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Geisinger Professor of History William C. Kirby has been named the next dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University President Lawrence H. Summers announced yesterday afternoon.
Kirby said he was “excited” to lead the Faculty and pledged to place issues of undergraduate education at the top of his agenda, echoing the emphasis Summers has placed on the issue during his first year.
“It’s an enormous honor and a real privilege,” Kirby said. “We have a wonderful Faculty, and we have the best students in the world.”
Reviewing the undergraduate curriculum, with intense scrutiny on the Core Curriculum, and lending a more international perspective to Harvard’s academic endeavors will be among Kirby’s top priorities, he said yesterday.
“I think anyone coming into this job would have a set of goals, and one that I look very much forward to is a review of our undergraduate curriculum,” Kirby said. “This is something every great University needs to do on a periodic basis.”
As director of the Asia Center and a China scholar, Kirby is particularly well-suited to the task of making Harvard a presence in the global academy. He said expanding the Faculty’s focus on international studies will involve both developing programs at Harvard that deal with other parts of the world and increasing study abroad opportunities.
The appointment of Kirby marks a departure from the last three decades, during which two economists and a chemist have stood at the Faculty’s helm.
And several faculty said he provides balance to a University administration headed by an economist and a psychiatrist.
Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, who will officially step down July 1, said yesterday he was “pleased” with the selection of his successor.
“I am truly delighted that Bill Kirby has been appointed the new Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” he said in a statement. “He has been a splendid colleague, and his thoughtful leadership will serve the Faculty superbly.”
Yesterday’s announcement brought to a close Summers’ three-month search that began when Knowles announced his resignation on February 12.
Forming a 13-member Faculty advisory committee, Summers solicited feedback from students, professors and alumni, and he said yesterday nearly 80 nominees emerged from these conversations.
Kirby seemed to be a top contender for the job from the beginning, given his significant administrative experience and outgoing personality.
But Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Peter T. Ellison and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Drew Gilpin Faust were also leading candidates in the search.
Kirby said he had spoken with Summers about the deanship several times during the course of the search.
“At some point in the process he suggested that it was something I might think very carefully about,” Kirby said.
Though even top Faculty members only learned yesterday who their new leader would be, the search actually came to a close at the end of last week, according to Kirby.
Summers lauded Kirby’s accomplishments as a professor, scholar and administrator.
“Bill Kirby is a person of extraordinary wisdom, with an outstanding record in a series of leadership roles within the FAS,” Summers said in a statement.
After graduating from Dartmouth, Kirby came to Harvard for graduate study in history, earning his master’s in 1974 and his doctorate in 1981 for a dissertation on Chinese modernization in the first half of the twentieth century.
Kirby—who lives in Lexington with his wife, Yvette Sheahan Kirby, who also earned her doctorate in history from Harvard, and their two children—joined the Faculty ten years ago and was named the Asia Center’s director in 1999.
His scholarly pursuits have focused on the history and economic development of China. He is currently finishing work on A World Transformed, a global history of the twentieth century he is writing with his wife and Krupp Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60.
Colleagues reached yesterday said they were pleased with Kirby’s selection, citing his extensive administrative experience, his commitment to undergraduate education and his keen wit.
Kirby served as chair of the history department from 1995 to 2000, leading the department through a revision of its curriculum and the appointment of a number of new professors.
Prior to coming to Harvard, Kirby was a professor for 11 years at Washington University in St. Louis and served four years as dean of that school’s division for part-time, evening and summer-school students.
At Harvard Kirby teaches two Core courses, Historical Studies A-13, “China: Traditions and Transformations,” and Historical Studies A-74, “Contemporary China: The People’s Republic and Taiwan in the Modern World.”
In addition to his involvement in the popular Core classes, Kirby has also been an ardent supporter of making study abroad a more integral part of undergraduate education. At a Faculty meeting last fall, he delivered an eloquent speech on the subject that was met with the applause of the Faculty—a rare occurrence at these meetings.
He also co-authored, along with Anthropology Department Chair William L. Fash, the report used by the Faculty to craft a wide array of study abroad changes adopted earlier this month that make it easier for undergraduates to study out of residence.
“I know that he is a great advocate of undergraduate education, and so I think it’s a very exciting selection for the future of the College especially since he was pivotal in the study abroad changes,” Undergraduate Council President Sujean S. Lee ’03 said yesterday.
When Knowles announced his resignation, professors said it would be difficult to imagine anyone matching his charismatic leadership.
But colleagues said Kirby has his own type of charm—a “warm and witty” sense of humor that will earn him friends among faculty members.
“His wit is just marvelous,” Fash said. “I’ve been in a number of different meetings...in which people will start to get worked up about something. And when people start to get a little edgy, he can sense that right away, and somehow in a nanosecond he comes up with the most surprising joke that completely deflates all the tension in the room.”
Coolidge Professor of History and History Department Chair David G. Blackbourn said Kirby also has an ability to develop personal connections.
“It’s not just his sense of humor, but he has a tremendous ease of manner,” Blackbourn said. “He makes people feel that he listens to them—in that sense he has some of the qualities that Neil Rudenstine had.”
—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Dan Rosenheck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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