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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
In the summer of 1995, Harry R. Lewis ’68 rode into the Office of the Dean of Harvard College with a mandate to revolutionize the deanship from a weak administrative post into the central force in the residential and extracurricular lives of students.
Following on the heels of his influential “Report on the State of the College,” written in 1994 before he assumed the deanship, Lewis implemented the controversial randomization of the Houses.
The bold reform would characterize Lewis’ reign, showcasing his controlling and analytical style as well as his headstrong attitude in overcoming opposition.
He went on to consolidate the dean of the College’s power—by taking a more active role in appointing House masters, restructuring the administrative hierarchy of his office and paying scrupulous attention to student services from advising to extracurricular space—in such a way that he became the most powerful dean of the College ever.
But now, Lewis is being kicked out of the office that he has sculpted for the past eight years—and which may never exist again, if Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby successfully completes his proposal to merge it with the office of the dean of undergraduate education.
And the legacy of a stronger dean’s office that he would have left behind is teetering on the verge of extinction.
A College All His Own
In appointing Lewis dean of the College in 1995, then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles purposefully set out to revitalize the office.
Lewis was the first dean of the College to be a full Faculty member—occupying the title of McKay Professor of Computer Science—following a long line of pure administrators like his mild-mannered predecessor, L. Fred Jewett ’57.
“The previous deans—Fred Jewett particularly comes to mind—were highly respected by the Faculty, but coming up through the administrative route you just don’t have the same oomph,” former Lowell House Master William H. Bossert ’59 said last spring.
Lewis took Knowles’ cue to increase the weight and power of the office, strengthening his control over aspects of student life not traditionally under his direct jurisdiction.
He immediately marked the College as his territory in the fall of 1995 by hiring a new assistant dean of public service and director of the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Judith H. Kidd.
Then in 1999, Lewis declined to name a replacement for Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. Instead, he created an associate dean of the College position to deal directly with student groups, which he filled with David P. Illingworth ’71.
“Having two senior administrators who were dean of students and dean of the College confused the outside world and students,” Secretary of the Faculty John B. Fox Jr. ’59, himself a former dean of the College, said last spring. “Lewis has put a structure in place that is reflective of reality. There is a dean of the College, and he is in charge of these activities.”
Lewis also hired David B. Fithian as a new assistant dean to serve as a close link between the dean’s office and the Houses, keeping Lewis in constant contact with House masters and senior tutors.
This expansion of the number of deans in his office extended the reach of Lewis’ grip over undergraduates’ lives.
Master of the House(s)
Lewis—whom some describe as a “control freak”—positioned himself as the central figure in the uniform Housing system he had created by randomizing first-year housing assignments.
When he arrived, several House masters had held their positions for over 20 years, dictating the tone of their Houses like lords of fiefdoms within the College.
Within a few years, several of the long-serving House masters resigned, leaving Lewis free to bring in new blood.
And unlike Jewett before him, Lewis has took an active hand in selecting masters, enforcing their five-year renewable contracts.
With the departures of three current House masters at the end of this year, Lewis will have appointed masters in 11 out of 12 Houses—giving him excessive control over House life in the eyes of some senior tutors and masters.
“I would worry about too much power being concentrated in one person and one office,” former Quincy House Master Michael Shinagel said last June.
While Jewett left the job of appointing senior tutors to the masters, Lewis has personally supervised the appointments of senior tutors, insisting that they be teaching Faculty members and systematically reviewing their performances.
“We have a steady stream of visitors from other universities, and they are all struck by how much Harry knows about what’s going on in the Houses,” Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who is in charge of the House system, said last spring.
If Kirby is successful in merging into the deanship the responsibility of overseeing undergraduate education, such a hands-on approach to overseeing students’ lives might be difficult.
A Battle of Heart
Lewis has not always garnered—or sought—the approval of students. He came into this job with a concept of what was best for students that he doggedly pursued over the past eight years, often in the face of staunch opposition.
From the 200-person rally over his randomization plan that took place even before he took office, to the 750-person protest over PBHA, to the backlash against the new sexual assault policy he pushed through last May, Lewis’ reforms have often met with harsh disapproval from students.
“I think he started his deanship at a time when there were a lot of hot potatoes,” said Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol in January 2001. “It may be that students hadn’t already built up a relationship [with Lewis] before contentious issue arose.”
But few deny that Lewis has always had students’ interests at heart for the past eight years.
Although the renovations to the Malkin Athletic Center and the Hasty Pudding Theater have yet to begin, Lewis has tirelessly searched for space for student groups despite the perpetual dearth of room in Cambridge.
He has also continually talked about improving undergraduate advising—a topic frequently featured in his annual letters.
The tenacity with which Lewis approached his major projects as dean was evident in his quick response to e-mail—at anytime of day.
“You could call him if it was necessary 24 hours a day,” said Winthrop House Master Paul D. Hanson. “It’s that kind of proven dedication and diligence that I’ll remember him for.”
—Staff writer Sarah M. Seltzer can be reached at email@example.com.
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