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The Senior Gift Committee made its annual rounds this spring, soliciting donations, at a $10 minimum, from graduating students. The fundraising drive is always controversial—students who have paid over $140,000 in tuition often question the reasoning that would have them donate even more before they start earning a paycheck. However, by asking for money before students are even out the door, the Gift Committee argues that its helps to build loyalty among alumni and establishes a life-long “pattern” of giving back to the University. The Senior Gift is only one manifestation of the high premium that Harvard places on building and maintaining alumni loyalty—from fundraising drives to alumni networks, Harvard Clubs and the extensive use of the University’s post.harvard.edu website. Harvard never wants you to forget the gifts that it has given you.
By that token, Harry R. Lewis ’68 would seem to be the perfect alumnus. He arrived in the mid-1960s as a bright-eyed first-year in Weld, lived through some of the University’s most turbulent times and went on to dedicate the better part of four decades to building and supporting Harvard. An esteemed computer science professor, he co-authored a report in 1994 that designed the reinvigoration of the position of Dean of the College, and the following year he was asked to become the first faculty member to rise to the post. “I did it because I love Harvard and I considered it my duty,” Lewis said. “I was afraid to imagine who number two on the list would be if [Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles] had come to me.”
During eight years as dean, Lewis consolidated and reshaped the office, becoming a pivotal figure on campus and, arguably, the students’ best ally in the administration. He led by example, caring deeply for his students and the quality of their lives on campus. He was available to students and staff at all hours of the day, responding to e-mail often within minutes of receiving it. Lewis dedicated his life to Harvard and succeeded as one of the University’s great modern stewards, “giving back” to the University far more than it could ever ask. It would be hard to find any alumnus who feels a deeper loyalty to Harvard.
It is a travesty that the University treated Lewis so poorly in return. After eight years as dean, Lewis was abruptly forced out this spring as the office that he created and built was reshuffled. One Monday morning in March, the University announced that Lewis would “conclude” his service as dean. The administration’s decision to reshuffle and reconfigure Lewis’ office occurred primarily without his input. Staff members and professors were outraged by the surprise move and the administration’s treatment of Lewis. For his part, ever concerned about the greater good of the University, Lewis only said that his departure was “unexpected.”
After nearly four decades at Harvard, Lewis will leave his post this month under a cloud. It did not have to be this way. The loss of his knowledge and institutional memory is incalculable—part of the wide-scale national throwing out of talent as once-valuable leaders are put out to pasture. In their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All-Society, economists Philip Cook and Robert Frank point to how “winner-take-all” contests lead to a waste of national talent. The arrival of a new top dog means that the old one, including all of the hard lessons and information learned along the way, is cast aside. CEOs, governors and presidents are all cast out with the bath water as soon as their time expires. This is doubly and triply true when the old leader leaves under less-than-kind circumstances. It is in this way that Harvard has lost the wisdom and perspective of one of its great believers.
As member of the Class of 2003, I am about to become an alumnus of Harvard College—a mantle that I will carry forever. I assume that it will not be long before I begin hearing from the University Development Office, and Harvard begins to remind me how much it gave me. In fact, that process already began to some extent with the Senior Gift. They will have to do without my meager donations, however. In protest of Lewis’ firing, I did not donate this spring to the Gift.
As grateful as I am to Harvard as I begin the rest of my life and as much as I have come to love and appreciate the unique world and fascinating history of Harvard Yard, I can neither understand nor condone this senseless removal of a talented administrator like Lewis. The manner in which he was forced out has made me reconsider fundamentally my support for the current administration. I cannot help but wonder whether the University’s callous treatment of one of its most dedicated alumni demonstrates that the loyalty that Harvard asks of its graduates is only a one-way street.
Garrett M. Graff ’03, a history concentrator in Cabot House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2002.
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