At the end of his long career, Herbert E. Hawkes was hailed as "the dean of American college deans." At the College, however, he was also known for his steadfast support of the College's core curriculum, which he helped inaugurate. He never taught in the program, but the core curriculum could never have prospered without his commitment to the idea of general education.
By training, Hawkes was a mathematician. He did advanced studies in Göttingen, Germany and at Yale University, where he received his doctorate in 1900. The author of several algebra texts, Hawkes accepted a position as Professor of Mathematics at Columbia in 1910. In 1917, he became acting dean for Frederick P. Keppel, who had gone to work for the War Department. A year later, the appointment became permanent, and Hawkes remained Dean of the College until his death in 1943.
Hawkes never evinced sympathy for anything less than a full undergraduate education. While still a teacher, he opposed the "Columbia plan," which allowed a student to receive a bachelor's degree in less than four years. As dean, Hawkes supported the group of younger faculty who thought up the idea of a course in Contemporary Civilization; in the 1930s, he also helped push through the new humanities sequence, which had initially failed by one vote among the faculty. He also urged the creation of general education courses in the natural sciences, though without the same success.
The College always recognized his pivotal contribution to its distinctive educational ethos. Hawkes "knew well the difference between education and instruction for a specific calling or career," noted Nicholas Murray Butler. "He had the affection as well as the admiration of both his colleagues and the student body. No servant of the American college has exceeded or perhaps even equalled the influence and inspiration which Dean Hawkes has given."