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Sizing Up Steve Hall

By H. JEFFREY Leonard

The story of Stephen S.J. Hall's palm reader is already a legend. It will be told and retold at least as long as Hall remains at Harvard and probably even after he leaves his post here to return to private industry. The story's popularity says more about Hall than its own anecdotal value, because it seems to sum up what people don't like about Harvard's vice president for administration.

Hall, who came to Harvard from a position as a vice president of ITT-Sheraton in 1971, is a man obsessed with innovation and change. One of his latest schemes, unveiled this summer, involved a palm-scanning machine designed to reduce the number of non-paying persons eating in Harvard dining halls. The machine was relatively simple. The finger length, curvature and skin translucency of each student would be recorded on the magnetic strip on the back of his or her bursar's card. Then each dining hall would be equipped with a slotted scanner that would read the magnetic strip when the card was inserted and indicate whether the palm matched the card. Hall and Frank J. Weissbecker, director of food services, had planned to try out the palm scanners on Summer School students, but abruptly aborted the experiment after a call from Hale Champion, financial vice president, expressing concern about adverse student reaction to the machines.

Nevertheless, the palm reading episode stirred a great deal of controversy within the Harvard community. While Hall talked in terms of the money it could save for Harvard, Champion and Charles U. Daly, vice president for government and community affairs, worried about the "human" implications and shuddered at visions of a New York Times story playing on the "1984 at Harvard" theme.

It took Hall's staff more than four typewritten pages (single-line items, double-spaced) to make up a list last year of all the innovations, ideas, and administrative changes and goals that it has instituted in the last four years under Hall's guidance. Hall is proud to tick off items from the list--the administrative handbook, weekly staff meetings between the directors of all administrative departments, the Delta 2000 computer, centralizing the personnel office, and a whole host of gadgets and programs. All these items add up to a major effort to centralize, automate, computerize and economize administrative services at Harvard. When measured solely on a cost-effective basis, it is difficult to argue that Hall's efforts to date have not been successful--the use of the Delta 2000 computer for centralized monitoring and heating regulation; for instance, is supposed to be saving Harvard more than $1 million per year. But there also is a great deal of resistance and resentment among students, faculty and staff to what Hall calls his "game plan" and the methods he often employs in managing his "administrative team."

Essentially, what is at issue is how far Harvard should go toward running all its operations like a big business and at what point it should consider trade-offs between pure cost-efficiency and "non-economic" considerations. Much of the conflict that has arisen over these questions involves the nature of Hall's job. Hall is a professional manager, hired to streamline Harvard's administrative operations so they can be run in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Harvard has never before had a real professional to run its administrative outfit. L. Gard Wiggins, vice president for President Emeritus Nathan M. Pusey '28, handled almost all the affairs now divided among the four vice presidents serving President Bok. When it issued its report in 1971, the University Committee on Governance that originally recommended that Pusey's successor should appoint separate vice presidents, each with specific functions, warned of potential problems if Harvard appointed someone responsible only for stressing administrative efficiency.

Yet, beyond the criticism anyone in Hall's job is bound to draw, Hall's particular style of management and the manner in which he deals with his employees, his cohorts, the various faculties and students often seems to exacerbate these problems.

Hall's critics point to the manner in which he has conducted many personnel changes in the departments he oversees as one major problem. His handling of changes involving the heads of Buildings and Grounds, Personnel, Food Services and the University Police have been sharply criticized by those involved (either privately or publicly) and by many staff and administrators who have been in a position to observe Hall's actions.

Hall is open in discussing many of the changes, but, for the most part, he tends to downplay the criticisms of his actions. In the past year, two long-time department heads--John B. Butler in Personnel and C. Graham Hurlburt in Food Services--have been shuffled into new positions by Hall in what several observers have characterized as a discreet effort to "put them out to pasture because they were not team players." In July 1974, Hurlburt was moved to a new position as director of administrative services, a post which, although listed on Hall's organizational chart as a supervisory position for Food Services and three other departments, seems more banal than Hall acknowledges. In the spring, Butler was moved to a new job as director of policy and planning. In both instances, Hall apparently decided he wanted men who would follow his lead rather than provide their own leadership to the departments.

Although he denies direct intimations that Hurlburt and Butler were moved to positions where they would be out of the way, Hall's explanations weaken these denials: Hall now insists that Hurlburt was promoted, but he told The Crimson last year that the move had resulted after Hurlburt's "batteries had worn down" and he had been asked to take a year off to rest. The description Hall gave them of Hurlburt's new job--"primarily to watch over and settle disagreements that arise between the Med School and the administration"--hardly measures up to the title. In Butler's case, Hall said last week: "John is a competent professional who [has been] in the job so darn long that he just got crowded in by all the trees. We said, 'Hey John, you deserve and have earned the right to step aside and catch your breath a little bit. Let us take over some of the things you've been handling and when you're ready, why, you can come back.'"

In another incident involving the Department of Personnel, William Mullins, former manager of employee relations, left the University after a series of major clashes with Hall. Hall's conflicts with Mullins reportedly climaxed last year in a heated argument in President Bok's office. Former Police Chief Robert Tonis has privately expressed great bitterness towards Hall's announcement that he was searching for a new chief more than a year before Tonis was scheduled to retire. Tonis remained as chief until he reached 65 this summer, but his final six months overlapped with the arrival of new chief David L. Gorski. Hall says merely that Gorski became available "sooner than we expected," but his handling of the situation angered many in the community who felt that Tonis, who was extremely popular among students and faculty, deserved better treatment.

This summer, Hall announced that he was forming a search committee to find a replacement for Buildings and Grounds director Paul Roulliard, despite the fact that Roulliard was and is still in that position. Hall says he needs a stronger person for director, but that Roulliard can probably be accommodated in some other position with B&G.

It is difficult for outsiders to assess the merits of each change Hall has made since 1971. He knows better than anyone how each of his directors operates and what they can accomplish. Weekly staff meetings and numerous individual meetings between Hall and his directors enable him to pick up quickly on their strengths and weaknesses. But it appears that Hall has not been very tactful or thoughtful in publicizing the changes or in dealing with those he has decided to oust or move. He admitted last week that, in announcing his decision on Roulliard, he could have "said things differently," especially in talking publicly to The Crimson.

For all the changes that have taken place in his departments, Hall says that he does not like to see change just for change's sake or just to shake things up. "I don't picture myself as just a slasher of people," he says. "People who do that get slashed themselves sooner or later, and I don't look forward to that." Hall does acknowledge, however, that he would rather make a decision quickly and not spend long periods of time trying to decide what to do. In fact, Hall has a card on his wall that he points to as one of his guiding slogans: "Sometimes wrong decisions are made, they can be righted. But there is no hope for indecision," the card says.

Hall's personnel problems extend beyond simply firing people. His hiring policies too have come under fire, especially from those who administer Harvard's affirmative action plan. He admits to "inadvertently" making a serious mistake in ignoring affirmative action requirements when he hired Randall Blank, a young Business School graduate, last fall without listing the position. "I hired him and I shouldn't have without the listing. I goofed that, I blew it. It wasn't intentional, it wasn't meant to circumvent any rules or regulations," Hall said. After Walter Leonard, special assistant to President Bok for minority affairs, pointed out Hall's failure to list the position, several members in the personnel office became outraged at Hall, sources said last week.

Hall's fascination with gadgets is another factor that tends to alienate some members of the Harvard community. A group of employees grew particularly alarmed by Hall's recent flirtation with a device to keep track of how people spend their time each work day. Hall insisted that the system was designed to help individuals to better allocate their time and not as a means for him to check up on people. The proposal was finally dropped by Hall after his directors failed to show any enthusiasn for it, but many employees have criticized Hall's continuing search for such gadgets.

Hall becomes defensive when he confronts any suggestion that he may be too gadget-oriented. "You try these things, but nobody gets pushy, nobody is insensitive to students or staff," he says. "You try to do it with saving and efficiency in mind, but if it doesn't work out, all right, fine. As far as I'm concerned, there's no harm done."

Part of Steve Hall's problems stems from the fact that he often is too direct and overly blunt with people. He does not try to mask or gloss over his feelings, as so many in University and Mass Halls do; instead he often says things on impulse, without calculating how people will react to them. This problem has led Hall into some sticky situations when, for instance, he has been called by The Crimson for comment on a volatile story. Bok and others in Mass Hall have recognized this and have encouraged Hall to quell his impulse to express his gut reactions. For example, in a confidential memo relayed from Daly to Bok, Robin Schmidt, assistant vice president for government affairs, advised in September 1974 that the Bok administration should continue to head off some of Hall's comments that appear to ignore the "scholarly concerns" of members of the Harvard community.

But aside from public comments, Hall's private manner has strained his relations with some administrators.

Hall's relations with University Hall have become particularly strained on several occasions during the past few years. Two years ago, when the College administration was considering whether to lengthen Christmas or semester break in order to cut down on energy costs during the height of the crunch, some in University Hall felt that Hall was meddling too much in their affairs. At a press conference to announce the decision to extend Christmas vacation, Dean Rosovsky finally tried to quiet Hall, saying flatly, "Now Steve, I don't think we want to air our dirty laundry in public."

Hall and Richard G. Leahy, associate dean of the Faculty for resources and planning, have been at odds with each other on a number of different issues. The biggest public flap between the two involved a two-year argument over what type of storm wondows to instail in some of the Houses.

Hall's relations with Bok's other vice presidents are, for the most part cordial, although Daly has, on occasion, strongly criticized Hall's actions. Hall shrugs off any conflicts he has had with Daly: "Oh, Chuck will pop off about me, but that's Chuck. That's Chuck Daly. Christ, you wouldn't want a marshmallow around here."

Hall feels closest to Champion, partly because their jobs overlap in many areas, but also because Hall has enormous respect for Champion. Still, possibly because he is closest to Hall, Champion has been the one to take the initiative in quieting Hall's overzealous experiments, as he did in the case of the palm print machine.

While some of Hall's most severe critics call for his ouster, the prospects of President Bok taking any action to move Hall out of his job are virtually non-existent. Bok has reportedly expressed concern about some of the problems Hall has had in relating to parts of the community, but sources close to Bok say he feels that this problem, on balance, is relatively minor when contrasted with the money Hall has saved for the University.

There is, at least publicly, a unanimous belief among members of the Corporation, the Board of Overseers, and the Overseers' Visiting Committee for Administrative Services that Hall has performed invaluable services for Harvard. One source said recently that most of the members of these groups are aware that Hall has some difficulties and that there is resentment towards some of his programs, but that there is no sentiment for Hall's leaving.

Amory Houghton Jr. '50, chairman of the Overseers' visiting committee said last week that Hall is "one of the two or three most outstanding persons in the country in the 'other side' of University administration." Houghton said that people in some faculties are always bound to be sensitive to efforts to centralize operations at Harvard, but that "all you have to do is ask the question: 'What would the overhead cost be otherwise?'" The individual faculties can no longer foot the skyrocketing costs for the services Hall has efficiently centralized, Houghton said.

Hall says it is his job to be in the thick of controversy, to go out and actively try to change things. "One way to look at it is to say, 'I should not be involved in any controversy, I should be friends with everybody who could affect my destiny.' Then I can hang in there and not much would get done. I don't think Harvard deserves that or that Bok intended that," he says. Hall says he came here for the excitement and when he did he knew he had to expect to take flak: "This is a top place... You really have to have your information straight or you get decimated. I really wanted to see if I could take the flak that comes your way and all the tensions and problems." In the end, Hall almost seems to be convinced that the criticism he endures is an occupational hazard, not something he personally helps bring on: "Hey," he says, "I just appreciate the fact that the job I'm in, if you try to please everybody, you'll end up in a strait jacket and get carted off somewhere.

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