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Ex-dean says Harvard run like day care

Harvard University leaders are running the school like ``a day care center for college students," trying to dazzle undergraduates with concerts and a new pub, rather than teaching them to be responsible citizens, a former Harvard dean writes in a newly released book.

Harry R. Lewis -- the former dean of Harvard College, who many believe was pushed out of his post for being critical of President Lawrence H. Summers -- writes that the university has gone off track in a number of ways. His book is ``Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education," published earlier this month by PublicAffairs.

The book is generating a lot of buzz on campus; Lewis's reading at the Harvard Coop was standing-room only, and the book is on Harvard Book Store's bestseller list. Many students are aghast at the idea they are being coddled, but some of Lewis's colleagues expect the book will be influential as the university searches for a new president and tries to breathe new life into efforts to revise the undergraduate curriculum. Several Harvard administrators whose policies Lewis criticized, including Summers, declined through spokesmen to comment on the book.

Both controversial and popular as dean from 1995 to 2003, Lewis earned his bachelor's degree and doctorate at Harvard and has taught in the computer science department since 1974. His wife, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, is director of undergraduate admissions. One daughter is a Harvard College graduate about to earn a Harvard MBA; another is an undergraduate.

Lewis says his book is not sour grapes over his ouster, and he dwells only briefly on Summers, writing that the president was arrogant, a poor manager, and ``voiced opinions but advanced no reasoned intellectual agenda." Rather, Lewis said in an interview, the book is the result of his attempt to make sense of the forces pushing his beloved university into a ``consumerist" mode.

He said that other elite universities suffer many of the same problems.

Parents paying the full cost of Harvard, or $41,675 this year, ``expect the university to treat them like customers, not like acolytes in some temple they are privileged to enter," Lewis writes.

They routinely call professors to complain about their children's grades, he writes, and they believe that the university should erase any evidence of bad academic performance or personal misconduct, excusing those failings as symptoms of psychiatric problems or disabilities.

Harvard, meanwhile, participates in the coddling, Lewis said. Administrators, he argues, get carried away with their concern about Harvard's low scores on a student satisfaction survey, compared with peer institutions.

In an effort to improve the scores, the college has created a bloated student life bureaucracy, Lewis said. Students who rarely bother to take a subway ride to Boston to see a show want their own expensive on-campus concerts to help create a Harvard ``bubble."

Worse yet, Lewis says, is Harvard's new pub, located near freshman housing. Although students under 21 are not supposed to be served beer, Lewis suggests the university is turning a blind eye.

``Desperate for approval by its students, Harvard now comes very close to saying that undergraduate drinking is acceptable as long as you don't get caught," he writes.

But one freshman, Eleanor Wilking, said the pub and other new social spaces are important alternatives to the exclusive, male-dominated ``final clubs" that are not recognized by Harvard but host many student parties.

``I find this to be an exceptionally competitive environment, bordering on unhealthy, so anything you can do to alleviate that is a good thing," she said. ``There's a dearth of community feeling."

Even some colleagues who agreed with other points Lewis makes differ with his take on student life.

``If the college does it, there are going to be some controls," said William Mills Todd III, former dean of undergraduate education and a friend of Lewis's. ``I would very much rather have [the pub] than see a fraternity system reborn or the final clubs increase in number."

With its emphasis on customer satisfaction, the university pays too little attention to students' development as moral citizens, Lewis said.

He said he would like to see the university stress more learning about America's history and political system, because future leaders should graduate knowing how to reason about the major domestic topics of our time.

Lewis also defends grade inflation, a problem that has brought Harvard national ridicule. The trend matters little, he says, because grades are meant to serve as educational tools, not credentials for prospective employers.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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