Council Worries About Future Without Lewis

At a Committee on House Life meeting last fall, Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 sparred over whether House committees would be allowed to hold events at clubs.

“We yell at each other all the time,” Chopra says. “He’s a worthy adversary.”

The debate between the dean and the council president underscores an important relationship between undergraduate leadership and the power structure of the University that has marked Lewis’ tenure.

As dean, Lewis has nurtured a close though occasionally rocky relationship with council leaders—both officially, serving as the group’s faculty advisor, and unofficially, often working with council leaders behind the scenes to direct their efforts.

Lewis’ unexpected ouster leaves the council leaders worrying that they won’t have the administrative conduit and open ear that, many say, has facilitated the groups rise to greater legitimacy over the past few years.

“To some extent [Lewis’] willingness to respect us as a representative body and to discuss his decisions with us has given the U.C. more legitimacy,” says Matthew W. Mahan ’05, chair of the council’s Student Affairs Committee.

Council members say Lewis helped make possible an overarching shift in the council’s major goals—away from activism on national and international issues and towards student services—which may not have worked as effectively without a powerful administrative liaison.

While the council in the spring of 1999 fought over bills endorsing same-sex marriage legislation and urging the University to divest from companies like and Exxon, Chevron and Mobil, today’s council’s biggest debates are over things like funding for student groups.

Lewis has been willing to engage in what Chopra calls “the small issues close to students,” such as extended party hours and later keycard access to all of Harvard’s houses—both initiatives which Lewis helped implement.

“[Lewis] has been tireless in trying to understand the issues and to be responsive,” says Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71, who will assume Lewis’ position and its council responsibilities, says that he will “keep contact with the U.C. at a high level.”

“Making sure that student voices will be heard, and their concerns addressed, is in the forefront of my mind,” Gross writes in an e-mail.

But council leaders have voiced concerns that Gross will be overstretched, particularly due to his commitment to curricular review.

“The challenge will be as to whether [Gross] can direct enough attention to the things that this current structure allowed,” says Chopra, who adds that he is “generally worried about the direction the administration is going.”

“I’m concerned that there will be no faculty member dedicated solely to non-academic life,” Chopra says.

Chopra says he is confident that the new administration will listen to the council, but is unsure whether their priorities will reflect the issues students care about.

Former Council President Paul A. Gusmorino ’02—widely regarded as a leader in the council’s shift towards student services—says that the attention Lewis gave the group was a key part of making the council relevant.

“The danger is that there won’t be a major figure in University Hall thinking deeply and broadly about the holistic undergraduate experience,” Gusmorino says. “The U.C. needs to be particularly vigilant.”

Council member Jason L. Lurie ’05 says he is worried that a dean with increased focus on academic life will weaken the council’s role.

“I’m concerned about the future of the council,” he says.

Lewis’ relationship with the council, now spanning nearly eight years, has not always been smooth.

Indeed, Lewis began his term as dean with a series of changes to college life to which students were largely opposed.

In his first six months as dean, Lewis randomized the housing lottery, reorganized public service at the College and effected a more stringent alcohol policy, all of which sparked criticism from student leaders.

In 1999, council leaders opposed Lewis’ decision to cut the size of blocking groups from sixteen to eight.

More recently, Lewis’ decision to ban kegs at Harvard athletic events came under vicious student criticism.

“He could sometimes be brash,” says council member Alexander B. Patterson ’03.

Patterson recalls that he wrote Lewis a letter to complain about what Patterson says were Lewis’ abrupt answers to student questions at a council meeting last year.

“He sent me an e-mail back and took me out to lunch, to try to explain himself and his style,” he says.

Despite occassional conflicts, council leaders credit Lewis for his willingness to take on the minutiae of undergraduate life.

“I think it’s true that Rohit and his predecessors all had easy access to me,” says Lewis, who admits with a laugh that he wasn’t aware until recently that he is officially the council’s faculty advisor.

Lewis describes his role for the council as twofold. One facet, he says, is education. Lewis says he tries to point council leaders in the right direction as they attempt to muster an effective voice for students—“how to make the best argument for things that are important.”

Anticipating criticisms and weeding out possible weaknesses in their arguments, students are more likely to reach real change, Lewis says.

Second, Lewis says he works to ensure that student voice is seriously considered by administrators. When students have advanced a coherent, thoughtful argument, Lewis says, “the responsible thing to do is to respond in kind.”

“On issues where we’ve worked with students in the U.C. over the last few years, it has been a very constructive voice,” Lewis adds.

And now, as Lewis’ departure looms, council members say a powerful administrative voice may be lost will be lost.

“I believe [Lewis] really cares about student life, which is not the case with all administrators,” Lurie says.

—Staff writer William B. Higgins can be reached at whiggins@fas.harvard.edu.