Evelynn M. Hammonds started her tenure as the Dean of Harvard College last year dealing with a massive power outage on the first day freshmen arrived on campus—the beginning of a string of difficult and unpredictable circumstances that would shape her first year as dean.
Over the course of the year, there were four student deaths, an alleged drug-related homicide in Kirkland House, and a financial crisis that led to University-wide staff layoffs and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Hammonds faced a crisis of her own at home—her partner Alexandra was being treated for cancer, leaving her to care for both Alexandra and their young son.
The confluence of unfortunate, and in some cases tragic, circumstances would have been difficult for any dean—and for Hammonds, who had just been appointed, it was at times overwhelming.
Students complained that they felt they did not know the woman in charge, saying that Hammonds was disconnected from the student body. Many held her responsible for several unpopular decisions, including cuts to the shuttle schedule, the elimination of hot breakfast in upperclass Houses, and a restricted January Term.
But this year, circumstances are markedly different: there has been only one accidental student death, no homicides, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ financial situation has continued to improve. And while Hammonds herself faced a bout of pneumonia at the end of the spring semester, her partner’s health has improved significantly.
After what was, by all accounts, a tumultuous first year, administrators say Hammonds has found her footing in her second year on the job. Now as she works to define her priorities, she is increasingly able to push her own agenda instead of spending her days reacting to numerous campus and personal emergencies.
“She’s had the opportunity to be more thoughtful [this year] and not have to react to crisis after crisis after crisis,” says Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Stephanie H. Kenen. “She’s really starting to focus her attention on how she wants to prioritize things.”
LISTENING TO STUDENT VOICES
While Hammonds garnered criticism last year for being out of touch with undergraduates, the change in circumstances has given her more time to interact with students across campus this year.
Hammonds initially tried to reach out to students through a handful of group teas last year. This semester she took a different approach to reaching out, holding monthly office hours which gave any undergraduate the opportunity to speak one-on-one with her during 10-minute slots.
According to Associate Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin, Hammonds had more time in her schedule this year to interact with students: she attended a private dinner with the Crimson Dance Team last January, invited over 100 female African-American students and faculty members to a reception at her home last month, and attended student events such as the Adams House Fantasy Night.
“It was kind of cool that she came to it,” says Maxwell E. Storto ’11, who shook Hammonds’ hand at the event.
Although the dean has increased her visibility on campus, many students interviewed by The Crimson still say they have never met Hammonds.
But not all of these students interpreted the lack of contact as a sign that she is out of touch with students.