After a year and a half without a permanent leader, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences finally has one. Michael D. Smith, a 45-year-old computer scientist who has been at Harvard since 1992, will take over as dean of the Faculty, President-elect Drew G. Faust announced yesterday.
Smith, currently the associate dean for computer science and engineering, will assume the leadership of the University’s flagship school in just six weeks. He has served as associate dean since 2005, and he has held a position as a tenured professor in the Faculty for only seven years. He is currently the McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.
Though the chairman of a private software company and former swim coach has a wide range of leadership experience outside of the academy, his administrative experience at Harvard is limited when compared to the three deans who preceded him.
“Mike Smith is an excellent teacher, a distinguished computer scientist, and a talented leader known to his colleagues as someone who galvanizes others in pursuit of common goals,” Faust wrote in a letter to the FAS community yesterday. “He has emerged as one of his generation’s most influential experts on computer architecture, while working creatively to connect technology with a broad array of other fields.”
Smith, who teaches the popular undergraduate course Computer Science 50, “Introduction to Computer Science 1,” noted the “importance of a vibrant environment for scholarship across the arts and sciences and the offering of an education second to none.”
“This is a moment of rare opportunity, as we renew our curriculum, explore new connections across fields, and plan for a presence in Allston that reflects and strengthens our academic mission,” he said in the statement.
When Smith assumes the position on July 15, he will be the fourth dean to sit in University Hall’s second-floor corner office in just over a year.
The Faculty has lacked a permanent leader since historian William C. Kirby resigned under pressure from then-University President Lawrence H. Summers in January of last year.
Jeremy R. Knowles, the chemist who led FAS through the 1990s and returned to University Hall last summer to serve as interim dean, stepped down last month because of complications from prostate cancer. Anthropologist David R. Pilbeam has stood in for Knowles since April.
The announcement comes after British geophysicist Jeremy Bloxham—divisional dean for the physical sciences—reportedly rejected an offer to fill the position in May.
As an administrator, Smith has helped guide the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences as it became a separate school this past year.
Smith spent his undergraduate years at Princeton, graduating in 1983, before eventually earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford ten years later.
Colleagues and University officials say Smith is poised to address the most significant issues confronting the Faculty: general education and the expansion into Allston.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, former dean of the College and fellow computer scientist, said yesterday that Smith has shown a desire to connect his scholarship and classes to issues outside of the academy.
It is a spirit that aligns with the recreated General Education program, Lewis said yesterday.
“It’s kind of symbolic, as well as by happy accident,” Lewis said of Smith’s selection. “You have to think about how what we do in the university in terms of our research and our scientific interventions and discoveries relates to the good of society. I’m very pleased that Mike has those things on his mind.”
This spring, Smith taught Computer Science 199r, which examined the intersection of technology and privacy.
Faust said she admires Smith’s core training as an engineer, which she said will enable him to bring an analytical perspective to large projects like Allston.
“He takes great pride in understanding the implications of x and how x leads to y and y to z,” Faust said in a joint phone interview with Smith yesterday.
In contrast to Faust—who has had minimal interaction with Harvard undergraduates as dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advance Studies—Smith has significant familiarity with the undergraduate experience.
When the popular computer scientist received tenure in 2000, his colleague, Henry H. Leitner, remarked, “We need more people like Michael Smith. Undergraduates love him, his teaching evaluations are always among the very highest. Harvard did very well in this case.”
He chairs the Faculty Standing Committee on Athletics Sports and participated this year in a review of life in Cabot House.
“I think life outside the classroom is extremely important,” Smith said.
Smith has paid attention to the administrative life of the Faculty as well, suggesting yesterday that the divisional deans—who oversee the main areas of study—should be given more authority.
“We should be allowing the divisional deans to have the power that they need to implement within their areas what’s best for those individual areas,” he said.
DINING WITH DREW
Like Knowles—who served on the board of Corning, Inc. until early this year—Smith has strong ties to private industry. Before teaching, he worked for three years at Honeywell Information Systems, a division of Honeywell International.
In 2001, he founded Liquid Machines, which sells digital rights management software to major corporations. The company’s clients include Corning, which was chaired by Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow James R. Houghton ’58 until April of this year.
Smith will step down as the chief scientist and chairman of Liquid Machines but will remain a member of board when he assumes the deanship, he said last night.
Smith’s experience in the corporate world could give him a leg up in fundraising for the Faculty, which faces a deficit projected to grow to $75 million by fiscal year 2010 amidst major building projects and extensive Faculty hiring earlier in the decade.
Both Faust and Smith stressed that they kept their getting to know each other low-key.
“It didn’t seem like a courtship,” Faust said. “We just had a number of substantive discussions. After one or two of them, I asked Mike if this is something he would think about seriously. It seemed our goals were aligned.”
“It was very natural from my perspective,” Smith said.
According to Faust, Smith hesitated in accepting the position because he did not want to leave the classroom.
“When I said to Mike, would you consider doing a job like this, he said the thing worried him most was the thought of him having to give up his undergraduate teaching.”
Last night, Faust and her husband—Charles Rosenberg, a historian of science—went out to dinner with Smith and his wife—Chris K. Smith, owner of the Capstone Mortage Company in Lexington.
This was the first time the four have broken bread. Perhaps up for discussion, along with the future of Harvard’s Faculty, was Smith’s selection as one of Harvard’s “fifteen hottest professors” by The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes, in 1999.
—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Johannah S. Cornblatt can be reached at email@example.com.