Lewis Departure May Mean Shift in College’s Priorities

Yesterday’s ouster of Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and the reorganization that it accompanies may signal a change in the College’s priorities—shifting emphasis to academics at the price of extracurricular activities.

Gone will be Lewis, who stresses extracurricular activity as the major strength of the College, and subsumed will be his top-level position, which was solely responsible for non-academic matters.

University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said the reorganization decision was Kirby’s alone. But with Lewis gone, Summers will have an administration united behind his goals for revamping the College.

According to a number of observers, Lewis has clashed with Summers in the year-and-a-half the president has been in office. The issues, one official said, have been “partly style and partly substance.”

On style, disputes arose as a highly assertive president, who arrived on a pledge to be more involved with undergraduates, ran into a dean of the College used to getting things his way.

“Summers thought that Lewis worked for him, and Lewis thought of himself as more of an independent dean and Faculty member,” one official said.

On substance, they often took opposing views on the balance between extracurricular and academic life.

Lewis’ letters to incoming first-years have consistently given equal emphasis to these two faces of the College.

More recently, in a February memo Lewis wrote to those heading up the curricular review—including Summers and Kirby—he offered a scathing indictment of the view that increasing intellectual rigor ought to be the priority in revamping the College experience.

Statistics and alumni reports show that what students remember about their time at Harvard is nonacademic life, Lewis wrote.

Potential employers often show “limited interest” in academic records, and focus instead on qualities derived from their activities outside of class.

Efforts to channel students’ interests in extracurriculars back into academia would be a mistake, Lewis wrote. The Faculty’s decision last year to reinforce what Lewis called “scholarly individualism” through limiting honors was problematic as well.

Summers, on the other hand, has said that undergraduate life is not sufficiently intellectual and has spoken out on the need to combat runaway grade and honors inflation.

He talks about the need for students to take advantage of more “capstone” intellectual endeavors, like theses.

In Kirby, Summers has an ideological soulmate.

Kirby called on students to prioritize their studies in a speech to incoming first-years last fall.