Climbing Alone

In his first year as dean, Kirby proves a consulter, but not a consensus-builder

David E. Stein

Dean of the Faculty WILLIAM C. KIRBY, colleagues say, consults with professors but does not work to build consensus. Kirby proved both a bold administrator and a thoughtful scholar during his rocky first year.

In his first annual letter, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby left his colleagues with a cryptic message—Xing yuan zi er, deng gao zi bei.

To his Faculty, the Chinese epigram befitted the man who sips green tea at their meetings and sends Chinese cards and gifts to their doors.

Professors have no doubt noticed the coffee table books on Beijing neatly stacked on his table and the dusty tomes in Mandarin stuffed in the corner.

But the message was as much for the dean as his Faculty: “To go a great distance, one sets out from the nearby; when ascending heights, one starts from below.”

Former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles says the first year in office is “a steep learning experience for any dean.”

This year, Kirby set his sights on formidable mountains.

He overhauled the bureaucracy of University Hall, consolidating the offices of dean of undergraduate education and dean of Harvard College.

He brought his proposal for course preregistration before the Faculty, only to retract it after it was blasted by several of his colleagues.

And as promised, he began a review of the undergraduate curriculum by appointing committees and charging them with the mandate of rethinking the undergraduate academic experience.

While pursuing these initiatives, Kirby has been celebrated as a scholar-dean, inquisitive and curious to hear all sides of the debate.

But when it comes to making decisions, many professors say they have yet to see Kirby rally the faculty together.

And they wonder how high a dean can climb alone.

In the next year, Kirby will have to push through a new undergraduate curriculum and continue to expand the size of the Faculty while locating facilities to accommodate them—initiatives for which it will be important to have the Faculty on board.

But Knowles says that consultation without consensus can only get the Faculty’s leader so far.

“The dean can do everything and nothing: anything if the Faculty accepts the idea, nothing if it doesn’t,” he says.

The Scholar-Dean