Council Worries About Future Without Lewis

At a Committee on House Life meeting last fall, Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 sparred over whether House committees would be allowed to hold events at clubs.

“We yell at each other all the time,” Chopra says. “He’s a worthy adversary.”

The debate between the dean and the council president underscores an important relationship between undergraduate leadership and the power structure of the University that has marked Lewis’ tenure.

As dean, Lewis has nurtured a close though occasionally rocky relationship with council leaders—both officially, serving as the group’s faculty advisor, and unofficially, often working with council leaders behind the scenes to direct their efforts.

Lewis’ unexpected ouster leaves the council leaders worrying that they won’t have the administrative conduit and open ear that, many say, has facilitated the groups rise to greater legitimacy over the past few years.

“To some extent [Lewis’] willingness to respect us as a representative body and to discuss his decisions with us has given the U.C. more legitimacy,” says Matthew W. Mahan ’05, chair of the council’s Student Affairs Committee.

Council members say Lewis helped make possible an overarching shift in the council’s major goals—away from activism on national and international issues and towards student services—which may not have worked as effectively without a powerful administrative liaison.

While the council in the spring of 1999 fought over bills endorsing same-sex marriage legislation and urging the University to divest from companies like and Exxon, Chevron and Mobil, today’s council’s biggest debates are over things like funding for student groups.

Lewis has been willing to engage in what Chopra calls “the small issues close to students,” such as extended party hours and later keycard access to all of Harvard’s houses—both initiatives which Lewis helped implement.

“[Lewis] has been tireless in trying to understand the issues and to be responsive,” says Associate Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71, who will assume Lewis’ position and its council responsibilities, says that he will “keep contact with the U.C. at a high level.”

“Making sure that student voices will be heard, and their concerns addressed, is in the forefront of my mind,” Gross writes in an e-mail.

But council leaders have voiced concerns that Gross will be overstretched, particularly due to his commitment to curricular review.

“The challenge will be as to whether [Gross] can direct enough attention to the things that this current structure allowed,” says Chopra, who adds that he is “generally worried about the direction the administration is going.”

“I’m concerned that there will be no faculty member dedicated solely to non-academic life,” Chopra says.

Chopra says he is confident that the new administration will listen to the council, but is unsure whether their priorities will reflect the issues students care about.