After Five Decades, Dean Dingman Bids Harvard Farewell
Last November, as the debate was raging over Harvard’s policy to sanction membership in unrecognized single-gender social organizations, dean of freshmen Thomas Dingman made an impassioned speech about the place of final clubs at the College. “I am not accustomed to speaking in a faculty meeting, but this topic seems too important on which to take a pass,” he said then. “Students accepting our offer of admission should, I believe, feel that they are eligible to participate in all of Harvard. Yet when they see students in their black ties and black dresses—sometimes headed to limousines—pass their peers coming back with mops and buckets from doing Dorm Crew, they have to wonder if Harvard is truly open.”
His comments might have been surprising to some: Dingman belonged to a final club as an undergraduate and reports that many classmates at his fiftieth reunion, in 2017, were disappointed by Harvard’s new policies toward the clubs. “I have two daughters, and I always wondered, had they been interested in applying to Harvard, would I feel good about their status in the institution?” Dingman says in a faintly New England-y lilt, in his sunny office at 6 Prescott Street. That’s not to “detract from alums’ appreciation for the experience they had,” he continues, “but it was a different time. I think we can do better.”
This summer, Dingman will retire after 13 years as dean of freshmen and a 45-year career at Harvard; with his departure, his deanship and the entire Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO) will merge with the Office of Student Life to form the Dean of Students Office, led by Katie O’Dair.
Throughout his tenure, Dingman could often be found eating with freshmen in Annenberg or strolling through the Yard; far from being some distant administrator, he was omnipresent in students’ lives. Admissions dean William Fitzsimmons, his College classmate, describes him as an almost “legendary figure, very much in the mold of greatness.”
When he arrived in Cambridge in 1963, from a rural private school in Connecticut, Harvard was a stunningly different place. “Men and women were admitted through different offices and had different experiences,” he says. Women weren’t allowed in Lamont Library; his peer group was on the cusp of a new social order. He remembers students pulling pranks to protest the Vietnam War draft: in one coordinated protest, all his peers agreed to break their pencils during the written portion of a military evaluation. Students were also making decisions about their education and careers to avoid the draft. That was, in part, why Dingman ended up in education: “Right after graduation, I taught in a school for a couple of years, which allowed me not to be drafted.”
He returned to Harvard to work in the admissions office, and has held a range of administrative and mentoring roles at the College: he’s been a resident tutor in Leverett House, assistant to the dean of the College, associate dean, and interim dean of student life. At the FDO, where he oversaw first-years’ transition to college academic and social life, Dingman takes his work, and many students’ formidable challenges adjusting to Harvard, personally: “It’s painful to read from students that they often felt lonely, that there was no alternative to doing problem sets night after night.”
A persistent challenge for the College, he admits, is that at a top research university, undergraduates aren’t necessarily professors’ main priority; it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks and not reach their full potential academically. In a particularly poignant interview for the Bureau of Study Counsel’s success-failure project, Dingman recalled having such an experience with his senior thesis in history: “I was derailed by a publication that seemed to say all the things that I might have said. And then I began to figure that my faculty adviser wasn’t very available to me. And I used those as excuses for abandoning the project. The department made it easy for me.”
These problems “have been very much on our minds,” he says. “One thing students say consistently is they want an opportunity to interact with faculty outside the classroom….I think a significant part of anyone’s education is to get a chance to work closely with a faculty member.” The FDO didn’t have any say over the curriculum, but Dingman notes that it pursued a grant to fund small group dinners with professors at the faculty club, worked to expand freshman seminar offerings, and has run Professors and Pastries—an informal opportunity for students to chat with faculty members—in tandem with the advising programs office.
Feedback from students has also suggested they struggle to gain a broader feeling of belonging, a sense of solidarity and common purpose with their peers. Even as the College has become more inclusive in terms of race, gender, and economic status, Dingman regrets that it has also become a harsher, more careerist place. “We were very centered on the experience we were having,” he recalls about his own college peers. “I find today’s students…are also strategizing about their futures.” At the end of each year, his office has invited freshmen to discuss their lives at the College; in the “Reflecting on Your Life” series, it asks students which values they would associate with Harvard. “They’ve often said ‘industry,’ ‘hard work,’ ‘power,’” he says. “When we ask them to name their values against Harvard’s, compassion is near the top. And it was not on the list for Harvard.”
In 2011, to promote what Dingman calls the “moral development” of students, the FDO developed a “kindness pledge” that freshmen could opt to sign, to commit to making Harvard a place “where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” The pledge was abandoned that same fall—it felt coercive, critics said.
Next year, Dingman plans to spend time with his grandchildren, to get in better shape, and to travel with his wife; he’ll also have a role as a special adviser to College dean Rakesh Khurana in certain areas like advising and fundraising. “I’m old,” he says. “I’ll be 73 in the fall. That was one of the things behind my decision to step down. I’ve seen people sometimes overstay their welcome, thinking that their role is so critical to the institution’s success. There are lots of capable people out there, and I didn’t want to see things run down around me. I wanted to leave on a high note”—as he surely is.