Harvard College will aim to conclude its five ongoing faculty dean searches by the end of May as planned, according to Dean of Finance and Administration Sheila C. Thimba.
In an unprecedented moment of turnover, nearly half of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate houses — Kirkland, Cabot, Eliot, Quincy, and Winthrop — are seeking new leadership for the coming fall semester.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who is also one of the outgoing faculty deans of Cabot House, said in a Friday interview that the College hopes to maintain momentum and community investment in the search processes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During a normal semester, faculty dean candidates would eat meals and chat with students in the houses they are courting.
“Our goal is to sustain that level of engagement from the house staff through remote processes, and we were pretty far along in the search processes,” Khurana said. “So while this is not ideal, we feel we're able to continue in a positive way to announce our new faculty deans at the end of the semester.”
The College’s House Search Advisory Committees are currently preparing to invite prospective faculty deans to virtually “visit” houses. The committees comprise the staff, tutors, and students of each house who had already been working with the College on campus to offer insight into their selection criteria for faculty deans.
Thimba wrote that the College completed “much of the heavy lifting” in the search process before it asked students to vacate campus on March 10. By the time students left, the committees had already hosted open meetings with students to collect ideas and feedback.
Once classes transitioned online, administrators paused the searches to allow house affiliates the time to settle into new routines. Harvard reconvened the committees last week to review candidate materials and discuss future steps.
“Now, SAC’s are planning the visits, so they can take account of House rhythms and engage students in ways that are most appropriate to the culture of each House,” Thimba wrote. “We’re providing administrative support to the committees to lessen their burden.”
Thimba added that levels of participation from undergraduates on the committees have remained “strong” despite students’ dispersal.
Still, some students in Winthrop House have voiced concerns that a remote transition in leadership will create additional disruption in their already-upended lives.
Winthrop affiliates already experienced leadership turnover last spring, when the College decided not to renew the contract of former faculty deans Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and Stephanie R. Robinson amid a controversy over Sullivan’s decision to represent Hollywood producer and convicted sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein.
Since then, Winthrop students have petitioned and penned a letter to the administration asking them to keep their interim faculty deans, Mark D. Gearan ’78 and Mary Herlihy-Gearan, in their positions permanently.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane confirmed that the Winthrop house faculty dean search was ongoing. The College has previously noted that Gearan and Herlihy-Gearan were appointed to serve in a temporary capacity.
Thimba wrote that the administration is working to preserve continuity for all students, given the circumstances.
“Across the College, there is a lot of thought going into how to ensure that the essential aspects of the College experience, including House life, are sustained through this disrupted period,” Thimba wrote.
She added that she expects a significant amount of necessary “orientation” over the summer for the ten incoming deans.
“We’re looking forward to working with current faculty deans to ensure that the new deans are acclimated to the role quickly and are eager to work with incoming deans and their unique approaches [to] the particular task of community building after the disruptions this semester,” she wrote.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
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