All Good Things

After eight years of service, Lewis' rocky tenure leaves an enviable legacy for the College

On Valentine’s Day 1995, The Crimson Staff sent a message to then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles that was anything but loving. Knowles had just chosen a man to fill the newly-revitalized position of Dean of Harvard College. He was a pudgy, balding computer science professor named Harry R. Lewis ’68. The Crimson had “serious reservations,” questioning Lewis’ “commitment to openness and candor, two characteristics that any good Dean of the College must have.” By appointing such a man, The Crimson charged that Knowles was “hopelessly and unapologetically out-of-touch.”

Thank goodness Knowles was. Openness and candor are, indeed, vital qualities for any dean; Lewis had them in spades. He also had any number of other traits that suited him for the job which he fashioned and to which he devoted eight hard years: vigor, thoroughness, determination, passion, intelligence and, above all, an overriding commitment to the idea that Harvard should be preeminent in every area, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Lewis’ deanship, though, was anything but calm. Soon after taking office, he oversaw the consolidation of the Phillips Brooks House, angering many in Harvard’s social services community with his autocratic management style and draconian reforms. Lewis was the driving force behind the randomization of upper class housing, a move which has won plaudits from many, but which Lewis himself has said he suspects would be instantly overturned in a student referendum. Many of Lewis’ more minor reforms have also aroused the ire of the student body, most recently the ban on kegs at Harvard’s home games.

Throughout his tenure, however, Lewis has borne the frequent complaints—both from The Crimson and from undergraduates in general—with a mixture of good humor and close attention to detail. He has not hesitated to justify his decisions, frequently shooting off e-mails to students in the middle of the night to answer their questions or correct their misapprehensions. His efforts to improve students’ lives were, quite literally, tireless.

Now, after eight years, Lewis is moving on, albeit unwillingly. The manner of Lewis’ departure was deeply unsettling. He was unceremoniously elbowed aside by Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby and, many say, University President Lawrence H. Summers. These administrators’ claims that Lewis was removed solely to provide increasing administrative efficiency ring hollow. After all, it was Lewis who had initially proposed the consolidation of the offices of the Dean of the College and the Dean of Undergraduate Education back in 1994.

Neither Kirby nor Summers has yet offered a convincing explanation for why Lewis was not considered suitable for the new role. Nor will they. For Lewis was a man who was never afraid to ruffle feathers—and with his spirited defense of the potential roles at Harvard for varsity athletics and other areas of extracurricular pursuit, he seems to have angered the wrong people for his own self-preservation. Certainly, numerous University Hall sources have detailed serious disagreements between Lewis and Summers. Although neither man will yet confirm this to be true, one cannot escape the nagging fear that a personality clash has resulted in the firing—for firing it was—of one of Harvard’s strongest student advocates.

Regardless, the new uber-dean will be Benedict H. Gross ’71. His powers will be sweeping, but his responsibilities will be vast. He will oversee the first major curricular review in a quarter-century, while at the same time ensuring the smooth functioning of the day-to-day services which help to make Harvard socially bearable as well as academically stimulating. Whether one man will be able to focus simultaneously on, say, both renovating House gyms and redesigning concentration requirements is yet to be seen.

If, though, Gross is keen to succeed, he could do worse than look to his predecessor (and good friend) for both philosophical inspiration and practical consultation. Lewis’ ousting was shabby and regrettable; it is now Gross’ responsibility to ensure that Lewis’ legacy of responsiveness to the whole range of student concerns outlasts his period in office. It is a mighty challenge for Gross—and one at which he cannot afford to fail.