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Evelynn M. Hammonds started her tenure as the Dean of Harvard College last year dealing with a massive power outage on the first day freshmen arrived on campus—the beginning of a string of difficult and unpredictable circumstances that would shape her first year as dean.
Over the course of the year, there were four student deaths, an alleged drug-related homicide in Kirkland House, and a financial crisis that led to University-wide staff layoffs and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Hammonds faced a crisis of her own at home—her partner Alexandra was being treated for cancer, leaving her to care for both Alexandra and their young son.
The confluence of unfortunate, and in some cases tragic, circumstances would have been difficult for any dean—and for Hammonds, who had just been appointed, it was at times overwhelming.
Students complained that they felt they did not know the woman in charge, saying that Hammonds was disconnected from the student body. Many held her responsible for several unpopular decisions, including cuts to the shuttle schedule, the elimination of hot breakfast in upperclass Houses, and a restricted January Term.
But this year, circumstances are markedly different: there has been only one accidental student death, no homicides, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ financial situation has continued to improve. And while Hammonds herself faced a bout of pneumonia at the end of the spring semester, her partner’s health has improved significantly.
After what was, by all accounts, a tumultuous first year, administrators say Hammonds has found her footing in her second year on the job. Now as she works to define her priorities, she is increasingly able to push her own agenda instead of spending her days reacting to numerous campus and personal emergencies.
“She’s had the opportunity to be more thoughtful [this year] and not have to react to crisis after crisis after crisis,” says Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education Stephanie H. Kenen. “She’s really starting to focus her attention on how she wants to prioritize things.”
LISTENING TO STUDENT VOICES
While Hammonds garnered criticism last year for being out of touch with undergraduates, the change in circumstances has given her more time to interact with students across campus this year.
Hammonds initially tried to reach out to students through a handful of group teas last year. This semester she took a different approach to reaching out, holding monthly office hours which gave any undergraduate the opportunity to speak one-on-one with her during 10-minute slots.
According to Associate Dean of the College Paul J. McLoughlin, Hammonds had more time in her schedule this year to interact with students: she attended a private dinner with the Crimson Dance Team last January, invited over 100 female African-American students and faculty members to a reception at her home last month, and attended student events such as the Adams House Fantasy Night.
“It was kind of cool that she came to it,” says Maxwell E. Storto ’11, who shook Hammonds’ hand at the event.
Although the dean has increased her visibility on campus, many students interviewed by The Crimson still say they have never met Hammonds.
But not all of these students interpreted the lack of contact as a sign that she is out of touch with students.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for me to know her personally for her to perform at her best,” Fabian A. Poliak ’11 says.
For many students, reading Hammonds’ e-mail correspondence is their main source of contact with the dean.
“Every time I see an e-mail from Dean Hammonds in the middle of the semester, it’s like, ‘Uh-oh, somebody died again,’” says Courtney L. Blair ’10. “Not that it’s her fault, but she shouldn’t be afraid to have more of a presence. When you get an e-mail from the Dean of the College, it reminds you that you’re part of this larger body of undergraduates.”
WHAT THE STUDENTS WANT
Hammonds says that her interactions with students have played a role in some of her decisions this year and the development of her long-term goals.
For example, one of Hammonds’ self-identified priorities is to address the issue of limited social space on campus.
“By the end of my deanship I hope that the administration will have found a way to solve the problem of more space for student organizations,” she says.
Hammonds specifically cites her interaction with students as the driving force behind her support for this issue.
“I was having dinner with some students [who said], ‘Dean, we need a no-work zone...we don’t have enough of them,’” she says. “After listening to this for a year and a half, I’m convinced that it’s an important thing for student life.”
Though she says it is unlikely that Harvard will acquire a new property for a dedicated student center, Hammonds hopes to spend time next year evaluating ways to reconfigure existing space.
Hammonds has also spent time this year planning for next year’s J-Term—the month-long break between the fall and spring semesters that debuted this year.
After discussions with student leaders and other administrative offices, the administration announced in April that the College will allow all students to return to campus a week before the spring semester begins.
While the change did not satisfy all of students’ J-Term requests, Undergraduate Council President Johnny F. Bowman ’11 says he believes the College’s decision is a direct result of the input they received from student leaders.
A COLLEGE COMMUNITY
In addition to cultivating a relationship with students, Hammonds has also worked to build the College administration into a cohesive community.
Administrators effusively praise Hammonds’ leadership abilities, which they say have earned her respect across the College staff.
Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson lauded Hammonds for her “egalitarian” and “collaborative” leadership style.
“She always has time for individuals and individual concerns,” Nelson says.
Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison says that Hammonds has endeared herself to her subordinates in the College administration.
“Evelynn is one of those people that people would do anything for,” he says. “She instills that kind of loyalty—people give it back in return.”
Aside from developing relationships with senior administrators, Hammonds has also made an effort to reach out to lower-level House personnel, such as resident deans and tutors, McLoughlin says.
Though some tutors say they have not interacted with Hammonds enough to formulate an opinion, Lowell House senior staff tutor Van C. Tran says that he would give Hammonds an ‘A’ for her performance as dean.
Tran says that some of the dissatisfaction with Hammonds among House staff last year may have resulted from inadequate communication, citing an incident where information was released to the student body before tutors were notified.
“She’s doing a much better job than before,” Tran says. “[Talking] to people at the Houses...is extremely important, and I think she came to know [that].”
‘A RESEARCHER AT HEART’
As Hammonds has had the opportunity to define her own agenda, her decision-making process has evolved to reflect her scientific background in physics and engineering as well as her academic research on the history and science of race.
“She likes empirical data,” says McLoughlin, who notes that Hammonds commissioned the undergraduate J-Term survey at the end of January this year in an effort to collect more information about students’ opinions. “I feel like in some ways last year she was a student and this year she’s like a researcher—back to her scientific inquiry mode.”
Nelson agrees with McLoughlin, calling Hammonds “a researcher at heart.”
In keeping with her background, Hammonds says that the undergraduate research experience is a priority for her administration.
“It is important for students in the the College to work with faculty on the research that [faculty] are passionate about,” Hammonds says. “Working with faculty on their research is one of the benefits of attending a liberal arts college that is embedded in a world-class research university.”
This year, Hammonds created the Office for Undergraduate Research Initiatives, which will be responsible for managing the summer Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE). She also developed a similar social sciences summer research program—entitled Behavioral Laboratory in the Social Sciences (BLISS)—which is scheduled to be offered in summer 2011.
She says she ultimately hopes to develop summer programs for students in the arts and humanities as well.
Hammonds’ teaching background has also motivated her to push the College to reexamine its teaching style and incorporate “21st century” techniques and technologies into the classroom.
“We have a lot of classrooms that are frankly 19th century classrooms—chairs are bolted down and professors stand in front of the classroom and lecture,” she says.
Kenen says that college students today learn differently than how faculty members learned. “Our students are often referred to as digital natives—learn visually, learn using multimedia tools, learn using web,” she says.
Hammonds says that the College is currently conducting a review of the Derek Bok Center for Learning and Teaching, which provides pedagogical resources for faculty and teaching staff. She and Dean of the Faculty Michael D. Smith have also discussed the possibility of renovating some teaching facilities.
Hammonds’ colleagues say her range of experiences and education will likely define her tenure as dean of the College.
“She’s got a really interesting and unique trajectory that got her into this job, and I think she brings all of that to the table at all times,” Kenen says. “Those are the lenses through which she sees things.”
—Danielle J. Kolin and Naveen N. Srivatsa contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Melody Y. Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at email@example.com.
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