Portrait: David R. Pilbeam

Anthropologist answered a call to serve as dean, but a lack of visibility and a few unpopular decisions hurt his image among students

He has landed himself in hot water after becoming embroiled in Kenyan tribal politics. He has contracted and fought off a virulent case of malaria. He grew up in a three-room house with neither electricity nor running water, and his parents both left school at the age of 14.

But most Harvard students know him only as the man who put an end to the free booze.

A man who spent much of his career eschewing the limelight, former Dean of the College David R. Pilbeam found himself at the helm of both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the College over the past year and half—serving as the interim dean of the Faculty last spring when Jeremy R. Knowles fell ill and as the interim dean of the College this past year after Benedict H. Gross ’71 stepped down.

During a time of University-wide administrative transition, Pilbeam stepped in to keep the College on track—presiding over the early stages of the implementation of the General Education curriculum, the creation of a sweeping financial aid increase, and plans for a $1 billion House renewal project.

But in answering a call of duty to the University, the 68-year-old from the English coast became the conveyer of a number of unpopular decisions, including the end of the Undergraduate Council’s alcohol reimbursement program and the two-year suspension of transfer admissions.

Pilbeam’s reticence and relative lack of visibility over the past year have proven problematic for his reputation among many students, but respect and admiration for him runs high among the Faculty and administration, who have time and again turned to him as a steady hand to stabilize Harvard’s core institutions.

BACKING THROUGH LIFE

Pilbeam was born in Brighton, England on November 21, 1940, one month after the end of the Battle of Britain. After high school—where he was both a runner and an actor—Pilbeam won a scholarship to Cambridge. Though he initially planned to study medicine, his interests shifted to anthropology.

In 1963, he crossed the Atlantic to attend Yale on a fellowship, though he returned to Cambridge within two years “immunized by America.”

“I had caught the American bug—that there is no reason to not think you could do something new,” Pilbeam said, adding that Cambridge at that time did not fit the bill.

In 1981, after another 13 years at Yale, Pilbeam came to Harvard—the only place he would go other than Yale, he said.

Pilbeam quickly immersed himself in the University community, acting as a professor, a head tutor for the human and evolutionary biology concentration, the dean of undergraduate education, a senior adviser to the dean of the College, the interim dean of the Faculty, and the dean of the College on an interim basis at some point during the past 27 years. University President Drew G. Faust termed him “an extraordinary servant.”

“I have the feeling I’ve sort of backed through life, that nothing that’s happened is particularly planned, and that’s worked out very well,” Pilbeam said. “Being interim dean was a complete surprise—it came completely out of the blue.”

Associate Dean of the College Judith H. Kidd credited Pilbeam as the College’s “steady anchor” through a period of flux, keeping the senior staff of the College together and getting several major initiatives off the ground—including the implementation of Gen Ed and the House renewal plan.

Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, who took Pilbeam’s freshman seminar in 1982 and is now a professor with him in the Department of Anthropology, described Pilbeam as deeply compassionate in addition to being a highly distinguished academic.

“He has the ability to cut through all the noise and chatter and understand what are the key issues and what are the key principles that guide decisions,” Lieberman said. “And he’s very good at dealing with people in a way that treats them with respect...it’s what makes him a phenomenal colleague and a great administrator.”

A HIDDEN SIDE

While never a fan of attention, and perhaps in part because of the transitory nature of his deanship, Pilbeam stayed largely under the radar while leading the College. His name only flared up in the student body when unpopular decisions were passed down—primarily those concerning the alcohol policy and transfer admissions.

Criticism over both the decisions themselves and the perception of Pilbeam as being out of touch with student desires flew following these announcements.

“He’s totally not the type of person to have an authoritative stance on alcohol,” said Katharine Pilbeam ’10, adding that her father, known by many for his droll sense of humor, often makes fun of her for not choosing “quality” drinks. “Yes he’s a little out of touch, but he’s a parent, for God’s sake. I think the side Harvard has chosen to see of him is not who he is.”

Few would guess that the quiet dean often ran along the sidelines swearing at the 14-year-old referees as his daughter played little-league soccer or that as a college student, threw firecrackers in the back of trucks with his friends, and once had to take a friend home in a wheelbarrow after a party he had hosted.

She added that her father expected that the alcohol decision would not make him “Mr. Popular,” but was comfortable with it until he found out that she was receiving vitriolic e-mail criticizing the two of them.

Colleagues also praised Pilbeam for balancing his deep commitment to his family with his administrative responsibilities. Pilbeam’s wife, Maryellen Ruvolo is an anthropology professor and teaches Life Sciences 1b: “Genetics, Genomics, and Evolution.”

Perhaps showing some of the family’s frustration over the past year, Ruvolo declined to comment for this story, telling the reporter to “Get lost.”

Despite disagreements between the UC and Pilbeam—including a heated dispute over alcohol grants—over the course of the year, UC President Matthew L. Sundquist ’09 said that his general sense of Pilbeam remained positive.

“He always made it clear what he thought about things—he was always honest and open about where he stood,” said Sundquist, who as vice president signed a lengthy—and unusually personal—missive attacking Pilbeam for his decision on alcohol grants last fall. “Being a transitional dean is a really hard job to begin with. You inherit a lot of things that some people expect you to deal with.”

Evelynn M. Hammonds replaced Pilbeam on June 1, stepping down from her position as senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity. Upon hearing news of the appointment, Pilbeam said only that he was “thrilled.”

“I’d say it has to be for others to judge how well I’ve done,” Pilbeam said in summing up his year in office. “I’ll only say that I’ve done my best.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.