avenues available to students to spend their free time.
While we have not always agreed with Epps' policies, the former dean of students was a self-described "free-ranging citizen" whose position was defined as student-centered. A dean of the College might not be so concerned with what can be termed the "social health" of students. And unless things change, no one else will.