A Worthy Adversary

When I joined The Crimson’s editorial board seven years ago, one might have thought that Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 was Public Enemy Number One. We criticized his every decision and opinion, ranging from his revised alcohol policies to his views on randomization and the structure of the Philip Brooks House Association. Though we acknowledged at one point that “it may be wrong to pin blame for all the evils of the world on Dean Lewis,” (Editorial, Sept. 17, 1996) at times it certainly seemed that The Crimson thought that most of the evil lay at his feet.

The strident rhetoric faded somewhat as The Crimson and the dean got used to each other, but it would be fair to say that there was little on which we ever agreed. To be sure, we occasionally praised Lewis, whether for his consistent efforts to focus the Faculty’s attention on the deplorable state of advising in many departments or his support of equal treatment for women at the College, not only on our diplomas but in our day-to-day lives—yet such praise was rare compared to the criticism. Thus, when Lewis was forced out of office this March, it might have seemed odd that The Crimson’s editorial headline read “Lewis Deserved Better.” Though long since retired from the editorial board, I would guess that two related reasons lay behind that choice of headline, one journalistic and one Harvard-focused.

First, Crimson writers struggle every day with the challenge of trying to be professional reporters covering an organization—Harvard—that controls their existence as undergraduate students while administrators and professors often treat student journalists as if they were “playing” at a trivial pastime. Despite his differences with the organization’s editorial positions, Lewis never failed to treat The Crimson as a serious newspaper. As has been reported elsewhere in these pages, he would respond—sometimes at great length—to e-mail inquiries of all sorts, at all hours. He didn’t always tell us what we wanted to know (particularly about the inner workings of the Ad Board), but he would tell us quite directly that he was unwilling to share the information and why. If we got something wrong, we heard about it; when we got something particularly right, we heard about that too. Regarding issues on which reasonable people could disagree, he seemed to revel in the chance to conduct debates back and forth with us, and though he rarely yielded his position, he was willing to acknowledge the strength of opposing viewpoints. Interacting with Lewis sometimes made us want to tear our hair out, but the number and quality of our exchanges helped our work immensely. Over his eight years as dean, Lewis was a worthy adversary for The Crimson, and perhaps the headline in that March editorial reflects the grudging respect that the paper has come to have for him.

The second reason for the headline grows from the first. With Lewis’ dismissal, The Crimson not only lost a formidable opponent and reliable on-the-record source but also witnessed the beginning of a new regime in the College administration, one in which information is sparsely given and priorities will be markedly different. It is too soon to tell what repercussions will result from the restructuring of the College deanship to encompass both its old duties and the curricular obligations of the dean of undergraduate education. But there is enough reason to be concerned because, two months after Lewis’ abrupt removal, we still don’t know what the plan is for University Hall’s new structure.

On the one hand, we knew that when Larry met Harry, it wouldn’t necessarily be a romance. Thus, it is quite possible that Lewis’ departure was sparked only by University President Lawrence H. Summers’ desire to staff the administration with “his own” people, a common move by new managers in any organization (but one sometimes handled with more grace than we saw here). On the other hand, the restructuring might reflect a more fundamental philosophical change, reshaping the administration to focus more on academics—Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby have publicly encouraged Harvard students to pay even greater attention to their studies than they already do—and less on extracurricular activities. Lewis, a summa graduate of the College and McKay professor of computer science, somehow managed also to be a noted patron of the athletic program and worked extensively with student groups. The truth is doubtless a combination of both: Summers might have taken issue with Lewis precisely because the dean was advocating such a different vision of the College from that of the president. But unless the new administration is clearer about its motives and goals, students, faculty and staff (to say nothing of donating alumni) will continue to worry about the direction of the College.

That worry is well-founded not just because of the complete absence of concrete information and community input but also because of the tone of the actions taken to remove Lewis. Even his most adamant critics cannot dispute that Lewis was devoted to his job, to his students and to the University. He worked ceaselessly to make the College a better place, and he was dismissed without the honor that should be accorded a lifelong, distinguished servant of Harvard. For Crimson reporters and the Harvard community in general, it is hard to expect respect and honesty from an administration that does not appear to treat its own members with the same.

Next year, The Crimson will begin covering a new dean of Harvard College. As Lewis returns to teaching full-time, The Crimson’s pages from the past eight years, critical as they have often been, will nonetheless reflect the legacy of commitment and care he gave to the office. They will also remind his successors just how hard they will have to work in order to follow him. To paraphrase one of the dean’s favorite authors: He has done the state some service, and we know it.

Susannah B. Tobin ’00, a second-year student at Harvard Law School and resident tutor in Leverett House, was editorial chair of The Crimson in 1999.