Friday, February 7, 2014

"With Pfister’s last hurrah as dean coming at the same time that Gus Mayopoulos is stepping in as UC President, we are about to experience a rare “ironic moment” in Harvard’s administration—a moment that could seriously reduce the gap between the administration and its “uncaring” students."

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A Dash of Insanity

Early this semester, the administration announced that Interim Dean Donald H. Pfister will step down in July. Although Harvard fungi have probably been celebrating non-stop in anticipation of Daddy’s return, most of Harvard’s non-tremella-fuciformis-beings have expressed sadness at the approach of his departure—myself included. Recent conversations I’ve had and Facebook statuses I’ve read about the charm of the dean have really got me thinking about his leadership last semester and what it has meant.

But after reflecting for a while, I’ve come to an odd realization: I’m actually kind of excited. Not because he is leaving. But because, even though he is not around for much longer, I think Pfister’s best is still to come.

Here’s why. In the past few years, and probably for a long time before that, there has been a separation between the student body and the administration because of their differing roles in the university. Harvard students are very individually oriented, pursuing their own groups and interests. It’s not that they are uncaring of others. It’s just that, after spending many hours deleting publicity emails from their inboxes, they don’t have time to care about most things happening on campus. In that way, students are technically “uncaring.”

By contrast, it is the administration’s job to educate, make funding decisions for, and care about all student interests. Its mindset is completely different—it’s caring. So there’s a tension between the students’ goals and the administration’s. The result: 12,000 eyes rolling after receiving another email from President Faust about the “iLab,” where the “i” apparently stands for innovative spelling.

But for a couple of unique and important reasons, that could really change this semester. With Pfister’s last hurrah as dean coming at the same time that Gus Mayopoulos is stepping in as UC President, we are about to experience a rare “ironic moment” in Harvard’s administration—a moment that could seriously reduce the gap between the administration and its “uncaring” students.

To see what I mean, let’s start with Sam and Gus. It’s pretty well accepted that student government is most effective in advocating for small, useful changes. Sam and Gus’s “joke”campaign capitalized on relating to voters’ ambivalence towards this limited power. There’s not much at stake in each election. So why not just vote for the funny guys who, through the irony of their campaign, implicitly signal they share the same sentiment of ambivalence as the student body? The uncaring voters appreciated their irony, and they were elected.

This appreciation also underlies Donald Pfister’s popularity. The Crimson’s editorial board has already shown great support for Pfister. And every student I’ve talked to has a positive opinion about him. But this feedback is not so much about Pfister’s policies, as much as it is about his emails. At worst, the emails read like the best botany reports ever. At best, they are pure poetry that cascade administrative information over waterfalls of fungal updates and suggested mystery readings, all while maintaining a whispering tone of fatherly quirkiness.

What kind of policy has Pfister enacted as Dean? I don’t really know. I don’t really care. And I think Dean Pfister knows that most students are focused on their own interests and, barring a big school-wide scandal, they aren’t really going to care that much either. So he made a pattern of sending light-hearted messages to students, and their admiration soon followed.

The ironic thing is that this lack of seriousness from both guys has the potential to connect the administration with the student body in a very serious way. The uncaring appreciate irony (see: hipsters) of a President like Gus or a dean like Pfister—or maybe Phipster—could draw more students into interaction with the administration through self-aware humor. Personally, I think I could better relate to an Undergraduate Council headed by Gus—a funny guy who acknowledges the council’s shortcomings—rather than a pre-professional, solemn candidate who may have unrealistically lofty goals for the UC and her CV. And I think I could talk to Dean Pfister, if not laugh with him for hours on end, as he calmly pats my shoulder, relating my problems to challenges fungal growths face in his lab.

Instead of being nerve-racking or boring, talking to the administration seems like it would actually be kind of fun now. And sure enough, increasing communications with students has become a primary goal for both administrators. Gus, since winning, has framed his role as President mostly around making the UC more open and connected with students. Dean Pfister has seemed to connect more with the student body than his predecessor did.

We’ll see if they can follow up on those trends and really make a difference this semester for the uncaring masses. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting on another email from my dean, seeing what comments he has on the wonders of winter fungal growth. Remember: you can’t spell “fungus” without “fun.” And, now that I think about it, you can’t really spell it without “Gus” either.

Strange…what does that say about…

Eh, I don’t care.

Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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