While Lewis had wanted to celebrate his friends’ faithful service throughout the years, the gathering became a wry tribute to Lewis himself when Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes took the microphone and addressed those in attendance.
He called the assembly of deans, professors and administrators “a circus tent full of poo-bahs and elephants and charlatans.”
“And for eight years, you presided over this menagerie,” he said to Lewis.
Gomes said that when he considered Lewis’ last year in office, he was reminded of hostile invaders threatening to overtake Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries.
“I think of Harry as our Charlemagne, and I worry for the future of Europe,” he said.
With rhetorical flourish, Gomes implied that, like the Holy Roman Empire after Charlemagne’s death, the College may falter next year with Lewis’ departure. Gomes’ concern for the future of the College without its leader—“Harry the First,” as he later called him—is a sentiment expressed by many.
Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announced during March that Lewis would not continue as dean after June 30. The ouster was part of a merger between the offices of the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Dean of the College.
According to Kirby’s plan, Lewis would have no place in this new structure—and was not considered for the combined deanship, which instead fell to Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71.
While the University’s press release announcing the change simply stated that Lewis would “conclude his service as dean of Harvard College” at the end of the year, Lewis by all accounts did not want to leave.
Several administrators say Kirby had wanted the press release to state that Lewis had resigned, but Lewis refused.
“There was a lot of pressure on him to lie,” says one longtime administrator. “More disturbing was the expectation that he would dissimulate or mislead in the press release about the circumstances of his leaving.”
Another administrator, though, says Lewis was not asked to resign.
Both Lewis and Kirby declined to comment on the matter.
The controversy surrounding Lewis’ dismissal—and the provocative analogies in Gomes’ speech—reveals the strong feelings Lewis has engendered in students, faculty members and administrators over the past eight years.
From his decision to randomize the housing assignments in his first year, to his support of the revised Ad Board procedure for peer dispute cases last year, Lewis has not shied away from tackling controversial or touchy issues.