Gross Finds Post Overwhelming

After hectic first year as dean of the College, structure changes again

A toothbrush and toothpaste stand sentry at the back door of the office of Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71, a testament to the long hours spent poring over reports and research on matters of undergraduate life.

He keeps his slim leather briefcase in a plush blue chair by his door, ready to run out to the many meetings that dominate his day, or to tread the familiar path to the offices of the mathematics department in the Science Center.

The office windows look out across the Yard to Mass. Hall, which houses the office of his boss and regular tennis partner, University President Lawrence H. Summers.

Though Summers and Gross teamed up on the tennis court last month to deal a decisive defeat to two Crimson editors, the dean has had little time to practice his forehand this past year—a year jam-packed with new responsibilities and the exigencies of skill acquisition for his new job.

Last March, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby tapped Gross to take the helm of a revamped College administration, replacing former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, who was ousted in the restructuring.

The new arrangement combined two previously distinct offices: one overseeing academic affairs, the other handling non-curricular matters. Gross, who came from the former of those two offices, assumed responsibility for all facets of the undergraduate experience.

Depending on whom you ask, the restructuring may or may not have been an administrative move. Several officials at the time said personal incompatibilities with Lewis were the primary purpose for the restructuring. In contrast, Kirby said bureaucratic streamlining and preparation for the curricular review were the reasons for the change.

Regardless of the rationale, Gross has always insisted that the curricular review—the most expansive in 25 years—was the top priority of his deanship. He could not have anticipated many of the other pressing concerns that have sprung up this year.

The second suicide at Harvard in two years shook the College.

Gross found himself in constant dialogue with one of the most active Undergraduate Councils in recent memory.

He navigated University Hall through a national controversy when two students sought approval for a sex magazine.

He oversaw the activity of three new committees examining aspects of student life.

As responsibilities—both foreseen and unexpected—piled up, Gross and his colleagues realized the enormity of the duties he had undertaken as dean. The responsibilities have proved too much for one person.

Things would have to change.

With the appointment of Patricia O’Brien as deputy dean of the College one week ago, oversight of all the College’s facets will be meted out to two deans.

After the abrupt consolidation of the deanship a year ago, the administrative split is back.

AMBITIOUS BEGINNINGS

When Gross took on the combined deanship, he was a novice in the College bureaucracy—he had only become dean of undergraduate education in fall 2002.

Despite his inexperience, Gross was effectively charged with a set of tasks overwhelming enough to daunt even the most industrious: juggling the responsibilities of two deans while streamlining the bureaucracy, managing several lower-ranking deans and maintaining oversight of 6,500 college students.

And that wasn’t all.

Gross was also one of three top administrators heading the College’s first major curricular review in 25 years, announced by Kirby in 2001. Gross joined Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz (who had worked under Gross as an associate dean of undergraduate education) and Kirby in coordinating the review’s subcommittees and sitting on the steering committee.

Gross, who has also been a tenured professor in the math department since 1985, had his plate full with what was effectively three full-time jobs.

He has had to work hard to manage what some called his new “über-deanship.”

“I realized earlier in the year that the job I was taking on was my job from last year, Dean Lewis’ job from last year, and the curricular review,” Gross says, “and that was just too much.”

He says the most difficult part of his first year has been deciding how to split his time between the curricular review, standing College committees such as committees on House and College life, and “getting to know enough students so that I really have an informed opinion about what the heck is going on.”

Gross has coped in part by delegating duties. He appointed several individuals to top College administrative posts last summer. Now, all the offices in University Hall are full, with many of their occupants newcomers to the building—just as Gross was.

SUPER MAN

The curricular review—the hallmark of this year’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) administration—has consumed 20 to 30 percent of Gross’ time, he says.

In any given week, he will attend steering committee meetings, consult with members of the Faculty, meet with Kirby and Wolcowitz, solicit students’ opinions in the Houses and read stacks of research about the curricula at peer institutions.

Gross says that though he expected the curricular review to be a primary focus for the year, it has surpassed his projections.

“Both Dean Kirby and I have been surprised at how much time it takes, and effort,” Gross says of the project.

Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature William Mills Todd III, who preceded Gross as dean of undergraduate education, said last spring that Gross’ job would be nearly impossible, given the combined deanships and the impending curricular review. Todd says now that Gross has exceeded his expectations.

As the curricular review enters a new stage next year, Gross will supervise four new committees to examine general education, the science curriculum, the Expository Writing program and the controversial proposal to assign first-year students to Houses upon their arrival at the College.

“I just have to devote more time to the curricular review—we’re entering a really interesting stage,” says Gross, who estimates that he will spend about half of his time next year on the endeavor.

Since Gross’ job combines both academic and student life commitments, the review will counterbalance a slew of non-curricular concerns.

He relishes the opportunity to stay in touch with undergraduates by teaching mathematics classes—next year, he will teach Math 122 and 123—and through meetings with student groups and at House gatherings.

But his time spent in the math department dwindled from almost 50 percent of his workweek last year to about 10 percent this year.

“I think it’s essential that those of us who are involved in this administration of the College are involved in the College, and I don’t want to lose that connection,” says Gross, adding that he wants to spend more time in the math department next year.

Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 says the time Gross spends with students is vital.“It’s important for him to keep his finger on the pulse and to keep his credibility, and enjoyment,” Dingman says.

Student affairs this year have provided more than ample opportunity for Gross to stay involved.

His office has coordinated the first major concerts on campus in years with the Undergraduate Council, helping to bring Guster and Busta Rhymes to Cambridge.

During his watch, a campus-wide debate raged over a referendum to increase the activities fee on students’ termbills from $35 to $75.

And in perhaps the most controversial move this year, the Committee on College Life—a student-faculty committee overseeing student groups—approved H Bomb Magazine, a publication about sex which features photographs of nude students. The approval of the magazine triggered a flurry of national media attention.

But Gross says it is neither the curricular review nor student interactions that take up the majority of his time. Rather, the majority of his days are spent in additional committee meetings and consultations with members of his staff.

Gross has embraced initiatives to reform various aspects of the undergraduate experience. He saw the freshman seminar program—of which he has been a longtime advocate—grow to its greatest number yet: 115 freshmen seminars will be offered this year. The curricular review report calls for enough seminars to accommodate all first-year students—130 freshman seminars will be needed, and Gross has said he is determined to attract top professors to the 15-person classes.

Confronting alcohol consumption was another top priority for Gross. One of his first endeavors was to assemble a committee, chaired by Currier House Master Joseph L. Badaracco, to investigate alcohol abuse at the College.

Taking the decanal reins in the wake of the release of the Leaning Committee report on sexual assault, Gross committed early on to improve student health, and has also helped supervise a committee which has called for the restructuring of mental health services this spring.

Gross further designated the space crunch for student activities as an area desperately needing amelioration. When the library ceded the Quad’s Hilles Library to FAS control, Gross jumped at the opportunity to expand student space, commissioning a group to examine possible uses for Hilles. Today, he speaks enthusiastically of the possibilities of a women’s center at the Quad, or the addition of new student offices.

All three committees—on alcohol, mental health services and Hilles—have reports in final draft form.

And it appears that Gross will keep up his initiatives in the coming year; he has already set the groundwork for a committee to investigate and reform the process by which student groups are recognized.

‘IT’S JUST TOO MUCH’

Over the year, it has become clear that the combined roles assigned to the dean of the College in his first term are simply too broad for Gross to remain effective.

“I’ve tried to touch most of the bases this year in the College,” Gross says. “But I realized that I had to hire someone to help me divide this job—it’s just too much.”

So next year, though Gross will remain the head of both the academic and residential sides of the College, he will be able to delegate many of his administrative responsibilities to a freshly minted deputy dean, a post O’Brien will fill beginning August 1.

“He has used this year to figure out how the dean’s office might be organized in a way to relieve him,” Dingman says. “The deputy dean will pick up some of what he’s doing, and relieve the rest of us whose portfolios have expanded.”

Delegating has already proved effective in trimming away some of the duties formerly handled by the dean of the College.

In January, Gross moved Wolcowitz to a role focusing on the curricular review full time.

Also this year, Dingman has become the point person on most routine House issues, instances where Lewis may have been more involved in the past, some House Masters say.

“There are lots of different things on the table these days,” Pforzheimer House Master James J. McCarthy says of Gross’ responsibilities. “It’s a different kind of interaction because of the curricular review.”

Dingman says that he has become the point person for most standard House concerns.

“Dean Gross has had a high profile this year—he’s not the first responder for a number of issues,” Dingman says, adding that he and others constantly keep Gross apprised of issues that arise.

DIVISION OF LABOR

Almost 15 months ago, when Lewis’ departure was announced in the same press release as the restructuring, some at Harvard—administrators, students and faculty—felt the move was an attempt by Summers to maintain his influence in the College by installing a more cooperative leader in University Hall.

Lewis had clashed with Summers by opposing preregistration and by remaining a steadfast supporter of extracurricular involvement, among other matters.

In contrast, Gross has kept up his regular regimen of recreational tennis with Summers.

This relationship dovetails with Summers’ demonstrated keen interest in the College, and especially in the curricular review.

“From his first day, Larry has been most concerned about the College,” former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles said last year.

At a speech he delivered on the afternoon of last year’s Commencement, Summers laid out his vision for reforms in undergraduate education, including improvements to the advising system, more student-faculty involvement and a stronger science curriculum. All appeared prominently in the curricular review report.

Summers was also involved throughout the process of the review, which will determine the future of undergraduate life. He attended several of its steering committee meetings, and sources say he had a hand in the editing of the final report.

At the time of the restructuring, some were concerned that this closer connection with Mass. Hall would draw Gross away from the student issues representing the other half of his charge.

Gross this year has delegated many of his routine student life duties to Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd, who has assumed ownership of many of Lewis’ former responsibilities.

This year, she began supervising the Office for the Arts at Harvard, the Office of Career Services, the Harvard Foundation, the Ann Radcliffe Trust and Phillips Brooks House, all of which had reported to Lewis.

The division of labor resembles that of the pre-restructured University Hall.

But Gross defends the reorganization as a work in progress, and says it remains the best way to govern undergraduate life.

“It’s really hard to separate out your academic and residential life,” Gross says. “It’s reasonable and wise to treat the students as students and not as, ‘This half of the brain here; this half of the brain there.’”

But figuring out how to combine the two spheres of the student experience and still maintain a manageable workload has been difficult, and Dingman says the sought-after integration of these components is far from complete.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Dingman says. “We can do better.”

Gross says the very institutional history of the deanship has become an impediment.

“We’re getting over decades of a culture of separation,” Gross says.

HUMANIZING THE DEANSHIP

Despite his administrative responsibilities, and the need for him to pick and choose his involvements, Gross still has wide appeal among both faculty and students.

Faculty members still consider Gross to be an academic—and not a bureaucrat—at heart. He’s even won over the notoriously hard-nosed government professor, Harvey C. Mansfield ’53.

“He’s shrewd,” Mansfield says. “He’s not rule-bound but he’s intelligent with people which is unusual for a mathematician.”

Gross’ ability to connect to administrators and students alike has helped him in his roles as academic planner, student life administrator and professor.

“There’s no artifice there,” Dingman says. “That’s genuine.”

Gross’ style in meetings is contemplative. Leaning back in his chair, head in his hands, Gross could be sleeping—and quips that at times, he wishes he were.

But those administrators who meet with him often say they are frequently surprised by his uncanny ability to remain alert and summarize discussions accurately. He thinks quickly, and several administrators and House Masters note that he often knows what a speaker is going to say even before a sentence is finished.

Though he’s had to delegate much day-to-day business to his staff, he remains updated about the goings-on across the College.

And colleagues note his unflagging dedication and compassion to students, which has allowed him to maintain good humor throughout a trying first term.

He begins meetings with casual conversation, taking care to remember details about his colleagues’ activities, and often brings a levity to committee meetings and conversations.

“He has a good sense of humor and enjoys banter,” Adams House Master Sean D. Palfrey says. “He’s very in tune with people, partly because he listens.”

Gross’ “direct and honest” communication style has engendered an administration characterized by cooperation and efficiency, House Masters say.

“He’s very inclusive—he listens to everyone,” Palfrey says. “He puts things together from lots of different points of view in a very practical way.”

“A number of times when people were up against hard issues, he’s taken time and shown real concern,” Dingman says.

Using personal interests to relate to people outside the conference room has created a more relaxed College administration, his colleagues say.

“I can’t speak math with him, but he can speak French with me,” says Kirkland House Master and Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Tom Conley. “He’s got a great sense of humor—we need it.”

It probably comes in handy for the constant barrage of meetings, heavy workload and long nights.

Like the toothbrush.

—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at kkaplan@fas.harvard.edu.

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