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Who the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Want as Harvard’s Most Powerful Dean

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{shortcode-2a6d20b36bf1a51403bdb27028b331b88db39b7c}s Claudine Gay prepares to move from her station in University Hall to the president’s office across Harvard Yard, one of her most important tasks will be to select her own successor as the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Encompassing more than 1,000 tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track faculty; more than 7,000 undergraduate students; and thousands of graduate students, the FAS constitutes Harvard’s largest academic school, and according to its own website, the “historic heart of Harvard University.”

Gay and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 are leading the search for Gay’s successor, which was formally launched in February, alongside an advisory committee of 12 professors from across the FAS, a Harvard Business School professor, and Harvard Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82.

In past searches, top contenders have tended to possess substantial administrative experience and a deep familiarity with the structure and governance of FAS.

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Gay herself was the dean of Social Sciences when University President Lawrence S. Bacow offered her the position. Her predecessor, Michael D. Smith, was the associate dean for computer science and engineering prior to becoming FAS dean, and his predecessor William C. Kirby had served as the director of Harvard’s Asia Center and a former History department chair.

The other top candidates for the role of FAS dean shared these characteristics. Before former University President Drew G. Faust tapped Smith for FAS dean, she reportedly offered the role to Geophysics professor Jeremy Bloxham, the divisional dean for Physical Sciences at the time; however, Bloxham rejected the role.

In the search that ultimately appointed Kirby in 2002, Faust herself — then the dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study — was a contender, along with Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter T. Ellison.

Of the three current divisional deans — Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs, Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey, and Dean of Social Sciences Lawrence D. Bobo — Stubbs declined to comment on whether he was interested in the position in an interview this week, while Bobo said last week he was uninterested.

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Bobo also stressed the importance of familiarity with the FAS, saying he hopes “they lean toward an insider” for the position.

Diana Sorensen, a former dean of Arts and Humanities who served on the advisory committee during the 2018 dean search that ultimately selected Gay, said the candidate had to have administrative experience.

“It has to be somebody who’s been the chair of a department, the director of a center, a divisional dean, you name it, but somebody that has a sense of what it takes to be a strong leader, as an administrator and as a faculty member,” Sorensen said. “The two pieces have to come together.”

With the search now in motion, several FAS professors spoke with The Crimson about their hopes for the successor to Harvard’s most powerful dean.

Uniting the Faculty

For years, Harvard’s presidents and FAS deans have been concentrated in the social sciences.

Bacow, Harvard’s current president, has a background in economics and public policy, while Gay is a scholar of political science and African American studies. Though Gay’s predecessor, Smith, is a computer scientist, he replaced Kirby, who researches Chinese history. Smith served under Faust, a historian, while Kirby served under Lawrence H. Summers, an economist.

But members of the faculty say that the next FAS dean does not necessarily have to come from a particular academic background.

“Where someone comes from, I don’t think that that’s always necessarily a good indicator of where they’re going to go, what they’re thinking, and who they are,” Woodward Yang, a professor of Electrical Engineering, said. “I think that that’s kind of a poor metric.”

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Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, a History professor, said the next dean’s academic background matters less than their ability to communicate with faculty across a range of disciplines.

“In thinking about who would be an effective candidate, one of the most important criteria, in my view, would be that whoever be picked be somebody who is able to understand and work with people across all the divisions in the FAS,” Jasanoff said.

Philosophy professor Edward J. “Ned” Hall echoed Jasanoff, saying that the next FAS dean should have “broad understanding of the range of research that Harvard supports and ought to be supporting across different divisions” in addition to a “compelling vision for what a good liberal arts education is going to be.”

“It’s not any one academic discipline,” Hall said.

Venkatesh N. Murthy, a Molecular and Cellular Biology professor, said he would “love to see” a scientist fill the deanship, although he noted a scientist dean is unlikely to be “science only, science first.”

“I would like to see maybe a bit of balance, where let’s say the FAS should perhaps be more in the science-leaning side of things, but of course somebody who’s very, very active and knowledgeable about social studies and policy and things like that,” Murthy said.

“Not just like a nerd scientist,” he added.

Wesley M. Jacobsen, a professor of the practice of Japanese language, also called for “a balance” between the sciences and humanities, saying that scientists need a humanistic perspective to address “increasingly critical issues about human survival, human existence.”

“We need scientists who can communicate, we need scientists who are concerned about social issues, about human life on this planet,” Jacobsen said.

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He said that while “breadth of vision” is more important than a dean’s specific background, Kelsey, the current Arts and Humanities dean, would “make an excellent FAS dean.”

Murthy said he would “personally be delighted” if Stubbs, the current Science dean, were selected as Gay’s successor. In emails, chemistry professor emeritus E.J. Corey and astronomy professor emeritus Robert P. Kirshner ’70 also said they felt Stubbs would be a strong candidate for the deanship.

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Setting a Scientific Agenda

Whatever their background, the incoming FAS dean will be tasked with shepherding Harvard’s aggressive shift toward the sciences.

In recent years, the University has significantly upped its investments in scientific research and education, including a $200 million donation by Melanie Salata and Jean E. Salata to establish the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability; a $500 million investment funding the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan ’07; and the opening of the $1 billion Science and Engineering Complex, which houses the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a division of the FAS.

Still, some professors said Harvard should further assert itself as a leader among institutions of higher education in science and technology.

Murthy, the MCB professor, said he feels the change in leadership is an opportunity for Harvard to stop “playing defense mode” and instead be “proactive” and “set the agenda for the world.”

Every faculty member has “their own slightly selfish take on things,” Murthy said; his view is that Harvard ought to “influence policymakers” in fields such as public health, biomedicine, and artificial intelligence, which he said the school has not prioritized in recent years.

“Should we just let this go to the School of Public Health?” Murthy said, referencing public health and Covid-19 research. “Or should FAS engage in this?”

Compared to other universities, Murthy said Harvard “can’t afford” not to lead in STEM.

“Stanford is always in the news, MIT is in the news all the time,” Murthy said. “What are they known for? I would argue they’re known mainly for science and tech.”

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In order for Harvard to “stay competitive at all in the sciences,” Mansi Srivastava, an associate professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, said the University needs to address graduate student and postdoctoral researchers’ demands for increased support and compensation.

“I think if Harvard is going to be realistic about what’s happening in the sciences, they have to contend with the fact that we cannot take the position that, ‘Oh, we’re Harvard, so the best people will come here regardless of what the salaries are,’” Srivastava said.

Matthew D. Shair, a chemistry professor, said an FAS dean from the life sciences would be well-positioned to lead the school’s advancement in scientific research.

“One of the jewels of our department are the life sciences,” Shair said. “I’d love to see somebody in the FAS deanship with a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve excellence in the life sciences.”

“I think that’s challenging for someone who doesn’t work in that area,” he added.

Shair said he hoped the next dean will “foster” opportunities for collaboration across different scientific departments and with the biotechnology private sector in Boston and Cambridge.

“That would be very exciting to me personally and, I suspect, to a number of my colleagues,” Shair said.

Safeguarding the Humanities

While some professors push for a reinvestment in the sciences, other professors raised concerns about Harvard’s priorities shifting away from the humanities, reflecting a growing trend in higher education. The next FAS dean, they said, ought to reaffirm the importance of the liberal arts.

Professor Derek J. Penslar, whose research focuses on Jewish history, said he feels Harvard should send a “stronger message coming from the top” about the importance of a humanistic education.

“The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is responsible for the liberal arts, broadly understood,” Penslar said. “And this is why I think a strong message from the dean of FAS regarding the essentiality of all of the subjects taught in the College would be very important.”

Jacobsen, the Japanese language professor of the practice, said he hoped the next FAS dean would combat what he saw as “a trend against the humanities” at Harvard.

“There was kind of a concern that humanities concentrators are going down and may not be as serious at Harvard as at other places,” Jacobsen said. “My concern would be that humanities are held up as a centrally important part of the Harvard undergraduate education.”

According to Hall, a more robust liberal arts education at Harvard would require the University to take a stronger stance on promoting academic freedom.

“I’ve talked to a lot of students who come here thinking like ‘I want the liberal arts experience!’ and they think, ‘Oh, and I don’t really get it because everybody’s cautious about what they talk about,’” he said.

Steven A. Pinker, a Psychology professor who has been outspoken in the movement for increased academic freedom, urged Gay and Garber to select an FAS dean “with a steadfast commitment to disinterested inquiry, civility, objectivity, reason, scholarship, and freedom of speech and thought” in a Feb. 17 letter obtained by The Crimson.

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“The Dean must not only believe in these values but be willing to use Harvard’s pulpit to speak out for them, and to ensure that they predominate within Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” Pinker wrote.

In an interview, Pinker also said the next FAS Dean should display “a commitment to academic freedom, and a commitment to securing the credibility of the academy and the professoriate.”

Penslar said that rather than trying to compete with other institutions such as MIT in the sciences and applied sciences — a costly endeavor, he added — Harvard should consider pursuing more partnerships between the two schools.

“It seems to me that Harvard and MIT together could make up the finest educational consortium in the world,” Penslar added. “But from an outsider’s perspective, from my perspective in history, it does seem odd for Harvard to be apparently duplicating what has done so well at MIT.”

FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment for this article.

Hall, the Philosophy professor, said “the decline of the humanities across colleges and universities in the United States is a pretty serious matter.”

“Having a new FAS dean who saw that as a serious problem, and maybe one that didn’t just require throwing resources at the humanities, but demanded of the humanities that we think hard about what our mission is and how to make that mission legible to young people, someone with those sort of priorities would be great,” Hall said.

Faculty Voices in the Search

At the monthly FAS meeting in February, Gay told faculty attendees that she and Garber would read every email sent to a dedicated dean search email address.

“I really can’t overstate the importance of your input in this process,” she told faculty at a subsequent meeting in March.

Shair said that faculty “should be very involved” in the search.

“I think it would be great if the committee or members of the search committee visited each FAS department for 45 minutes or an hour and heard at a faculty meeting what’s on their minds,” Shair said.

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Srivastava, the OEB professor, said she felt that the process was open to her feedback, adding it was consistent with her perception of Gay as an “amazing listener.”

“I think they’re talking to lots of people,” she said.

She added that she attended one of a handful of “small group discussions” for tenure-track faculty to share their perspectives and knew of another discussion for non-tenure-track faculty.

The structure of this search mirrors that of 2018, with the incoming president and provost at the helm and a faculty committee in an advisory capacity. Sorensen, who served on the advisory committee in 2018, said that the nomination process was “very open,” and that the committee narrowed down an “expansive” list of nominees to a shortlist.

But, she confirmed, the final decision came down to Bacow and Garber.

“As we always knew would be the case,” she added.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at rahem.hamid@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at elias.schisgall@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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