The final day of exams was a busy one for Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Beverly Harmon, who spent the morning and early afternoon talking to students and handling issues that crop up each year during finals season.
“Exam week is just a stressful time for all of us in the law school community,” she explained. “Law students are adults and they live adult lives. The same circumstances confront them in law school as in real life, so we deal with those issues. Everything is compounded by the fact that the study of law is quite demanding and academically rigorous.”
Even as she devotes her full attention to the final class of students she will see graduate, at home, she’s packing up her belongings in the Pavilion where she and her husband have lived on the Lawn for the past 11 years, and looking forward to the next step in her life.
Although Harmon will leave the Law School in June, the thousands of students she has counseled and befriended will long remember her legacy of warmth and understanding. She will join family in Houston, where her husband, William, the University's former Senior Vice President and former Vice-President for Student Affairs, began his tenure as president of Central College in February. Their daughter, Hilary, and her husband run a criminal defense firm together in Houston, and he also is a city councilman. Harmon is not sure what kind of work she’ll move on to in Texas, but she would “really like to get back to student services.”
During her almost 10 years at the Law School, Harmon counseled students on everything from illnesses during final exams to organizing events. She worked closely with student organizations and academic journals, helped students with disabilities feel comfortable and welcome, and served as a valued informational resource and advocate for students.
Law students who befriended Harmon over the years have continued to call her, send her photos of newborn babies and cards marking special occasions, and invite her to weddings. “I really do think of them as my children,” Harmon said. “I know that people probably believe that I am sort of exaggerating, but our students are phenomenal.
“If you need ideas, they’re always around to help with that, they volunteer to assist others, and they’re very supportive, and for the most part very appreciative. This is that kind of environment—where giving back is the norm.”
While some students at the law school affectionately refer to Harmon as “mom,” she’s taken on many challenges in her career. A New Jersey native and undergraduate English major (who can quote Chaucer in Old English at the drop of a hat), Harmon grew up 30 minutes away from Manhattan and never dreamed she would work in as many parts of the country as she has. She taught first grade, then after earning her master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision, worked as an assistant to two superintendents before becoming a principal who turned around troubled schools. At one point as principal, in addition to an existing school, she took on a second school in Wichita, Kan., where the superintendent told her to change the school’s morale within six weeks.
“Problem solving has been a career for me,” she said. “I like challenges very much. I like people saying, ‘no I don’t think that’s possible.’ That’s a great motivator for me.”
She then made the move to higher education at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was an educational researcher in a think tank working on a $10-million math and science initiative that involved schools across the country. She worked with a team of senior scientists, mathematicians, psychometricians, and local teachers to craft a program to invest students from socio-economically disadvantaged schools in advanced concepts in math and science. After that came the law school.
“When I came here it was the first time in my life when I didn’t have a ‘next,’” she said. “I thought that was significant.”
From her interviews here, she realized the Law School was interested in a vibrant Student Affairs office.
“I felt like I was free to shape things,” she said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of direction, which was great for me. I tend to thrive in situations of that sort—knowing what the goals are and proceeding to work toward them.
“There was so much energy here. I was greeted so warmly by students.”
At the time Harmon arrived in 1995, each class had 380 students (20 more than today), and the whole school was packed into Withers-Brown Hall, where you could find anyone just by looking down its main corridor. Harmon didn’t have the waiting room she has today—students would wait outside her office and often sit on the floor. Even with the expanded space, “I think we still have the same dynamic environment. We have dedicated faculty, administrators, and staff, and the same mix of students.” The new space confirmed that “this is truly a student-centered law school.”
Since then, student organizations have proliferated. Harmon said the University’s tradition of student self-governance has also contributed to that growth. “For law students, that is truly a good fit because we’re dealing with adults who have extraordinary skills.”
Harmon said she has many memories to cherish.
“Each class has provided me with a set of highlights, since 1995. Each class seems to have a distinctive personality,” she said. “Once we go through three years together, we are definitely connected.” She recently attended the Class of 2000 reunion dinner, where students’ sense of humor was on display during an awards presentation that included a prize for the biggest work e-mail faux pas. As time has passed, “the students seem to be more attuned to community service and pro bono because thankfully, that’s the way society seems to be heading.”
Students Celebrate Harmon
Students’ devotion to Harmon was readily apparent in the final weeks of the school year. During the Student Bar Association’s spring picnic, students presented a scrapbook filled with photos and messages from students to Harmon. Both the picnic and this year’s class gift, in which 82 percent of the graduating students have pledged, were dedicated to the school’s “Mom.”
Second-year law student Louise Rains, the Student Bar Association’s programming co-chair, said Harmon has been a great source of advice. Last year Rains suffered a bad fall while playing softball right before final exams; sitting for three hours was painful, and exams would require a lot of sitting.
“Her attitude was, let’s do what we can to make it more comfortable for you,” Rains said, so she was able to take pillows and a heating pad to exams with her. “I think what makes her so special is her openness…You feel 100 percent comfortable talking to her about whatever.”
“I think she takes the time to look out for the needs of every law student and makes sure they have a successful experience at the Law School,” added Jason Zuckerman, a Class of 2000 graduate who is now at associate specializing in employment law with Clifford & Garde in Washington, D.C. Zuckerman said he recalled her helping a classmate through a difficult time, and she helped him with his concerns during his first year. “The Law School is very fortunate to have had the benefit of her service for 10 years.”
Nessa Horewitch ’03 said Harmon became a close friend when Horewitch’s father passed away her second year. “She really took me under her wing,” said Horewitch, now an associate for Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C., working on environmental litigation. “When my mom met her at graduation it was like they were old friends and they have never met or spoken” before.
As Peer Advisor Director her third year, Horewitch worked closely with Harmon, sometimes calling her at 10 or 11 at night with first-year students’ emergencies. “She just has a warmth about her that makes people feel at ease…She’s very caring, she’s very willing to give of herself and be personally invested in students’ lives,” Horewitch said. “She’s not judgmental at all.” No matter what problem you told her about, “she’s just concerned about how to get you through it.”
SBA President Hill Hardman has worked with Harmon since his first year, when he was on the First Year Council, and has advised him on how to organize successful events. “I’ve never seen her without a big smile,” Hardman said, and she’s never passed by in the hall without greeting him and asking him how he’s doing. “Her office is always open.
“Her enthusiasm is what will be missed the most—her consistent
love for students and the love students have for her.”