New Dean, New Era?

Hammonds’s post will demand attention to undergrads as well as bureaucratic savvy

Kathleen E. Breeden

The search for a new dean of Harvard College reached its end Tuesday with the selection of Evelynn M. Hammonds, currently the senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. This appointment should come as good news to the College community, both because of Hammonds’s proven record as a talented and respected administrator and because of the circumstances surrounding her appointment, which portend an expansion of the scope of the College dean’s authority.

To be sure, we would be remiss to ignore the scarcity of undergraduate administrative experience in Hammond’s résumé. Her academic credentials are undeniably impressive, and she has accomplished a great deal for Harvard in her role within the central administration. Harvard is lucky to have an administrator of her talent and dedication among its ranks. Yet her responsibilities as Senior Vice Provost have had little to do directly with undergraduate administration, and she enters her new position during a period of significant transition at the College.

There are legitimate questions to be asked, therefore, about Hammonds’ ability to bridge the chasm of communication and understanding that has separated undergraduates from University Hall for so long, just as there are legitimate questions to be asked about Hammonds’ readiness to assume control of the College’s sprawling apparatus in fewer than three months. These questions are not born of any lack of faith in Hammonds’s strengths as an administrator or an educator per se, clearly. Her accomplishments in both pursuits are extraordinary. Rather, we raise these questions because of her lack of evident experience in administering a liberal arts college, a responsibility which carries an array of unique and formidable challenges.

But while experience in undergraduate administration is certainly a boon for any would-be College dean, the experience that Hammonds does possess—specifically, in leading major initiatives at the University-wide level—constitutes a major asset. We hope, then, that the selection of Hammonds further verifies what University leaders have been hinting for some time: that the authority and autonomy of the College dean will be meaningfully enhanced, empowering her to effect broader institutional change at the College than has been possible in the past.

We have every reason to believe that this emerging empowerment of the College’s top administrator will prove to be more than just an illusion. University President Drew G. Faust has already indicated that she would like the Dean of the College to sit at University-wide decanal meetings. Even more promising was Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith’s statement in Tuesday’s announcement: “During the search,” he wrote, “I heard repeatedly that it was important that the College dean exercise broad oversight of the undergraduate curriculum in addition to overseeing the College more broadly.” For the Dean of the College, long hampered by restricted jurisdiction and mandated deference to more senior administrators, “broader oversight” sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

If the position of dean of the College is indeed to receive a much-needed infusion of authority and autonomy—which we hope is the case—then Hammonds is the ideal candidate to occupy this role. The learning curve before her is steep, but considering the challenges facing the undergraduate community, the College stands to benefit enormously from her demonstrated ability to spearhead progress within the context of the entire University, not just the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or the College. She has already recognized two major issues that will demand her immediate attention: the renewal of the Houses and the implementation of the new General Education curriculum. To this list, we might add the inconsistent quality of undergraduate education, the perennially contentious matter of social life, and reform of the Administrative Board.

Real progress on these issues will require an empowered dean who knows how to forge solutions and enact progress, even on a University-wide scale. And while we are somewhat hesitant about her limited experience in undergraduate administration and College affairs, Hammonds’s experience in other areas of the University should serve her well as she seeks to create such solutions and stimulate such progress in her new—and, we hope, newly empowered—post.