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.

But Pierce suggests that such shifts might be easier to effect at a small place like Oberlin than at a large university like Harvard. The result could be a challenge for his long-time colleague.

"Harvard's a very old institution," says Pierce, who did graduate work at the University. "I suspect it'd be a hard institution to move, so he may find that frustrating."

Oberlin is more radical, less stagnant and more liberal, Pierce notes. "Oberlin has always been a politically and ethically progressive institution. Harvard has been more in the center of American intellectual life."

Buell says Harvard may indeed be more difficult to manage than small, intimate Oberlin. Pierce says Harvard faculty members, for example, are more territorial than their Ohio counterparts.

At Oberlin, Buell says, "I feel I got a paninstitutional sense of how the undergraduate program and undergraduate life function. I think that's harder to do here at Harvard."

Buell compares Harvard to an octopus. "It's easy to spend almost all your time in one tentacle," he says.

Buell says there are some similarities between the two very different schools. The educational mission of Harvard's house system, for example reminds him of Oberlin's Experimental College, where students, faculty and members of the community can arrange to develop and offer courses outside the regular curriculum.

More house seminars, Buell suggests, cold enhance the Harvard undergraduate experience.

Beyond such ideas, however, Buell doesn't have any specific changes in mind--at least not yet. For now, he says, he's learning. And thinking. And planning--but not too specifically.

"I don't have a blueprint for radical change," he explains. "That would be, I think, unwise."

Instead, Buell says he will build on many of his predecessor's initiatives.

David Pilbeam, Ford professor of the social sciences, is cutting his term as associate dean for under graduate education short, worn down by the weight of two administrative posts. Pilbeam was beginning his second three-year term two years ago when he was appointed director of the Peabody Museum.

It was a busy five-year tenure, the anthropology professor recalls. In the end, Pilbeam says, he managed to change the nature of the deanship, making it more administrative and less advisory.

Pilbeam says the associate dean for undergraduate education's primary role is to help the dean of the Faculty identify the key issues facing undergraduate education.

Some of Pilbeam's colleagues describe him as an "activist dean." Indeed, the anthropologist says he spent much of his deanship meeting with people, nagging fellow faculty members and, above all, sticking to his goals.

During his tenure, Pilbeam strove to reduce the number of large courses, to increase the number of seminars and to increase faculty interaction with students.

Pilbeam believes he encouraged departments and committees to "start thinking a little bit more regularly and a little bit more systematically about undergraduate education."

Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education Jeffrey Wolcowitz says Pilbeam also focused on curricular planning, issues of advising and the roles of tutors in houses.

With the many issue confronting the new dean, it may be difficult to know where to start. Buell himself isn't sure which issue she wants to pinpoint. He hopes, instead, to gain a full, "experiential" awareness of the administration, a knowledge base that "transcends what happens in this or that little area that happens to be the subject at the moment."

Tougher Grades

His predecessor, however, leaves the post with a list of issues that will need to be addressed--in many of the Harvard octopus' tentacles. "Grade inequity," is just one example, says Pilbeam.

"Science courses--particularly the larger, introductory ones, are tougher grades than equivalent courses in other divisions," he says.

Lower grades in the natural sciences, Pilbeam says, may discourage some students from concentrating in that area.

Exacerbating the problem, he says, is the greater background needed to continue in the sciences, and the intrinsically uninteresting nature of some introductory science courses.

The solution--at least to the grading problem--is not grade inflation in the sciences, but rather "to try to push down the average grades" in large humanities and social science courses, Pilbeam says.

Pilbeam also has high expectations for the Educational Policy Committee, a new task force chaired by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and charged with reviewing all aspects of undergraduate education outside the Core.

Next year, Knowles says, the committee will focus attention on nondepartmental concentrations such as Social Studies and History and Literature, exploring questions of staffing, faculty involvement and the quality of offerings.

"In an interesting way, the nondepartmental concentrations, we now realize, will embrace a lot of the questions that we will then later want to ask of the departmental concentrations," Knowles says.

In the long run, Pilbeam says he would also like to see one person serve as both dean of the College and associate dean for under-graduate education. "There's a funny kind of division between the academic and the nonacademic, and the academic loses out. I would like to see that change over the next decade," he says.

Whatever happens with the deanship, says English Department Chair Philip J. Fisher, the years under President Neil L. Rudenstine are likely to carry an increased emphasis on undergraduate education--partly because of Rudenstine's long-demonstrated interest in the area, and partly in reaction to former President Derek C. Bok's legacy of strengthening Harvard's graduate schools.

If that's true, then the low-key English scholar has an important role to fill--and Fisher says his reflectiveness and fairness will serve him well. "He has experience, he has energy, he has thoughtfulness that will be respected," Fisher says. "This is a real job, as opposed to a post. There's something to be done there."