Harvard College is not a summer camp. That much should be abundantly clear to anyone with the vaguest understanding of the serious academic exertion that is required before one can get a Harvard degree. It is also not a purely research-driven university like MIT—and it never should be.
Thus when University President Lawrence H. Summers, an MIT graduate, was quoted as denigrating the College as “Camp Harvard” for its excessive focus on extracurriculars at a meeting of house tutors, legitimate fears were raised in the undergraduate community about the direction he hoped to take the institution. Summers has since distanced himself from those comments, claiming in a telephone interview that he was “not aware of having used that phrase [but] I did once use the phrase ‘camp counselor’ to refer to some of the functions of House tutors.” Moreover, he added, “One of the great strengths of Harvard is the tremendous involvement of our students in extracurriculars.”
But following Monday’s firing—for firing it was—of Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, serious questions remain concerning plans now being formulated by Summers and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby to revamp the College experience and refocus it around academics. Lewis may well have irked undergraduates with his keg ban at Harvard-Yale, but he had an intelligent, holistic vision of undergraduate life. And even if Lewis’ personality clash with Summers made his departure inevitable, as University Hall insiders have confirmed, his balanced perspective should not be discarded when he leaves office in June. For catering to a broad range of students is at the heart of what keeps Harvard—and not MIT or Cal Tech—thought of as America’s preeminent university.
In a Feb. 24 letter to Kirby, written just days before the decision was taken to dispense with his services, Lewis wrote, “It has never been thought that the main goal of Harvard College should be to produce the next generation of university professors or that our curriculum and pedagogy should be designed in service of that end.” Those sentiments have formed the foundations of Harvard’s admissions policies at least since the 1964 report by Wilbur J. Bender, then outgoing Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, which advocated taking “individuals with a wide range of talents, interests, personal qualities and circumstances and career goals” as well as very top high school students whose academic brilliance often, if not always, went hand-in-hand with being “frankly…pretty dull and bloodless, or peculiar.” Indeed, Harvard is an academic institution—and it should remain as such. But the administration should be wary of creating a curriculum that caters only to students interested in becoming academics themselves.
Lewis, despite going on to a career in academia himself after graduating from Harvard, always recognized that his alma mater needed to keep students involved outside of the classroom as well as within it. Striking a chord that many undergraduates will recognize, Lewis warned Kirby in his Feb. 24 letter, “Extracurricular activities are, if nothing else, stress-relieving; I suspect that if the time students now spend on extracurriculars were spent instead in the libraries, we would have an even more serious mental health problem than we do now.”
A University spokesperson said that Summers, who was also sent a copy of the letter by Lewis, was not in the practice of commenting on correspondence on which he was merely copied. Summers did, however, say at his installation ceremony in October 2001, “Whether in the classroom or the common room, the library or the laboratory, we will assure more of what lies at the heart of the educational experience—direct contact between teacher and student.” Although Summers is entirely correct that the Faculty should be made to provide more of the elusive contact that students crave and do not receive, he must also live up to his word that extracurriculars remain a major source of Harvard’s strength and will not be diminished. But some University Hall officials fear that a declining emphasis on extracurriculars might result from Monday’s administrative reshuffle, recalling that Lewis chided Summers in the fall of 2001 with the phrase “Don’t blame the victims” after the president had complained that Harvard students did not focus enough on their academics.
All Harvard undergraduates need to work extremely hard to earn their degrees. To see that, one needs only compare the time devoted to academics by Harvard students and by their peers at Oxford and Cambridge, who spend two-and-a-half years doing nothing but drinking before cramming for their all-important final exams. That some Harvard students could take on further academic pressures is a testament to the intellectual qualities of the student body, but it does not mean that increasing their workload would be a responsible move. As Lewis said, the mental health problems demonstrate that many undergraduates are already stretched to breaking point.
In his address to incoming first years last fall, Kirby warned, “You are here to work, and your business here is to learn.” He is correct, but only partially. All students must crack their books while at Harvard, and all students should arrive prepared to do so. But academics are not all there is to a Harvard education, and they must not become so, Lewis understood, as he wrote to Kirby, that the administration “should look to pedagogy, the curriculum and advising as matters which, if improved, would make students happier with their academic experience without imposing limitations on their extracurricular life.” Summers insisted on the telephone that he shares Lewis’ concerns about maintaining extracurriculars; Kirby was unavailable for comment. Together—almost certainly with the help of über-dean-to-be Benedict H. Gross ’71—they must ensure that, whatever the reasons for Lewis’ dismissal, his drive to preserve Harvard’s extracurricular vitality is not forgotten when he leaves.
Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.