Lawrence Buell Eases Into New Deanship

English Scholar Makes Plans to Examine Quality, Requirements of Undergraduate Education at Harvard

Lawrence Buell exudes relaxation, reflection and a sense of peace.

Maybe it's his studies in American Transcendentalism. Maybe it's his many years in the Midwest. Whatever the source, the professor of English and American literature and language does not appear at all tense about a future that is bound to be more frenzied.

As the next associate dean for undergraduate education, Buell will have to acclimate himself to the entire faculty, learn about the curriculum and understand the issues facing undergraduates--all after being at Harvard for only two years.

But there's little cause for worry, says Robert B. Pierce, an English professor who worked with Buell for 26 years at Oberlin College. Pierce says the tall, gray-haired scholar's calmness belies an unflagging energy.

Pierce describes his friend as "very open, friendly, sort of low-key in manner, though not at all low-key in effect."


Another former colleague, Oberlin English professor Robert M. Longsworth, shares the assessment. "He's very mellow, very laid back in his personal relationships," Longsworth says. "He listens very, very well. He's got a real knack for hearing and making sure he understands."

Buell says he expects to manage through cooperation and collaboration, by planting ideas and watching them grow. Autocracy worries him, he says--it's not effective administration.

Longsworth, the former dean of the faculty at Oberlin, recalls that Buell's management style as English Department chair was as relaxed as his personal demeanor.

'Cajolery and Conversation'

Buell got things done, Longsworth says, more "through cajolery and assiduous conversation than through power tactics of some kind or another."

Longsworth says he is astonished that Buell accepted an administrative post so soon after arriving at Harvard. "I felt that he had made a choice in the direction of the development of his professional scholarly interests," he says.

But Buell seems willing to leap into the administrative fray. He notes that his newcomer status may both help and hurt him. "I have more to learn in the way of history, so that's a disadvantage," Buell says. "On the other hand, by not being bound so much to history, I may at times see things in usefully different ways."

The adjustment won't be too difficult, Buell explains, because undergraduate education in his specialty. In addition to serving as chair of Oberlin's English department, Buell did stints as dean of admissions and as chief officer of a foundation that has exchange programs with several Asian institutions.

Buell was largely responsible for opening the Oberlin English department's traditional curriculum to Third World studies, Anglophonic literature and women's studies, Longsworth says.

In addition, Pierce says, when Buell became interested in the environment, he encouraged the English department to follow suit, even developing and teaching a course on American literature and the environment.