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Farewell, Dean Hammonds


I expected myself to be pleased when Evelynn Hammonds stepped down as Dean of Harvard College. After all, I am a strong advocate of student voice in democratic university governance and of the importance of student journalism; it’s clear that The Crimson staff’s April 4, 2013 editorial was one of the first and most directed calls for her resignation. This call followed news reports of Hammonds’s involvement in multiple secret rounds of email searches, including one expressly illicit search, in connection with last year’s Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” cheating scandal.

In part, I am happy that Hammonds has left her post as Dean of College: After this year on leave, she will be getting back to her academic work in the history of science department, something I’ve long wished she would do more of. (For the record, Hammonds has said herself that her resignation was independent of the scandal and prompted only by a desire to return to research and teaching. But just as former Harvard President Larry Summers’s resignation is consistently narrated as a direct result of his controversial commentary about women in science, I am sure that Hammonds will be remembered for her connection to the email scandal.)

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed not in our former Dean, but in Harvard. It’s a shame that when Hammonds found herself in a position of power, she misused that power. But the fact that she did so speaks more to the incredible institutional momentum of Harvard than to a failing of Hammonds’ personal character or ideology.

Perhaps my disappointment comes because I truly admire Evelynn Hammonds. Hammonds’s life story is impressive. She was one of the first black women to enter a physics graduate program at MIT. Her later academic interests are fascinating and important: As a history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator, I have read Hammonds’s papers multiple times and appreciate her work on race, sexuality, and science. Hammonds herself was an important part of the feminist movements in science that I am writing my senior thesis about. How did such a wonderful critic, feminist, and activist become the object of student anger? When did she turn into “the Man”?

I don’t know what Hammonds was thinking when she decided to search Resident Deans’ email accounts and then mislead the press and the Harvard community about the email searches. Similarly, I don’t know what she was thinking when she met with Occupy Harvard and told us that the College and University would not listen to our political demands and would respond to student protest by shutting down the Yard “for our safety.” I don’t know what she was thinking when she told students last fall that Harvard’s sexual assault policy would not change to a standard of affirmative consent, a change that would benefit survivors of sexual assault. I can only hope that she felt guilty, ashamed, or conflicted about her position in those situations.

Harvard could not have selected a better feminist and academic than Hammonds to lead Harvard College. Yet I assume that Hammonds, like Drew Faust, got tangled up in the administrative structure of Harvard as it hurtles headlong into a frenzy of corporatization and public relations mania.

Of course, this is not to say that Hammonds accomplished nothing as Dean of Harvard College. For example, she made a valiant effort to reach out to students for their perspectives on College life and alcohol policy. She certainly worked hard to respond to student demands for more queer spaces on campus, convening a working group that resulted in the formation of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life. Despite this, Hammonds didn’t do anything to change Harvard’s twin obsessions with public relations and profit—in fact, she helped perpetuate then.

Former Dean of Harvard College and current computer science professor Harry R. Lewis '68 finds it easy to interact critically with Harvard: His blog contains consistently sharp and critical commentary on administrative actions. It’s possible that Lewis’s social capital and privilege make it much easier for him to take such a critical stance toward Harvard’s administrative momentum; maybe, too, Harvard’s administrative culture was less prescriptive when Lewis was dean ten years ago.

Whichever way, I hope that when Hammonds returns to Harvard next year, she will begin speaking frankly about Harvard culture in a way that she did not as dean. And perhaps more importantly, Harvard should not rest content with our University’s morality after one offending Dean appears to have been ousted. I’m certain that Hammonds’ actions were not the cause, but rather just one manifestation, of a University ideology obsessed with public image at the expense of community trust.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Follow her Twitter @sandraylk.

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