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A Divided Duty: The Role of the Resident Dean

Originally a voice of academic guidance within the House community, Resident Deans have increasingly been drawn into the College’s administrative bureaucracy

Over the last few decades, current and former administrators say, the resident dean position has evolved from a role that equally balanced academic and administrative work to one that entails a sometimes overwhelming list of bureaucratic duties.
Over the last few decades, current and former administrators say, the resident dean position has evolved from a role that equally balanced academic and administrative work to one that entails a sometimes overwhelming list of bureaucratic duties.
By Elizabeth S. Auritt and Jared T. Lucky, Crimson Staff Writers

After painstakingly handling the proceedings of the most high-profile academic integrity investigations in Harvard’s history, the College’s resident deans found themselves at the center of another public scandal this spring. But this time, they, and not their students, were the objects of scrutiny.

Revelations that administrators had conducted two sets of secret searches of resident deans’ email accounts to try to identify the source of a leak of information on the cheating case garnered international media attention, casting the deans into the public spotlight.

For some, the searches represented not just an invasion of privacy, but also the idea that resident deans are treated as second-rate administrators who are not afforded the same respect as faculty.

“It has been particularly dispiriting, then, not only to learn that we were subject to this search but to learn that as a result, our very legitimacy at the College is being questioned,” Senior Resident Dean Sharon L. Howell wrote in an open letter to University President Drew G. Faust in March.

The resident deans hold a dual role within the framework of the College, interacting with students both as academic instructors and as House-level advisers. Current and former administrators say that over the past several decades the position has evolved from a role that drew an equal balance between scholarly and administrative work into a job that entails a sometimes overwhelming list of bureaucratic duties.

When Howell penned her letter to Faust, she articulated frustration about an unresolved question that has lingered for decades in the corridors of the Houses—where do resident deans fit in the increasingly complex maze of the administration of Harvard College?

COLLEGIAL COMPANIONS

House deans first moved into the Houses in 1952, on the recommendation of then-Dean of the College Wilbur J. Bender ’27. He envisioned the deanship, soon christened the “Allston Burr Senior Tutor” in honor of a wealthy benefactor to the University, as a half-time advising job for senior faculty that would give students more immediate access to academic guidance.

Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who served as senior tutor in Leverett House from 1978 to 1987 and of Dudley House from 1992 to 2005, recalled that the primary capacity of the role during his early days at Harvard was to guide students’ intellectual trajectory.

“I think the hope was you would attract tutors, who would come in and share their work with students, and serve as important mentors,” Dingman said.

As respected academics, the senior tutors maintained close personal relationships with both students and top administrators, according to folklore and mythology head tutor Deborah D. Foster, who served as senior tutor in Currier from 1989 to 1995.

“My relationship with the House Masters and the Dean of the College was completely and utterly collegial,” she said, recalling that senior tutors regularly called then-Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett ’57 to ask for advice.

BUREACRATIC BURDEN

Today, several current and former administrators said, resident deans occupy a noticeably different position, defined by an increased administrative workload. For resident deans, that means more paperwork, more correspondence, more meetings, and more responsibilities on top of their existing scholarly commitments.

Some former House officials say this change can be partly attributed to the increased centralization of the College administration. In the 1990s, they say, administrators made a conscious effort to absorb resident deans into an increasingly hierarchical College.

“There was kind of a demand that everything be bureaucratized and centralized,” said Stephen A. Mitchell, a professor of Scandinavian and folklore who served as the Master of Eliot House from 1991 to 2000.

In a 1994 report, a committee composed of faculty and administrators clarified the role of the senior tutor as an administrator called on to enforce academic policy in a “uniform fashion” while reporting directly to the Dean of the College.

The report, whose recommendations were largely embraced by a vote of the faculty, elaborated a clear standard for the division of duties between senior tutors and Masters.

“The Master is responsible for the House as a whole and the community it creates; the [Senior] Tutor for the welfare of individual students resident within the House,” the report stated.

While not inherently unreasonable, this strict separation of roles could damage the relationship between Tutors and Masters when taken to extremes, Mitchell said, potentially contributing to a “perception that somehow House Masters were meant to bribe students with food and drink at receptions...and the intellectual, specific student welfare was the responsibility of the resident dean.”

According to former Leverett House Master John E. Dowling ’57, the creation of new deanships and offices outside of the Houses drove this trend.

“There’s no question that University Hall has taken a lot of the responsibility of running a House from the Masters and assumed it for University Hall, and I don’t think that’s a good thing frankly,” Dowling said.

However, this greater oversight has not always translated to close relationships between resident deans and top administrators, some said.

“Because of the nature of how this year has been, I just haven’t gotten to know [Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds] as an academic in the way I would actually like to,” said Cabot House Resident Dean Emily W. Stokes-Rees, adding that her interactions with the dean in the past year have been limited primarily to formal Ad Board meetings.

But even in a more typical year, Stokes-Rees said, heavy workloads on both ends would likely make frequent contact impractical.

“Just in terms of the things she deals with in her day-to-day work, I think it would be unreasonable with the amount that she has to do and the amount that we have to do that we would be corresponding all the time,” Stokes-Rees mused, adding that she interacts much more frequently with some of Hammonds’s associate deans.

Of the 13 resident deans in upperclassman Houses, only Howell and Stokes-Rees agreed to be interviewed for this story. The other 11 declined or did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

A MORE DIVERSE SET OF CHARGES

Some point to the growing diversity of the student body to explain the changed role of the resident dean.

Efforts in the past few decades to broaden racial, gender, socioeconomic, and geographical representation at the College have brought to Harvard a more heterogeneous student body with a more varied background, Dingman said. These students require more attention to guide them through college life, he added, in turn demanding more time from administrators in the Houses.

House administrators said that in recent decades a greater awareness of issues like student stress, mental health, and concussions has added to the administrative caseload of resident deans, who are charged with connecting students to the appropriate resources.

And as the nature of the resident dean’s work changes, the perception of the position has also changed, they said.

“[The academic responsibilities have] become less and less part of our public profile because we’ve been given a lot more case-management counseling and crisis management,” Howell said.

Still, Stokes-Rees and Howell were quick to emphasize that they get great joy from this type of work with students.

In fact, they said, the email searches upset them precisely because of how much they value the welfare of undergraduates. The searches identified a resident dean who had forwarded an internal advising email to students implicated in the Government 1310 cheating case that eventually made its way to the media. After administrators said that the searches were intended to protect student privacy, Howell wrote in her letter that they implicitly suggested that resident deans could not be trusted.

“This charge is something we take extremely seriously—it is a privilege to contribute so immediately and substantively to the lives of these extraordinary students,” Howell wrote in the letter.

CALLING FOR BALANCE

Resident deans have been concerned about the shrinking role of academic mentorship in their perceived job description, according to Howell.

After Suzy M. Nelson was appointed associate dean of residential life in 2005, senior tutors were made to report directly to her instead of directly to the Dean of the College as they had traditionally done. This left many tutors with lingering concerns about working through a non-academic office largely unrelated to their role as faculty members, said Howell.

This shift towards the primacy of the administrative role was emphasized in 2006, when the senior tutors were renamed “Allston Burr Resident Deans.” This name change reflected the shift from academic mentor to live-in administrator, according to Mitchell, implying “a bureaucratic relationship to the House,” he said.

In contrast, three policies implemented at the recommendation of a 2009 report swung the pendulum back toward the original conception of the resident dean as academic mentor. Those changes shifted oversight of resident deans back to the Dean of the College, extended term limits for resident deans to allow them to pursue tenure-track positions, and required resident deans to have Ph.D.s.

Howell reiterated that while she values her non-academic advising duties, she hopes this recent trend will continue. Going forward, she said, resident deans should be able to devote more time to talking with students about their intellectual life.

“We do need to find a better balance in order for the resident deans to achieve their potential in the Houses,” Howell said.

—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at eauritt@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @eauritt.

—Staff writer Jared T. Lucky can be reached at lucky@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @jared_lucky.

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