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For GSE, Two Heads are Better than One

By Eli M. Alper, Contributing Writer

Contrary to popular belief, Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) Professors Judith D. Singer and John B. Willett are not the same person.

The two professors share the same office, the same filing cabinet, a single to-do list and almost include the other in their e-mail correspondence. Longtime co-researchers, the scholars even conduct phone calls together and, since Labor Day, share the position of academic dean at the GSE.

All in all, Singer and Willett have closely cooperated on their work ever since they were hired--together--in 1985.

"Early on they discovered that one plus one added up to more than two," Dean of the Faculty of Education Jerome T. Murphy said.

"From the beginning of their work at the school, they collaborated and they agreed not to compete," Professor of Education with Tenure Susan M. Johnson said.

Johnson, the former academic dean, stepped down last summer to spend more time on her research. Murphy said she recommended that the pair combine to take her place, although sharing deanships is not a common Harvard practice.

The fruits of Singer and Willett's partnership include several awards, two books, and numerous articles on statistical methodology, research design and education policy.

Singer and Willett said they recognize the unusual nature of their working relationship.

"People thought that we would be competing with each other," Singer said.

"The common wisdom around the country is that Harvard is a very competitive environment," Willett added.

Murphy said a cooperative relationship like Singer and Willett's is rare in the academic environment, where most professors compete with each other for tenured positions.

"The norms and the values of the academy are you are rewarded for individual work," Murphy said. "Often there is a fear that unless you have your name by yourself on a piece of work, that you won't get the credit that you're due."

Murphy said he is attempting to encourage more professors to work together at GSE.

"The idea is to try to get faculty to think that they have a responsibility to think of how the school as a corporate entity can move forward," Murphy said.

The co-deans agreed with Murphy's policy.

"You have to be willing to subjugate your own ego for the joint common good," Singer said.

"We really feel that the Ed school has gone out of its way to help our collaboration be successful," Willett added.

Singer and Willett were so committed to partnership that when they came up for promotion, they convinced the GSE to create an additional senior position so they could gain tenure together.

"Each of them said 'unless you consider my counterpart, I won't be reviewed for tenure,'" said Christine Sanni, GSE media relations director.

Murphy said although creating an additional tenured position at the request of faculty members "never happens," Singer and Willett represented--as usual--a unique situation.

"The senior faculty thought they were the two most spectacular statisticians [in their field] in the world," Murphy said, and so the tenure review committee decided to bend the rules to accommodate the pair.

The deanship-sharing arrangement is equally unprecedented.

No one at the Educational School could remember a Harvard dean position ever being shared by two people--even two closely-connected people.

Sanni said that she could only find one other instance of this arrangement in the country--Cheryl and Jim Keen, who share the position of academic dean at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Unlike the Keens, however, Singer and Willett are not married to each other.

"I think it's actually healthy that we're not a married couple," Singer said. "One of the reasons we collaborate well is that we don't always agree with each other."

Singer and Willett did seem to agree on the benefits and challenges of sharing their position. Although they said that communication between the two could have been a problem in sharing the academic dean position, they added that the advantages of cooperating easily outweigh the challenges.

"It forces you to be much more explicit about things you might not have to think about if you process them internally," Singer said.

"The big advantage is that you have someone to talk to," Willett added.

Still, the pair said they have no plans of remaining in an administrative role. Singer and Willett said they are committing to the position for only three years, at which time they'll concentrate fully on teaching and research.

"This is not a career shift," Murphy said. "They weren't looking for an academic position."

Singer and Willett said they felt obligated to take an administrative position anyway.

"This is an opportunity to give back to the school," Singer said.

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