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Yesterday’s ouster of Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 and the reorganization that it accompanies may signal a change in the College’s priorities—shifting emphasis to academics at the price of extracurricular activities.
Gone will be Lewis, who stresses extracurricular activity as the major strength of the College, and subsumed will be his top-level position, which was solely responsible for non-academic matters.
University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby said the reorganization decision was Kirby’s alone. But with Lewis gone, Summers will have an administration united behind his goals for revamping the College.
According to a number of observers, Lewis has clashed with Summers in the year-and-a-half the president has been in office. The issues, one official said, have been “partly style and partly substance.”
On style, disputes arose as a highly assertive president, who arrived on a pledge to be more involved with undergraduates, ran into a dean of the College used to getting things his way.
“Summers thought that Lewis worked for him, and Lewis thought of himself as more of an independent dean and Faculty member,” one official said.
On substance, they often took opposing views on the balance between extracurricular and academic life.
Lewis’ letters to incoming first-years have consistently given equal emphasis to these two faces of the College.
More recently, in a February memo Lewis wrote to those heading up the curricular review—including Summers and Kirby—he offered a scathing indictment of the view that increasing intellectual rigor ought to be the priority in revamping the College experience.
Statistics and alumni reports show that what students remember about their time at Harvard is nonacademic life, Lewis wrote.
Potential employers often show “limited interest” in academic records, and focus instead on qualities derived from their activities outside of class.
Efforts to channel students’ interests in extracurriculars back into academia would be a mistake, Lewis wrote. The Faculty’s decision last year to reinforce what Lewis called “scholarly individualism” through limiting honors was problematic as well.
Summers, on the other hand, has said that undergraduate life is not sufficiently intellectual and has spoken out on the need to combat runaway grade and honors inflation.
He talks about the need for students to take advantage of more “capstone” intellectual endeavors, like theses.
In Kirby, Summers has an ideological soulmate.
Kirby called on students to prioritize their studies in a speech to incoming first-years last fall.
Harvard has been known as a serious, sober institution, and remains so to an extent, Kirby said in September.
“You are here to work, and your business here is to learn,” he said.
And though Summers says he values extracurriculars, others who have dealt with him said he does want students to shift some of their focus away from activities and onto more scholarly pursuits.
He has been generally supportive of the Ivy League’s efforts to cut back on the number of athletic recruits.
Summers has said he doesn’t remember using the term, but one University Hall official tells of a meeting with House tutors where Summers quipped that the College too much resembled a “Camp Harvard,” given its focus on extracurriculars.
Those in Lewis’ office and others involved in the College said they worry that Lewis’ dismissal and the administrative reorganization will leave the extracurricular aspect of student life without a strong advocate.
When she worked in the admissions office, Assistant Dean of the College Karen E. Avery ’87 said she had to fight “tooth and nail” to dispel the idea that Harvard prioritized research over caring for its undergraduates.
“I think I would have to answer that question differently today if I worked in the admissions office, given this change,” she said. “I certainly didn’t expect this to happen and I’m not sure many people did.”
The reorganization would merge Lewis’ office with the office of the dean of undergraduate education in what Kirby yesterday called an effort to link academics more tightly with student life.
But professors and House masters raised concerns yesterday about the feasibility of combining the two positions.
Former Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 pointed out that both the dean of the College and the dean of undergraduate education are large jobs, though she said there are many feasible ways to integrate oversight of both undergraduate life and the curriculum.
Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson said that without details of the reorganization he couldn’t comment on whether a combined job would be too large for one person.
But he said he had “deep concern that the kind of close attention to and understanding of the House system and support of all aspects of the well-being of our students, inside of the classroom and without, that we have witnessed under Dean Lewis’ deanship, be present in the new structure.”
Some, however, said that they were optimistic. Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71 said he hoped the consolidation would not shift the focus away from extracurriculars.
“I worry that could happen, but I’ve been encouraged to think that it won’t,” Illingworth said. “Dean Kirby has been encouraging that he values students’ activities.”
“I’m sure there’s the potential of improvement but there’s also the potential of risk,” Illingworth added.
Many professors contacted last night said they couldn’t evaluate the impact of Kirby’s consolidation plan and move to sideline Lewis—they had only found out about Kirby’s decisions at the last moment, they said.
And some said they were upset at being kept in the dark.
“As a Faculty member, I would have liked to have known about this,” said Professor of German Peter J. Burgard.
Department chairs only found out about the moves yesterday morning, and there was no mass e-mail to the full Faculty.
Both members of Faculty Council, a committee of 18 professors who routinely advise the dean, and the House Masters who Lewis directly oversees, were ignorant of the impending overhaul until this weekend.
“The announcement was a surprise,” said council member and Ford Professor of Social Sciences David Pilbeam. “I had no idea.”
In addition to being unaware of Kirby’s decision, many said they were caught off guard by what they perceived to be unilateral action.
“Yes, I am surprised,” said Chair of the Department of Government Roderick MacFarquhar. “This is a major bureaucratic decision.”
But MacFarquhar said he believed that Dean Kirby had the mandate to act without widespread consultation of the Faculty.
“As long as the dean of the Faculty has the trust of the Faculty, he can do a great deal without Faculty legislation,” he said. “He has the right to do what he likes.”
Kirby said yesterday he had received advice from many faculty and administrators despite the fact that “changes of the sort announced today are not normally debated in public.”
“A number of Faculty members have given me advice in this area, and...there is a lengthy literature of alternative plans for the organization of these offices,” he wrote in an e-mail.
These plans were discussed under the tenure of Kirby’s predecessor, Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jeremy R. Knowles and were sketched out by none other than Lewis himself.
Though Knowles ultimately favored maintaining the separation, he said yesterday that “the integration of the curricular and non-curricular aspects of undergraduate education is a persuasive option.”
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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