With Time Short and Student Trust in Administrators Low, Pfister Seeks To Build Community

Three Days In
Rebecca D. Robbins

Donald H. Pfister sits for an interview in his new University Hall office Friday, just three days after being appointed interim Dean of the College.

Three days into Donald H. Pfister’s tenure as interim Dean of the College, the walls are largely bare and the shelves not yet full in his new University Hall office. Only on his mantle is clear evidence that a systematic botanist now inhabits the administrative heart of Harvard’s flagship school: an enlarged print of a first-class stamp honoring Asa Gray, the botanist for whom Pfister’s professorship is named.

Pfister, who will lead the College during the search for a permanent dean, acknowledges that he has little time to make the office his own. “At the most, I’m looking at a year, probably,” he says in an interview in his office Friday afternoon.

Yet despite this transience, Pfister hopes to leave his mark on the College in the time he has.

“I want to be the dean that was able to do this community building and be able to bring the College life and academic life together in some way,” Pfister said. “That’s a big assignment for one year, but part of it is reaching out, being available, having the ability to work with a mixed constituency, in a way.”

But after a tumultuous year that some say has fractured the community he seeks to build, Pfister may face an uphill battle.

Pfister assumes the deanship, most recently held by Evelynn M. Hammonds, after a year marked by controversy—a massive cheating scandal and revelations of secret email searches that some believe led to Hammonds’s departure. Though well-acquainted with the workings of the College, Pfister faces the challenge of leading a student body that has grown skeptical of administrators without knowing how long he may have to effect change.


Several Undergraduate Council members predicted that the issues that dominated campus discussion this past year will again be the most pressing questions facing the College this fall. They and Pfister’s colleagues say that the new interim dean’s long resume has prepared him to address these issues.

Pfister, most recently the dean of Harvard Summer School and curator of the Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium, has taught at Harvard for nearly four decades. In that time, he has held multiple appointments in the College administration, serving as Kirkland House Master for 18 years and chairing a committee that reviewed the Administrative Board.