Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 likes puzzles. He likes tracing connections, fitting disparate pieces into a larger pattern. His wife, Director of Admissions Marlyn E. McGrath ’70, says Lewis likes to “see and connect the dots.”
So when University President Drew G. Faust announced unprecedented penalties on undergraduate members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations in May 2016, Lewis could not help himself—he quickly drew a historical parallel.
“It immediately collided with this principle that you don’t punish people for joining clubs,” Lewis says. “This is a piece of 1950s Americana which I’m afraid is just on the fringe of human memory now, that people don’t remember how important that principle was and how brutal [Senator Joseph R.] McCarthy was to bring people before Congress and just ask them, ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?’
“Immediate connection,” he adds.
In the year since the rollout of the policy—which, starting with the class of 2021, bars members of unrecognized single-gender social groups from holding certain fellowships and leadership positions on campus—Lewis’s “immediate connection” has sparked staunch opposition to the College’s sanctions. The same month Faust debuted the policy, Lewis filed a faculty motion resolving that “Harvard shall not discriminate against students on the basis of organizations they join”—an explicit attempt to kill the sanctions. Though 11 other professors co-signed the legislation, it quickly garnered a nickname: “the Lewis motion.”
In the past 12 months, Lewis has railed against the policy in private correspondence to Faust and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, in speeches to students and faculty, and in posts on his blog, Bits and Pieces. He also wrote critical op-eds in The Crimson and the Washington Post, both of which he has taped to the window of his Maxwell Dworkin office.
Lewis’s advocacy comes near the end of a long career at the College; he plans to retire roughly three years from now on July 1, 2020. When he steps down, Lewis will have been involved with Harvard in some way—whether as an undergraduate, graduate student, professor, or as dean of the College—for more than half a century.
Supporters describe Lewis’s recent actions as a necessary defense of students’ constitutional rights. But detractors say the Lewis motion is dangerously wrong-headed and fosters discrimination. And to some, the former dean’s open criticism of his successor constitutes a breach of professional etiquette.
Nonetheless, former and current colleagues and students agree on one point: they say Lewis is devoted to Harvard, an institution he helped shape over the past five decades.
“Harvard is his church, in some way,” McGrath says. “We laugh about putting it that way, but it’s just true.”
Lewis’s near-religious zeal for Harvard has, in the twilight of his career, driven him to crusade against a policy he believes threatens the school’s founding principles and core identity—its status as “America’s University.”
It was the summer of 1967—a time Harvard technician Scott O. Bradner, who ran a computer shop where Lewis worked as an undergraduate, remembers as “the height of the ’60s, when none of us were feeling any pain.”
Lewis, though, doesn’t recall relaxing much that summer, which fell between his junior and senior years of college. Most days, he divided his time between a nondescript wooden desk in Harvard’s Engineering Sciences building and a massive, single-user PDP-1 computer in the basement of the computation lab. He was doing research for his thesis: developing software that could interpret handwritten mathematical equations.
A lowly undergraduate, Lewis usually got access to the computer during the “2 to 4 a.m. block.” He often stayed up all night, working to transfer his mathematical scrawl from the page to the screen.
Lewis had also recently proposed to McGrath, then a Radcliffe sophomore. And he knew he would likely be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War after he graduated Harvard.
“There was so much going on,” Lewis says. “I was madly in love, I was under tremendous stress, and I was having the time of my life programming computers.”
Lewis calls that summer—and the following two semesters—the “critical year” of his life. His wife agrees.
“Harry came of age at Harvard,” she says.
Shortly after Lewis’s graduation, he and McGrath married at a church in Brookline. The couple then left Cambridge for a time, working a two-year stint at the National Institutes of Health before journeying through Europe for 12 months after Lewis won a Harvard traveling fellowship.
"I was madly in love, I was under tremendous stress, and I was having the time of my life programming computers," Harry R. Lewis '68 said.
In 1971, Lewis and McGrath returned to campus: he to pursue a graduate degree in applied sciences, she to complete her undergraduate studies. They never left again.
Lewis joined the faculty in 1974 after receiving his PhD, and became a full professor of computer science in 1981, three years before Harvard began awarding computer science degrees—a decision he was instrumental in pushing through. He has taught at Harvard ever since, including during his eight-year tenure as dean of the College from 1995 to 2003.
Harvard is central to Lewis’s life: it is where he discovered his love for computer science, where he proposed to his wife, where he pursued and made his career. Both of Lewis’s two daughters attended Harvard and went on to earn MBAs at the Business School.
“All I can say is, it runs very deep, he’s spent most of his life here,” says Computer Science professor Michael D. Mitzenmacher ’91, who studied under Lewis while an undergraduate at the College. “He loves the place and it’s always on his mind.”
Lewis calls himself a “Harvard lifer”—a breed he fears is dying out.
“The faculty are more like professional athletes now; they move around,” Lewis says.
Across the years, Lewis and his wife have come to feel “a sense of ownership” over the University.
“We’ve got a stake in what happens. It’s not a transactional thing: you do your thing here, they pay you, and next week they trade you to Princeton,” he says. “No. It’s like family. The same way you’ve got an ownership stake in your family members.”
As much as Harvard shaped Lewis, Lewis, in turn, shaped Harvard. Both as dean of the College and as a Computer Science professor, Lewis has overseen major changes to the way his alma mater operates.
While serving as dean, Lewis carried out the then-highly controversial process of House randomization. He also pushed to complete the final steps of a decades-long merger between Harvard and Radcliffe.
There were smaller changes, too: in 1998, Lewis named Diana L. Eck and her partner Dorothy A. Austin the heads of Lowell House, marking the first time a same-sex couple served as House Masters in Harvard’s history.
“He really pushed the walls on many areas,” says Tamar March, who often worked with Lewis in her role as Radcliffe’s Dean of Educational Programs during the merger. “I think he left Harvard a better place than he found it.”
One Harvard institution Lewis did not seek to alter was the school’s all-male final clubs, though he sharply criticized the groups at the time.
"The unequal status of women at Clubs—unwelcome as members, but welcomed for the amusement of the male members at their parties—continues to be of great concern to the College,” he wrote in a 1998 op-ed for the Harvard Independent.
When asked, though, colleagues and former students say Lewis’s teaching—rather than his involvement with randomization or the merger—forms his enduring legacy.
In 40 years at Harvard, Lewis taught thousands of students, including computer science rock stars Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Seven current Harvard Computer Science professors studied under Lewis or served as teaching fellows in his classes while studying at the College.
“One of the things he teaches in his course is the concept of countability and uncountability,” Computer Science professor Salil P. Vadhan '95 says. “The number of people he has had an impact on does seem to be in the realm of the uncountable.”
Apart from his track record as an administrator and professor, Lewis has recently become something of a Harvard celebrity for his vocal criticism of the College’s penalties and for posts on his personal blog. Online, Lewis opines freely on issues ranging from a 2012 Harvard cheating scandal to the “tiresome” canonization of Steve Jobs to the proper format for Christmas cards.
Colleagues and former students describe the 70-year-old Lewis—grey-haired, blue-eyed, and with a fondness for button-down Marimekko shirts in summertime—as an outspoken, unapologetic advocate for what he believes.
Some say Lewis has long been this way.
“I think when he has a strong view of something and he thinks it’s fair and right, he’s going to fight for it,” says Karen E. Avery ’87, who served as Assistant Dean of the College during Lewis’s tenure. “I think he’s a mover and a shaker.”
March adds that “shy” is not “something I would marry” to Lewis’s personality.
“If you look back at his history, he has long spoken out about issues related to Harvard that he thinks are important,” Mitzenmacher says. “Consistent throughout all these times, Harry has been a moral voice at Harvard.”
Lewis’s outspokenness has, at times, earned him critics—particularly when it comes to his campaign against the College’s proposed penalties on members of single-gender final clubs and Greek organizations.
During a December 2017 faculty meeting, several professors derided the Lewis motion and defended the College’s social group policy. English professor Louis Menand offered a particularly emphatic rebuke of Lewis and his co-signatories’ rationale for opposing the penalties.
“I am astonished that colleagues I like and respect have put their names to the motion before us,” Menand said then. “The motion is pure sophistry. It basically says, ‘We cannot discriminate against people who discriminate because that would be a form of discrimination.’”
“Seriously?” Menand continued to cheers. “This is the kind of limits-of-tolerance hypothetical that you might be able to get away with in a freshman seminar, and it is unworthy of this faculty. Of course we can be intolerant of intolerance, and of course we can discriminate against people who discriminate.”
Lewis says he has no patience with Menand’s censure. He says the English professor’s contention that it is acceptable to discriminate against those who discriminate is nonsense.
“It was a great applause line, but it was just wrong,” Lewis says. “We don’t think it’s our job to judge what people do in their lives.”
Some have criticized Lewis’s anti-sanctions stance more generally, claiming the former dean violates protocol by speaking out against a sitting dean’s signature policy.
Lewis says it is “too bad” that some have seen his public denunciation of the policy as an act of impolitic defiance against President Faust and Dean Khurana.
“I wish it didn’t look that way,” he adds. “I know it’s hard, I know these are hard jobs and you’re always trying to balance conflicting goals, and I deeply respect both Dean Khurana and President Faust—I’m not speaking up about this because I want to make their lives difficult, I just think the policy is wrong and I want to be able to have a discussion about it.”
Lewis’s adamant opposition to the College’s penalties—decorum be damned—stems from a particular vision of America, one forged in large part during his time at a ’60s-era Harvard still reeling from McCarthyist witch hunts.
“It is an axiom in America that you don’t punish people for joining [clubs], you punish them for what they do,” Lewis says. “As Americans we have the right peaceably to assemble. And peaceably assemble means assemble and form a club.”
His wife says that, for Lewis, Harvard is “America’s University”—meaning the College’s policy, which Lewis sees as fundamentally un-American, has no place within the school’s gates.
Lewis says his thoughts on the matter are distilled in remarks made by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a member of the Class of 1903, during a speech the then-president gave in Harvard Yard at the University’s Tercentennial in September 1936.
“In this day of modern witch-burning, when freedom of thought has been exiled from many lands which were once its home, it is the part of Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind and to carry the torch of truth,” Roosevelt said then.
For now, Lewis has paused his campaign against the sanctions. He’s holding out hope that a committee with the power to “revise or replace” the policy—a committee Khurana announced in the fallout of the Lewis motion—will radically alter the penalties.
If things don’t go his way, though, Lewis is ready to again plunge the campus into debate over whether his specific ideas of Harvard and America still resonate. And, if the debate stretches past his 2020 retirement, Lewis hopes some will remain to safeguard Harry’s Harvard.
“I don’t want to carry this ball myself. You know who all the co-sponsors of my original resolution are and my coauthors on my first op-ed,” he says.
“So we’ll see what happens.”
—Staff writer Hannah Natanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @hannah_natanson.