Gross Stretches to Prepare for New Roles

On a chaotic afternoon on the fifth floor of the Science Center, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 holds his office hours as a tenured mathematics professor.

A film crew from Hong Kong—in Cambridge to film a documentary on award-winning Graustein Professor of Mathematics Shing-Tung Yau—stands impatiently in the hallway waiting to interview Gross, while another of Gross’ colleagues, Cabot Professor of Natural Sciences Curtis T. McMullen is at the blackboard, excitedly discussing elliptical curve differentials.

Gross, unphased by the tumult of his office, listens attentively to his fellow professor, ushers the film crew through the narrow doorway, takes a phone call, prints his schedule and finishes his blueberry yogurt without a hint of stress or panic.

This is typical for Gross, whose demeanor more closely resembles that of the cardigan-wearing, soft spoken, fondly remembered third grade teacher than a man who constantly juggles the titles professor, adviser, dean and dad.

In July, he will take on yet another set of duties.

Gross is slated to assume responsibility for all aspects of students’ lives—from academics and extracurriculars to parties and discipline—in a newly revamped post that will combine his current office with that of the dean of Harvard College.

True to character, Gross is taking a hands-on approach to figuring out how to combine the two roles.

This spring he added sporting events, student performances and meetings with the Administrative Board to a schedule already filled by appointments with professors, discussions about the freshman seminar program and planning sessions for next year’s curricular review.

And during breaks he managed to eat lunch with his son, dine with University President Lawrence H. Summers, and defend four math Ph.D. theses.

As his responsibilities accrue, some question whether Gross is spreading himself too thin.

“I have a lot to do,” he admits.

But if his schedule is any indication, Gross likes trying to do it all.

“There’s only way to learn about these things and that’s to go,” Gross says.

Down the Hall

Gross stands before a room of nine other math professors to defend the doctoral thesis of graduate student Martin H. Weisman, which he supervised.

Mathematics is the only department in which it is customary for professors to personally defend the doctoral theses of the students they oversee.

Weisman’s thesis is on “The Fourier-Jacobi Map and Small Representations.”

While his colleagues sit in attentive silence, Gross writes formulae across the full expanse of the blackboard, explaining the obscurities of principle homomorphisms as if he were discussing the weather. It’s a topic he knows well—he was, after all, cited in the thesis’ bibliography.

Gross, quite simply, loves math.

“It is a beautiful world in which to retreat and to imagine,” he says.

It is a world in which Gross has excelled.

As a summa cum laude math concentrator at Harvard, he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and won a Marshall Scholarship that allowed him to earn his Masters of Science from Oxford University. He then returned to the University to get his Ph.D.

After earning his stripes teaching at both Princeton and Brown, Harvard’s math department offered him tenure in 1985—and he accepted. He won the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant” a year later. This fall, Kirby appointed him dean of undergraduate education, and Gross acquired a new office on the first-floor corner of University Hall.

Despite the accomplishments and accolades, Gross is casual to the core.

Dressing typically in khakis and a button-down shirt, Gross seems to disdain ties.

“My future is not going to be as a TV star,” he told the film crew that interviewed him for the documentary about his colleague.

Across the Yard

Just hours after the film crew leaves his office, Gross departs the Science Center for an open question-and-answer forum for students and faculty hosted by the members of the Leaning committee—which had just released the findings of its year-long review of sexual assault policy at Harvard. Gross is the lone dean at the meeting, seated comfortably in an armchair in the first row.

Socially, Gross falls back upon a series of signature mannerisms. When he listens to people talk in large settings—such as at Faculty meetings or, in this case, in Boylston Hall—he sits slightly slumped, with his head cradled in his right hand, eyes slightly shut.

“Is he sleeping?” Somebody whispers audibly from the back of the room. Considering the demands of his schedule, it wouldn’t be surprising if he were, but at the end of the meeting, it becomes clear that this is how he listens best, soaking up the conversation around him, synthesizing, adding things up.

As audience members pose questions to the Leaning committee, Gross does not say a word. But afterwards, he mingles and answers questions from students—who are slowly beginning to recognize his face.

Gross already has some thoughts on implementing the Leaning committee’s recommendations. He says he strongly agrees with the proposal to centralize the resources offered by the College—“There are too many go-to numbers”—and its suggestion to appoint a “single fact finder” to oversee all allegations of sexual assault.

The results of the Leaning committee have also brought to his attention the problems of social space and alcohol at the College.

Harvard students are not engaging in responsible social behavior, Gross says. “We absolutely need to establish an alcohol program—the problem with alcohol here is gigantic,” he says. “It is illegal to drink here in Boston, but we can’t pretend that there won’t be alcohol at parties. When you go to UHS, the disaster has already happened. We need to do education and training.”

The problem is structural, as well, according to Gross.

“There needs to be more communal student space,” he says, adding that students face a “1 a.m. choice”—the decision of what to do when officially sanctioned parties end.

This summer, Gross will meet with current Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and University Provost Steven E. Hyman to further discuss how the administration should approach this issue.

At the Theater

On a warm, breezy Saturday evening, Gross pauses on the lawn of Radcliffe Yard to chat with students. He and his wife are on their way to attend the Harvard Ballet Company’s “Once Upon a Time: An Evening of Fairy Tales” at the Rieman Dance Center.

Gross has devoted much of this spring to getting a feel for student extracurricular life.

In addition to the ballet, Gross and his wife also caught part of the tennis team’s championship tournament against Brown and watched a student performance of the musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Gross, who during his undergraduate years played viola in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and in the pit for a few student musicals—says that he considers student activities to be as important as academic pursuits.

“Extracurriculars are an essential part of the Harvard experience and a Harvard education. It’s part of our culture,” Gross says. “It’s what you don’t learn in the classroom. Those kinds of skills are just as important to learn in college as biology or medieval European literature.”

But several of the spaces in which students participate in these extracurricular activities are in danger of disappearing.

“We’ve lost a lot of fabulous student space,” Gross says. “It really affects the way students interact.”

Gross has also stated a firm commitment to improving student space at Harvard. Specifically, he laments the loss of theater and dance space—including Rieman—to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “They’ll put it to great use, it’s a great institution, but we need more dance space,” he says.

Gross acknowledges that it’s a complicated problem.

“My hope is that Dean [Drew Gilpin] Faust will give us more time to do construction, once we identify potential dance and theater sites, by giving us an additional year or two of the use of the Rieman and Agassiz [theaters],” he says.

He says he and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby are also looking into what they can do about the Hasty Pudding building, a space long used by the social club and theatricals which bear its name. Kirby and Gross say the building needs renovation desperately, going so far as to describe the building as “condemned.”

Finally, as the University discusses how to best use its newly acquired land in Watertown and Allston, Gross says that he is strongly opposed to the suggestion of relocating the College’s athletic facilities to make way for one of the professional schools to move across the river.

“I don’t want athletes to have to take buses to get to their athletic facilities,” he says. “We can’t put our space out in Allston or Watertown because students won’t go there.”

At the Faculty Club

One pleasant Monday afternoon, the dean entertains several professors at an informal luncheon at the Faculty Club to discuss the freshman seminar program. The conversation, though awkward at first, soon relaxes as Gross invites the professors to talk about “what’s working, what’s not and what’s bad.”

“Let’s get to know one another,” he suggests.

Soon, the conversation turns into a liberal exchange of ideas and reflections on the professors’ experiences.

Seated at the head of the table, leaning back with hands folded in front of him, Gross presides over the casual conversation, nods, smiles and frowns while professors—from Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn to Beneficial Professor of Law Charles Fried—voice their suggestions for the program. Their ideas range from creating a more efficient application process to attracting more top professors.

Gross’ down-to-earth manner serves him well when dealing with other Faculty members.

When he agrees with a speaker, he presses his eyes closed and nods ardently.

When he gets worked up explaining something, he talks to his hands: holding them up like conflicting choices, he looks from one to the other as if trying to decide, eyebrows knitted, shoulders tensed.

Gross does like to talk: sometimes he can cut peoples’ thoughts short when he thinks they’ve misunderstood him, or when he is so excited about a subject he can’t hold back his ideas.

Gross is very at home discussing academic matters, as a man who has spent most of his life learning and teaching. And though he is taking on new responsibilities, he says undergraduate education will remain a central focus of his deanship.

In the Office

Back at University Hall, Gross meets Executive Dean of the Faculty Nancy L. Maull to discuss the restructuring of the College administration.

Maull is leading a committee that was appointed by Kirby in March after he made the decision to merge the offices of dean of the College and dean of undergraduate education.

Gross says he is taking the opportunity to work with the committee to help to shape the new position so as to best fit his interests.

“I need to think about what will work for me. One advantage of restructuring after I know that I have the position is that I get to consider what suits me best in terms of structure.”

The lingering question is whether the man who can explain Heisenberg parabolics like a recipe for chocolate cake will be able to fulfill the disparate demands of his new job.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do [all the responsibilities] in the same way Lewis does,” Gross says. “I will have to delegate. Personal contact is essential for establishing a level of trust, but I can’t be everywhere at once.”

Gross has already made it clear that leading the curricular review is one of his chief priorities, and thus he is not likely to be as involved in overseeing the nitty-gritty details of student life as his predecessor.

“I am planning to lead the Ad Board the first year,” Gross says. “I’m new, I have to learn about it, see how it works myself, meet the senior tutors, see how the Leaning committee will affect it.”

But he adds that he’s not sure what leadership role he will play after the first year.

Gross says he is also considering creating a dean for student life under his office.

Even if he delegates, Gross will have to balance with substantial care the sometimes conflicting demands of students, faculty members and administrators.

Lewis had a reputation for taking a hard line on initiatives he felt were important to the college. But it was sometimes unclear how much weight Lewis carried with the Faculty and the administration.

The temperate math professor obviously brings a different style to the position.

While it’s too early to say which leadership technique will ultimately prove more effective, Gross does have a high-placed ally in matters dealing with the rest of the University.

Summers and Gross play tennis together every other week.

“I met President Summers when he came here,” says Gross, who plays tennis three to four times a week. “I had heard that he plays tennis. I took one look at him and said, ‘Hmmm. Maybe doubles.’”

But Summers has proven himself a worthy opponent—and, perhaps more importantly, Gross seems to have proven himself worthy to Summers. The two regularly share meals.

This regular access to the president may make Gross a more effective advocate for the interests of students and the College.

On the Highway

In an effort to further acquaint himself with the nuts and bolts of College administration, Gross will this summer undergo the same training process that new House masters and senior tutors must go through to learn how to handle the lives of the students they oversee.

But Gross may soon understand more intimately the intricacies of modern-day undergraduate life.

His son Isaac, 18, will matriculate at Brown University next fall.

Gross, when not attending tennis matches, meetings and dinners at the president’s house, can zip down to Providence in his energy-efficient car—a mid-life crisis purchase, he admits.

Gross doesn’t have much time for his cronies in the math department these days—and they don’t let him forget it.

“It’s always ‘Can you come back? I’m too busy right now,’” McMullen quips.

“They’re always giving me grief for being a dean,” Gross rejoins.

Gross isn’t complaining—yet.

But he did just buy a palm pilot.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at robrien@fas.harvard.edu.