While spending nearly 20 years as master of Kirkland House, Harvard College interim Dean Donald Pfister said he learned a valuable lesson.
“One of the things that I learned as House master is that I could have really good ideas, or what I thought were really good ideas about how something would work, but it would never turn out that way I thought it would,” Pfister told a group of undergraduates. “If something is really going to work, it has to come from the students. The College is about you all, and we want to hear from you.”
With course-shopping week over and the fall term in full swing, Pfister and Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde made themselves available to field questions from students in a “meet the deans” forum on Thursday, sponsored by the Undergraduate Council. The event, held in the Faculty Room in University Hall, was open to all undergraduates as another way to help introduce students to the deans as part of ongoing efforts to strengthen the College community.
Pfister, who is the Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, has been a member of the Harvard faculty for 40 years. Despite that, the role of interim dean presents something new.
“As the interim dean of Harvard College, I am finding out a lot of things end up on my desk,” Pfister said with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Lassonde has more than 20 years of experience as an administrator and educator at Yale and Brown universities. While he has extensive experience, Lassonde pointed out that he is relatively new to Harvard, having arrived in Cambridge during a difficult time for the Boston area.
“I arrived here in April at the time of the marathon bombings, which was the start of a series of crises, but it made me realize quickly what a great team is in the dean’s office here,” said Lassonde, who lives in Mather House.
Students brought up topics such as House renewal, the relationship between undergraduates and the administration, academic integrity, and advice for freshmen.
When asked what he would like to accomplish as interim dean, Pfister stressed the importance of community.
“To be able to grow and work in this community, to me, is very important. I hope your being here this evening is a signal of openness, that we can trust on each other, and rely on each other,” he said.
Senior Samuel Meyer asked Pfister how he intends to engage the community in addressing academic integrity. Pfister stressed that the best approach is an open and honest dialogue, another priority for him this year.
“How do we do this? How do we make it better? We need you all to help us,” Pfister said. “Any ideas you have to bring change will be good to hear.”
Yuqi Hou ’15 praised Stone Hall (the former Old Quincy and the first completed House renewal project), calling it beautiful.
Hirsh Jain ’17 asked the deans if they had any advice for freshmen beginning their four years at Harvard.
“This is one opportunity you have to be in a place that offers community in a way that is unique. When you leave here, you will never experience anything like it,” Lassonde said. “You will never be surrounded by so many talented people who want to engage every day, and that’s something you don’t want to squander. If you engage, that’s the best way to make the most of this experience.”
After the event concluded, Jain said he was impressed that the deans took the time to meet with students.
“I think it is really easy to forget that the people’s names you read on an email are actually real. So it’s great to meet them in person,” he said.