Apparently, the role of the Dean of Students has changed in the last few years--so much so, in fact, that Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 believes we may no longer need one. With Archie C. Epps III's announcement yesterday that he will step down on July 1, 1999, after 35 years of serving students from University Hall, came the disturbing notice that the post he now holds may disappear. "I have not come to any conclusion yet about structure, titles, etc. for the future," Lewis wrote The Crimson in an e-mail. But, he told us last month, "[t]here could be some moving around of the pieces."
The departure of Dean Epps provides an opportunity to reflect on the position he held, to "have a think," as Dean Knowles put it. But having a think, in my mind, at least, means evaluating what role the Dean of Students can and should play in the lives of future students, not whether or not the post is intrinsically valuable. That, to me, is a given, if evidenced only by all that Dean Epps has accomplished in that role.
Epps, only the second Dean of Students in this half of the century has served in this position since 1970, one year after he was carried from University Hall by student protesters. His colleagues tell how he has served the College well in his time as dean, particularly where race relations and student groups are concerned.
While students are not unanimous in their praise for Epps, largely because he is perceived to have an "establishmentarian point of view" (Rev. Gomes' term), there is no question that he is a huge presence on this campus, a "symbol of Harvard," as this page called him yesterday.
But he, like almost everyone else in the world, is not irreplaceable. Dean Lewis told The Crimson he didn't think there is "another person who can do exactly the combination of things Dean Epps has done." This statement is hard to argue with. But if the position of Dean of Students is eliminated from the Harvard hierarchy, the reasons will have nothing to do with Dean Epps; they will be purely structural. Epps is certainly a unique administrator, as are Knowles, Lewis and Rudenstine. But if one of the three of them resigned tomorrow, rest assured he would be replaced.
And Dean Epps should be, too--because we need someone to be our advocate. If Dean Lewis restructures the administration of the College so that Epps' duties fall to a series of associate deans, including Epps himself, Lewis will effectively become the only authority figure for students at the College, overseeing House life, student discipline and extracurricular activities, in addition to everything else he already does. This is not a better situation than the one which currently exists.
From my point of view, Epps' retirement provides the administration with the opportunity to hire someone who will be our representative, the metaphorical Allston Burr Senior Tutor of the College, who will be at once accessible to students and responsive to their concerns. And just as Dean Epps acted as a role model to many black students on campus, the next Dean of Students should also be a role model to those not already covered by Lewis, Knowles or Rudenstine.
She, I mean, he or she, will have many issues to address, including student perspectives on the quality of undergraduate education, race, gender and ethnic relations at the College and students' mental health. This list is not comprehensive, but it is a start.
If anything, Dean Epps' long and fruitful tenure as Dean of Students indicates that the need for a visible central administrator who acts on the students' behalf is more necessary now than it was before he took over--not the opposite, which is the implication of delegating Epps' duties to various other deans.
Many people, students and top University administrators alike, praise Epps for the job he has done here. Yet, paradoxically, students may soon be losing their dean. Frankly, it just doesn't make sense to me. Knowles cites the changes in students' lives over the last 30 years as a reason the position of Dean of Students may no longer be necessary. But if anything, students' lives have become more complicated since 1970, and accordingly, we could probably use an even more elaborate Dean of Students office than the one which currently exists. Furthermore, why should other deans be deciding whether or not students need an advocate? Shouldn't we know best?
Something is wrong if students lose their official voice in the administration because Dean Lewis determines we don't need one, and that a number of associate deans can effectively divvy up the duties Dean Epps has performed for almost 30 years.
Again, Archie Epps is a symbol of Harvard. But not just because of his great bow-ties, his friendliness and the struggle for equality he represents. He also symbolizes Harvard to students, to me anyway, because he is our dean, in an institutional sense. And I don't know why my dean's position should vanish just because my dean is moving on. Daniel M. Suleiman '99 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.