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When leaders of the Undergraduate Council led Interim Dean of the College Donald H. Pfister into the Adams House Lower Common Room one Friday in early May, they told him they would be discussing student transportation.
But with balloons, cupcakes, mushrooms, and dozens of undergraduates waiting in the room, it quickly became clear that policy was not up for discussion. While one excited participant instinctively suggested singing happy birthday, there was no confusion as to why the UC had arranged the surprise party: to congratulate and thank Pfister for his work in the last year.
Just a couple of days later, professors and administrators gathered in University Hall for the last full Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting of the year rose to applaud Pfister, who will step down from the position of dean of the College this summer, after ushering the school through a year of transition.
The scene was markedly different from one that had unfolded in the same room just a year prior, when faculty members at their end-of-year meeting peppered administrators with questions about governance and trust. That meeting proved to be an inflection point in a tumultuous academic year that began with the College’s largest cheating scandal in memory and ended with revelations of secret email searches and, ultimately, the resignation of Evelynn M. Hammonds from the College deanship.
A year after she left office, the strain and strife that roiled the College community under Hammonds has largely been assuaged by her successor, students and administrators say. Improved relations between the Dean’s Office and other parts of the College administration and student body have slowly restored trust, and with it, a sense of productive normalcy.
As the interim year comes to a close and University Hall prepares to welcome its third College dean in just over a year, students, faculty, and administrators say that for all he has accomplished, Pfister has served his role without introducing substantial reforms, setting the stage for incoming dean Rakesh Khurana to chart a more permanent vision for Harvard’s flagship school.
THE SHADOW OF SCANDAL
Pfister moved into his office in early July 2013 and eased into his position at the helm of an administration largely left in disarray.
All the while, College staff found it difficult to address day-to-day duties, as the administration careened from one scandal to another.
The first had come in late August 2012 in the form of an investigation into about 125 students suspected of improper collaboration on a final take home exam. Even as the University sought to protect the confidentiality of the disciplinary process by declining to reveal the identities of those being investigated, media organizations published confidential information, increasingly worrying administrators about the source of the suspected leaks.
Faced with concerns that the Administrative Board’s confidentiality had been compromised, Hammonds and FAS Dean Michael D. Smith secretly authorized the search of all resident deans’ administrative email accounts.
Come springtime, when those searches came to light, administrators would face a second scandal, one that would permanently sour perceptions of the dean of the College among students and faculty members.
While students and faculty expressed concern over the searches, criticisms of the Dean of the College and the wider administration reached a fever pitch just under a month later, when Hammonds admitted to Faculty members that she had authorized a second round of searches—this time targeting both the administrative and faculty email accounts of a specific resident dean—unbeknownst to Smith.
THE STUDENT’S DEAN
With the start of the academic year in September, Pfister began sending emails to the student body once every two weeks or so. Filled with College news, short reflections on the seasons, fun facts, and frequently a book recommendation, the messages quickly became hallmarks of his administration, demonstrating to students the accessibility Pfister said he was so interested in promoting.
"I've never encountered another administrator that was so frank," Undergraduate Council President Gus A. Mayopoulos '15 said.
UC President Gus A. Mayopoulos ’15 says that these correspondences, often laced with mushroom and fungi references, revealed a “larger desire on [Pfister’s] part to know what was happening with students and to be a part of it.” So successful were the emails that UC leaders say they looked to Pfister’s example when deciding how they themselves would communicate with the student body.
Indeed, student leaders say Pfister has restored trust and transparency in the College’s top office through constant communication and increased relatability with undergraduates, repairing what UC Vice President Sietse K. Goffard ’15 calls “frayed relations” believed to be caused in part by the email searches and Gov 1310 cheating scandal.
“Dean Pfister has done a phenomenal job at coming out and really restoring that sense of community, of humility that people like to see in the dean,” Goffard says.
While UC leaders also mention the increased visibility that came as Pfister handed cupcakes to undergraduates during reading period and distributed bookmarks on the Quad shuttle earlier this spring, they emphasized his heightened advocacy for student concerns among FAS administrators.
In their frequent meetings, Mayopoulos says that Pfister was an active supporter for the UC’s initiatives, including proposed funding increases, gender neutral housing, and issues of race at campus brought up by the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign. UC leaders say that because Pfister’s deanship was temporary, he was able to be more honest and “relaxed” in discussing the reality of the administration, even when the outcome was not that which students wanted.
“I've never encountered another administrator that was so frank,” Mayopoulos says. “I think in a lot of ways he was very free to talk to with us how he wanted.”
The change in tone and exposure, while seemingly simple to achieve, has significantly shaped the way students look at the position, former UC President Tara Raghuveer ’14 says.
“If this has been a year of pause, an interim year...without any big, long-scale policy, and yet Harvard students feel so much better about him than they did about the previous administration, I think it’s a pretty profound statement about what we value,” Raghuveer says. “And I think what we value is the humanity that he has shown us that we haven’t really seen from a lot of other people.”
TURNING DOWN THE TEMPERATURE
Speaking in his office down the hall from Pfister’s, Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde says that he recalls a tense atmosphere among College staff when he arrived on campus last spring to begin his position as head of the Office of Student Life.
“Everyone was in reaction mode all the time, being constantly bombarded by one controversy after another,” Lassonde says. “That’s a difficult environment to operate in. You don’t feel like you can ever make progress and address student needs and think about and anticipate what those should be.”
But Lassonde says that Pfister was largely successful in maintaining the stability of the College staff coming off a year when administrative cohesion was hard to find. In particular, he says that the “really necessary trust” between the resident deans, who were at the center of the email search scandal, and central College administrators has been restored over the course of Pfister’s tenure, with increased dialogue between the groups and the completion of an FAS review of the resident dean position that reaffirmed the resident deanship’s role in the College.
Pfister says that one of the priorities he set for his year-long tenure was to “build, help, and enhance the College staff,” a task he believes was accomplished by making sure his “door was open” to colleagues and ensuring that they felt their voice was heard in the office.
Russ Porter, the College’s interim dean for administration, praised in an email statement Pfister’s efforts to “strengthen the entire community.”
“Much has been written already this year about his special charm and way with the students, but I want to add that he has that very same impact on the staff here at the College,” Porter wrote.
Adams House resident dean Sharon L. Howell, who was a vocal critic of the handling of the email search scandal, praises the connections she sees Pfister having made among students and administrators.
“It’s been clear that he values resident deans,” Howell says. “This is a moment and has been a moment of transition in a lot of ways, and [Pfister] has been an ideal person to have at the helm in a transitional moment like this because he is calm, and careful, and listens to all of the constituencies.”
Though Pfister says that he did not make specific efforts to reach out to faculty members during his time as dean, members of the Harvard community say that Pfister’s presence itself was restorative for the group.
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations professor Ali S. Asani ’77 explains that the real rift between faculty members and administrators existed with the FAS Dean’s Office, not that of the College Dean.
“Because he is a respected faculty member who has been at Harvard for a long time, and people know him and he’s been a House master, appointing someone like him actually was seen as a good sign. Okay, here’s somebody that we can trust,” Asani says.
‘PAR FOR THE COURSE’
Despite Pfister’s strides to improve perceptions toward the dean of the College position, students, faculty, and administrators say that they recognize that Pfister’s tenure was a year of pause in policy, one where initiating long-term projects and reforms took a backseat to providing a smooth transitional administration while Smith searched for the next dean of the College.
Pfister facilitated the decision to expand gender neutral housing and saw through the conclusion of the resident dean review, but, when he departs University Hall this summer, he will leave his successor complicated and unsolved questions regarding academic integrity and vacancies among the College staff.
Former Hammonds advisor D. E. Lorraine Sterritt left her position as College dean for administration in the fall, a vacancy that has gone without a permanent replacement throughout Pfister’s tenure. An exodus of staffers at the academic year’s end is expected to include Howell, Secretary of the Ad Board John “Jay” L. Ellison, and Cabot House Resident Dean Emily W. Stokes-Rees, all of whom played a large role in the adjudication of the cheating case through their involvement with the Ad Board.
"Fostering that trust might not always seem like sweeping and substantive work, but it over time creates a better space for good things to happen," Adams House Resident Dean Sharon L. Howell said.
Khurana will also be faced with implementing the recently approved honor code and creating the student-faculty judicial board charged with hearing academic integrity cases. And other student life issues will remain on the plate for the College’s next top administrator as well, including the recently created “inclusion” working group, which is set to begin meeting in the fall, an ongoing Department of Education Title IX investigation, and a new University-wide sexual assault policy that is awaiting Dept. of Education approval.
“It’s par for the course,” says Currier House Master Elizabeth A. Ross. “I imagine you’re focused on working on the issues that are most important for that year and thinking about who’s going to take over in the long-run. You’re not the dean; you’re the interim dean.”
Howell agreed that Pfister has in many ways “set the stage” for Khurana to work with others on future, substantial initiatives.
“I think there’s a way that the kind of atmosphere that Dean Pfister has created...has made it more likely that collaborative projects like the honor code or College initiatives will be successful,” Howell says. “Fostering that trust might not always seem like sweeping and substantive work, but it over time creates a better space for good things to happen.”
For his part, Pfister acknowledges that his tenure was not one that was particularly full of big projects and goals.
“Knowing that you’re interim, it’s...unfair to saddle someone who you know is going to be following you with projects or ideas or special things they may or may not agree with or may not feel the same way that you do about them,” Pfister says.
Reflecting on his year, Pfister says that he believes he was largely successful as dean of the College.
“I think a very healthy organization and set of relationships are being handed off, and I’m proud of that,” Pfister says, adding that he is confident Khurana would also be successful. Mayopoulos and Goffard both say they are confident their already strong relationship with Khurana will allow for productive negotiations next year, as well.
But others, while agreeing with Pfister in his assessment, emphasize that it is not so clear that things will be the same with a permanent dean.
“Let’s not be reductive about this...let’s not just have the expectation for dean of the College be that they send cute emails,” Raghuveer says. “We need to expect more of the leaders of this institution. Ideally that is a part of it, ideally that communication is maintained and that humanity is maintained, but we need to ‘get shit done.’”
—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.
—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: June 27, 2014
An earlier version of a photograph accompanying this article was incorrectly attributed. In fact, the photograph was taken by Sue Brown, the College's associate director of advising programs.
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