With Goals Accomplished, Gross Leaves Overhauled College

His efforts were to 'improve the undergraduate experience,' dean says

CORRECTION APPENDED

In the five years that Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross '71 has served in University Hall, the College has seen the first overhaul of its core curriculum in nearly 30 years, an unprecedented increase in student social space, and a consolidation of the office of the College dean from two positions into one.

But despite such a wide-reaching legacy, Gross said his efforts have all served the same purpose—to "improve the undergraduate experience."

"All my efforts were in that direction," he said.

DEFINING AN OFFICE

Gross, a former chair of the mathematics department, came to University Hall in 2002 as the dean of undergraduate education. At the time, the office of the College dean was split between a dean of undergraduate education, who oversaw academic matters, and a dean of the College in charge of undergraduate life.

A year after Gross's appointment, then-Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby merged the two positions together, naming Gross as dean of the College. In the reorganization, then-College dean Harry R. Lewis '68 stepped down from his position. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

During Gross's busy first year, he came to the conclusion that the combination of the two deanships was too much for one person to handle.

"I've tried to touch most of the bases this year in the College," Gross told The Crimson in 2004. "But I realized that I had to hire someone to help me divide this job—it's just too much."

To that end, then-Currier co-House Master Patricia O'Brien was appointed to serve as Gross's deputy dean of the College, handling the administrative details of the College as Gross focused on larger-scale academic and residential concerns. O'Brien served as deputy dean until last July, when she was forced to step down from her position after losing the support of interim Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles.

During the past year, Gross, who supports having a one-dean structure for the College, has received guidance and support from David R.Pilbeam, who served as Gross's senior adviser until health issues forced Knowles to step down, allowing for Pilbeam’s appointment as interim dean of the faculty.

"Having another faculty member, like David Pilbeam, as a senior advisor helped me this year," Gross wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson.

"David and I both worked on all aspects of College life, and didn't divide the office up as in the past," Gross wrote, adding that the future organization of the College dean's office would ultimately be the decision of incoming Faculty Dean Michael D. Smith.

THE STUDENTS' DEAN

Shortly after his appointment as College dean, Gross announced some of his major priorities, including driving through the curricular review and addressing concerns over alcohol use by offering students more social opportunities and spaces.

Fast-forward four years, and it appears that Gross has accomplished his initial goals: the faculty voted on a new undergraduate curriculum this spring, an office of undergraduate advising now exists in University Hall, a peer advising program, a delay in concentration choice, and a secondary-field program are all in place, and students now can congregate in a student organizations center, a women's center, the Lamont Library Café, freshman common rooms, and even an undergraduate pub. Additionally, offices for alcohol safety and sexual assault prevention exist on campus to serve students, and changes to the student handbook will give administrators the power to punish student group leaders involved in hazing beginning this fall.

"He accomplished a lot in a very short period of time," Assistant Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin II said of Gross's tenure.

To accomplish his goals, Gross had to work within an administrative structure that does not give the College equal standing to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) or Harvard’s other prominent institutions such as the law or business schools. Rather than operate autonomously with its own budget, the College receives its funding from the FAS each year and the dean of the College reports to the FAS dean, rather than to the president. According to Gross, he has only seen Interim President Derek C. Bok three times this past year—at opening ceremonies, at a lunch with freshmen living in Massachusetts Hall, and at Commencement.

"I hope the next [College] dean will have more meetings with the president and the provost in the future," he said. "The structural position of Harvard College in the administration of the University is something I have discussed at length with the governing boards, as well as with [President-elect Drew G.] Faust and Mike Smith," Gross wrote in his e-mail to The Crimson.

Undergraduate Council President Ryan A. Petersen '08 described Gross as a "friend to Harvard undergraduates," adding that those who graduated the year of his appointment as well as those who just graduated this year can "all appreciate and identify in their own lives where Dean Gross has improved Harvard College."

Gross's successes during his tenure came particularly from his efforts to work collaboratively with students, Petersen said, from the creation of the peer advising program, the Lamont Library Café, to the Cambridge Queen's Head Pub.

Petersen also agreed that the position of the College dean relative to other University deans tied Gross's hands: "It's unfortunate that the restrictions on his position often made it difficult for [Gross] to do even more," he said.

ALWAYS AN EDUCATOR

Despite Gross's role in overseeing an unprecedented increase in student social space on campus, he also never strayed far from his roots as dean for academic life. His involvement in the new general education has been "from the ground up," according to Associate Dean of Academic Programs Georgene B. Herschbach.

Gross chaired the committee whose recommendations led to the creation of the Life Sciences and Physical Sciences interdisciplinary courses and to "a major change in how we teach science at Harvard College," according to Herschbach.

Gross had also long been an advocate of reducing requirements for students, she added.

"In his advocating for reducing the number of required courses, he was really interested in increasing student choice," Herschbach said.

LOOKING AHEAD

When Kirby appointed Gross to serve as dean of undergraduate education in September 2002, he appointed him to serve a five-year term, Gross said. Having completed five years of service with the end of this academic year, Gross wrote that he "felt that it was time to go back to the math department."

"I am a professor, not an academic administrator, by trade," he added.

Gross plans to continue teaching the popular course Quantitative Reasoning 28, "Magic of Numbers," in the fall.

He explained that he had discussed his decision to resign in the spring with Knowles and Pilbeam but waited until he had the chance to discuss it further—as well as the date of the completion of his service—with Faust and Smith. With Smith beginning his term in the middle of July, "we chose the end of August to give him some time to choose and recruit a replacement," Gross wrote. Gross will conclude his tenure as dean on Aug. 31.

MOVING FORWARD

Smith, who will take over as dean of the FAS on July 15, will pick Gross's successor. Gross said he expected Smith to make the choice after coming back from vacation next month.

Smith, who is in Europe with his family, did not respond to requests for comment. FAS spokesman Robert P. Mitchell deferred comment on the search until Smith's return. In a letter sent to Faculty members last week, however, Smith solicited suggestions from professors to assist in the selection of a new dean.

"I welcome your advice about the current strengths and challenges of the College, as well as your nominations of colleagues who would be especially well-suited to lead the College beginning this fall," he wrote. There is some speculation that Smith may choose to appoint an interim dean for the coming year before announcing a permanent dean at a later point.

Associate Dean of Harvard College Judith H. Kidd said that the next College dean will need to keep up on the faculty mandates on curriculum review and advising as well as find funds to renovate the neo-Georgian residential Houses.

The next dean should also have "already shown some interest in undergraduate life outside of classes" and have a "superb working relationship with the dean of the [FAS]," she added.

Gross wrote he will work until August preparing for the next academic year, pulling together faculty committees to consider the study of language across the curriculum and activity-based learning, and he will propose a group to the next dean to review the Administrative Board, according to his e-mail to The Crimson.

Given that Gross's tenure as dean has extended beyond the time current undergraduates have spent at the College, it may be difficult to imagine an individual leading the College other than the affable Gross, who had a tradition of hosting monthly breakfasts with undergraduates.

Speaking to seniors at Class Day this year, Gross explained that he would announce, per Commencement tradition, that each graduate "stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society" at the following day's ceremony.

Who better to present graduates with such a proclamation than someone who has spent his career doing those very things for the students and their college?

—Samuel P. Jacobs contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at bmoraski@fas.harvard.edu.

CORRECTION: The June 29 news article "With Goals Accomplished, Gross Leaves Overhauled College" incorrectly suggested that former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis '68 voluntarily stepped down from his position in 2003. In fact, Lewis was forced to resign his post after a reorganization of the College administration.