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Faculty Deans: What On Earth Do They Do?

New Lowell in the Snow 2019
The renovated Lowell House will open in the fall, after Lowell House Faculty Deans Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin step down.

Dorothy and I are stepping down as Faculty Deans this June. So, on reflection, what does a faculty dean do? It is my hope that in briefly articulating this, I might shed light on a role that is mysterious to some of you, and perhaps entice some of you to think about this for yourselves.

First and perhaps obviously, you still do your own work. A faculty dean does not relinquish research, writing, and teaching and become the sultan of a small kingdom. No, our work is part of the deal. At least one and often both partners in the faculty dean role is an academic, with research and writing projects. I teach classes in Religion, General Education, and South Asian Studies. In Dorothy’s case – she was not only a teacher, but a preacher who married the joyful and consoled the bereaved. As for research, faculty deans lead major research projects, like Eliot House Faculty Dean Douglas A. Melton’s stem cell research. In my case, it’s the Pluralism Project that studies the changing religious and cultural landscape of the United States.

However, faculty deans do agree to live their lives and do their work in a new context – that of a diverse, exciting, and sometimes demanding community. Being a faculty dean is not an honorary position. It is actually a job that takes time and often involves making discerning judgments about how you spend your time. It is a position of leadership in a House community troubled by most of the issues of difference, diversity, and disparity that perplex our society today. That is a challenge, but also a very rewarding one.

Second, you are engaged with students. If your work is part of the deal, the well-being of students is the other part – and the primary part. That’s why you would want to do this. You would get to enjoy conversation with students – not primarily about your own work, but about theirs. In Lowell dining hall, I have found that my curiosity about students’ work is immeasurably rewarded. It is like going to a surprise dinner party: You don’t know who will be there and you join in conversations that are invariably interesting and sometimes critically important. Getting to know students, you will find that you are happy to go to their plays, concerts, and recitals. You might watch their basketball games and show up at dances where you don’t know the moves or the music. Of course, you can’t possibly do it all, but you do need to engage in some part of it, especially the parts that you love.

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Third, you have a team. You don’t go it alone. At the helm, there is the close and confidential team of a senior staff – the resident dean, House administrator, two or three experienced tutors. How are things going? What are the rough spots for students? What’s ahead? Together, you do the critical work of assembling a team of resident tutors from diverse fields of study.

The tutors also choose to live their lives, as you do, in the context of community. There are monthly tutor meetings. What’s happening with students? What’s coming up in the House? Meetings might be particularly intense as College wide issues erupt: final clubs, a student arrest, the sexual assault report. How does our House community respond to issues that tear at race relations or to the fact that more than a quarter of our students are hurting because they have personally experienced sexual misconduct? What is the tutor’s role in conflicts? How do tutors moderate tough issues rather than escalate them? What effect does it have on House culture when a tutor — for any reason whatsoever — attacks a student? When litigation and intimidation enter into the community of relationships that are constitutive of a residential Houses?

Fourth, you have colleagues. As a faculty dean you would have a spectrum of collegial relations with other members of the faculty, not just those in your own department or school. You might invite some of them to become members of the Senior Common Room. They discuss things that are often not aired in their departments, but are important to students and to the College — sexual assault, race issues, the Harvard admissions suit. This circle of SCR members is part of the team too, as is the circle of other faculty deans.

Your colleagues are not all academics, but a range of people who work in and for the House: the superintendent, custodial workers, cooks, dining hall staff, and security staff. These are the people who make the House work on a daily basis, people you get to know as part of the family and whom you thank publicly for their work when the community gathers for special events. You are a critical bridge builder, not only across departments, schools, and generations, but also across different walks of life.

Fifth you are a steward of everything that belongs to the House. You become, in effect, the curator of House legend and history, art works and portraits, silver candlesticks and inscribed platters. If you are interested in history, this is not an odious job, but a fascinating one, especially today. At Lowell, many of our portraits were given to the House by the Lowell family after which the House was named. This includes many generations of Lowells whose lives and contributions we documented in a booklet entitled “Hanging Around Lowell House.” Not everything has to be preserved, but you would work with students to make the House feel welcoming to new generations from a wide diversity of backgrounds. How can you empower students to be appreciative of a history that is not theirs and agents of a future that is?

Sixth, you will discover your own implicit understanding of ritual. Every community acts itself out in ways that create a sense of identity: special dinners, festive celebrations, and weekly events. At Lowell, it’s Thursday tea, the ringing of the Lowell bells, high tables for seniors, dancing on the Weeks Footbridge at 6 a.m. on May Day with strawberries and champagne. Houses do it in their distinctive ways and we learn from one another at our monthly faculty deans meetings. The Drag Ball? Diwali? Dog-Sledding? Conversations with Kirkland? A wine seminar? A Life Seminar? Processions at Commencement, with bagpipes or ragtime bands or drummers?

This isn’t a list of “shoulds” and duties. If it suits your temperament, none of it is a task. It’s a lifestyle, engaged with people at many levels and in many contexts. It’s not about you, but about students. Above all, it is based on a deep belief in Harvard’s residential House system where the tree of learning and the tree of life grow together.

Diana L. Eck is the Faculty Dean of Lowell House and a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies.

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