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Last Thursday, Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 threw his staff a party in a tent outside of the Science Center.
While Lewis had wanted to celebrate his friends’ faithful service throughout the years, the gathering became a wry tribute to Lewis himself when Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes took the microphone and addressed those in attendance.
He called the assembly of deans, professors and administrators “a circus tent full of poo-bahs and elephants and charlatans.”
“And for eight years, you presided over this menagerie,” he said to Lewis.
Gomes said that when he considered Lewis’ last year in office, he was reminded of hostile invaders threatening to overtake Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries.
“I think of Harry as our Charlemagne, and I worry for the future of Europe,” he said.
With rhetorical flourish, Gomes implied that, like the Holy Roman Empire after Charlemagne’s death, the College may falter next year with Lewis’ departure. Gomes’ concern for the future of the College without its leader—“Harry the First,” as he later called him—is a sentiment expressed by many.
Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announced during March that Lewis would not continue as dean after June 30. The ouster was part of a merger between the offices of the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Dean of the College.
According to Kirby’s plan, Lewis would have no place in this new structure—and was not considered for the combined deanship, which instead fell to Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71.
While the University’s press release announcing the change simply stated that Lewis would “conclude his service as dean of Harvard College” at the end of the year, Lewis by all accounts did not want to leave.
Several administrators say Kirby had wanted the press release to state that Lewis had resigned, but Lewis refused.
“There was a lot of pressure on him to lie,” says one longtime administrator. “More disturbing was the expectation that he would dissimulate or mislead in the press release about the circumstances of his leaving.”
Another administrator, though, says Lewis was not asked to resign.
Both Lewis and Kirby declined to comment on the matter.
The controversy surrounding Lewis’ dismissal—and the provocative analogies in Gomes’ speech—reveals the strong feelings Lewis has engendered in students, faculty members and administrators over the past eight years.
From his decision to randomize the housing assignments in his first year, to his support of the revised Ad Board procedure for peer dispute cases last year, Lewis has not shied away from tackling controversial or touchy issues.
All the while, Lewis has consolidated his power in the College, emphasizing regular reviews for House masters and senior tutors, hiring loyal University Hall administrators and ruling the Ad Board with a firm hand.
But after two years of clashes with University President Lawrence H. Summers, Lewis has plummeted from being the most powerful man in the College to a spurned administrator.
The “Charlemagne” who has transformed the College with his aggressive attitude and focus on improving undergraduate life ultimately fell to a president with an equally stubborn—and very different—view of the College.
While Lewis’ departure from University Hall will probably not trigger a collapse, the position he spent the past eight years crafting will indisputedly cease to exist.
A man who left an indelible impression on the College, Lewis’ departure will be mourned by some, and noticed by all.
When Harry Met Larry
While Kirby and Summers insist Lewis’ departure was merely part of the plan to restructure, several administrators say the president and Lewis began to clash—both in style and policy—almost from the moment Summers took office in 2001.
As Lewis’ direct superior, Kirby was the one to fire Lewis, but Assistant Dean of the College Karen E. Avery ’87 echoes several administrators’ sentiments by likening Kirby to Summers’ puppet—and saying the firing was a product of Summers’ behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
“It seemed clear that the decisions were coming from on high,” Avery says. “I got the sense that someone was just pulling the strings.”
According to one well-informed source, Summers made it clear to Kirby that he would not be unhappy if Lewis stepped down.
Both Summers and Lewis have reputations for being strong-willed and hands-on—which created problems when they had to collaborate.
Scott O. Bradner, Lewis’ friend and a senior technical consultant for University Information Systems, similarly describes Lewis’ leadership style.
“If you disagree with Harry, you better be ready to support yourself,” Bradner says. “He will challenge you.”
One professor who asked not to be named says he expects Lewis and Summers to work well together because of their common propensity to be “intensely analytical.”
“[Lewis is] very like Larry,” the professor says. “So it’s curious they didn’t always see eye to eye.”
The professor now says that perhaps the two are too confident in their opinions to compromise as colleagues.
“When you’re that analytical, you’re clear about what’s right,” the professor says.
Moreover, Summers and Lewis rarely agreed on what was right in matters of College policy.
Several University Hall officials say Lewis and Summers butted heads on preregistration, study abroad policies, last year’s Senior English Address by Zayed M. Yasin ’02 at Commencement and the role of extracurricular activities at the College.
Two University Hall officials say Summers called the College “Camp Harvard” at a reception for tutors, although Summers says he does not remember using the moniker.
Summers does say he has called House tutors “camp counselors.”
The officials say the comparison reflects Summers’ belief that extracurriculars play too prominent of a role in undergraduate life.
On the other hand, Lewis—an avid fan of Harvard sports teams and a close collaborator with student group leaders—has been a staunch defender of the importance of extracurriculars in undergraduate life.
Summers, with some Faculty members, pushed for more study abroad opportunities to count for academic credit.
But Lewis, who has been at Harvard for most of his life, said he did not feel study abroad should replace time undergraduates spend at the College.
Enough students go abroad during the summer and after graduation without getting academic credit, Lewis argued in his January 7, 2003 response to Report of the Committee to Visit the College 2002.
Lewis also took issue with the way Summers handled Yasin’s address at last year’s Commencement.
The address, originally entitled “American Jihad,” sparked the anger of many students who saw the title as unnecessarily controversial and offensive, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11.
“Direct personal threats are reprehensible and all of us who believe in the values of this University should condemn them in the strongest terms,” Summers said in a written statement after learning that Yasin was threatened. He also encouraged people to “keep open minds” in a university setting.
According to one administrator, Lewis “just thought the statement issued by Summers was too weak.”
The administrator says Lewis was told by Mass. Hall not to make a statement in Yasin’s defense.
Finally, Lewis has been a vehement opponent of the preregistration initiative that both Kirby and Summers advocated.
Although Summers says the idea was Kirby’s, the president initially agreed that preregistration would enable the College to hire better graduate students as teaching fellows.
While Lewis made no official statements on the issue, those close to the discussion say he believed that eliminating shopping period would limit students’ flexibility in choosing classes.
With the opposition of most of the Faculty, the preregistration proposal failed even to go to a vote. Only after this considerable opposition did Summers change his position on preregistration.
“Overall, they are just two people who look at Harvard very differently,” Registrar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Arlene Becella says.
The Bumpy Rise
Although Lewis now runs the College like a well-oiled machine, his rise to the most powerful College deanship in recent memory has been bumpy.
Even in his inaugural year as dean, Lewis drew fire from students for implementing the randomization of housing assignments.
Although L. Fred Jewett ’57, Lewis’ predecessor as dean, had announced the new practice of randomizing placements in the housing lottery, Lewis had strongly endorsed the proposal in a report before he became dean and drew the wrath of students who in the past had been able to apply for acceptance into Houses.
Lewis also provoked controversy when he appointed Judith H. Kidd as assistant dean of the College for public service and head of Phillips Brooks House. Student leaders protested that Lewis picked Kidd without taking student input into account.
In response to his appointment of Kidd, 700 students rallied in the Yard against Lewis’ choice.
Lewis’ power over the House system and University Hall may have grown, but his decisions have not become any less contentious.
Last spring, students rallied against Lewis for pushing a new requirement that those making rape accusations present “sufficient corroborating evidence” before the Ad Board investigates allegations of sexual assault. This year, the requirement was overturned.
Despite such controversies, Lewis has been largely successful in streamlining and consolidating the College.
In the past decade, he has taken a larger role in hiring and reviewing House masters and senior tutors than any dean before him. By this year, 11 out of the 12 House masters had been appointed by Lewis, bringing the House system securely under his authority.
Not everyone thinks that Lewis’ transformation of the College has been positive.
“As he’s worked to gain more control over who becomes master, what happens is the senior tutors realize it’s not as much about being a presence in the House but pleasing University Hall and the Ad Board,” one senior tutor, who asked not to be named, said last spring.
Most of the administrators who now fill the ranks of the College—including Associate Dean of the College David P. Illingworth ’71, Assistant Dean of the College David B. Fithian, Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans, Kidd and Avery—were hired by Lewis and have fierce loyalty to him.
And as only the second tenured professor to serve as dean since 1947, Lewis has wielded a greater influence with the Faculty and reprioritized the academic role of the House system in students’ lives.
“He was remarkably effective in bridging the world of courses and the academic pursuits of students, with enriching student life in the Houses,” says Dunster House Master Roger B. Porter.
Big Shoes to Fill
Now, Faculty, students and administrators say that regardless of their differences of opinion with Lewis, his departure will leave a void at the College that the current Dean of Undergraduate Education Gross might have difficulty filling.
Lewis’ passion for the College is no secret.
“This is a man who really loves this College,” Adams House Master Judith S. Palfrey ’67 says of Lewis. “I don’t think anybody could have worked harder for this College.”
While few have expressed feelings in the florid language that Gomes used at the party last week, some administrators say the College will suffer without Lewis.
“I just think that this is very sad news for the College and for the interests of students,” Nathans said in March, at the time of the announcement.
Even students have come to appreciate Lewis’ devotion to improving undergraduate life.
“Whether or not you agreed with him, it was undeniable that he had a very thoughtful view on every single facet of student life,” Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 says. “While controversial at times, it was nice to see a leader who was actually bold and dogged on those things he believed in.”
Varsity softball player Sara W. Williamson ’04 says she was impressed by Lewis’ defense of Harvard athletes at a meeting of the Athletic Committee that he chaired earlier this year.
“It’s kind of saddening because you see how he was trying to help us,” she says. “It was nice to have a dean in your corner who was trying to build up academics and athletics together.”
Lewis counts watching the women’s hockey team win the National Championships in 1999 in Minnesota as one of the highlights of his deanship.
“I think everybody here really has sad feelings about Dean Lewis,” Jewett says. “A lot of people aren’t satisfied with the way things went.”
The Fast Fall
And, by all accounts, things have not gone well for Lewis this year.
Apparently unbeknownst to him, Kirby and Summers had been considering the combination of the deans’ offices for months. Kirby sent Summers a copy of the 1994 “Report on the Structure of Harvard College.”
In the so-called Lewis-Maull Report, Executive Dean of the Faculty Nancy L. Maull—along with Lewis—proposed three possible organizational structures, one of which joined the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Office of the Dean of the College in a “Single-Faculty-Dean Structure.”
Then-Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles decided not to implement the single-dean structure when the report first came out under his tenure.
While Lewis did not get the nod to assume a combined deanship during Knowles’ time, some believe he would have filled the position well.
Mangelsdorf Professor of Natural Sciences J. Woodland Hastings says Lewis, as a Faculty member, was chosen to be dean of the College in part because the dean of the College might eventually oversee undergraduate education as well.
“That was one of our hopes,” Hastings says.
Ironically, the new structure—which Kirby says is the reason Lewis must go—is very similar to a proposal made by Lewis almost 10 years ago.
“Dean Lewis looked to be the perfect person to take the new position because he understood both ends,” Jewett says of the new deanship. “My preference would have been for him to continue as the dean.”
Kirby would not say why Lewis was not a candidate.
As many of the current inhabitants of University Hall prepare themselves for a new arrangement, Lewis says he plans to cut back on his committee memberships and continue to teach Computer Science 121: “Introduction to Formal Systems and Computation.”
“It’ll be a little strange, because my teaching load will be the same, except without all the dean of Harvard College stuff,” he says.
He says he is considering writing a “memoir-like” book on education and intends to develop a general education course on information and its impact on science and society.
And while Lewis said in March that he did not plan to go on leave, he does plan to take next spring and the following fall off.
“There’s something profoundly genuine, real, authentic and continuous about Harry’s deanship,” Gomes said. “There is life after the bloody deanship of Harvard College.”
Gomes was talking about Lewis’ life after the Harvard administration, but all will be watching next year how life will continue in “Europe” without its “Charlemagne.”
Lewis, after packing up his Montana rocks and taking the buffalo skull off his wall, will be gone from his University Hall office for good.
—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at email@example.com.
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