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Four months after Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby named divisional deans for the social sciences, humanities and physical sciences, the life sciences—the fourth academic division of the Faculty—remains without a dean of its own.
Instead, Kirby has established an “executive committee” of nine professors to oversee curricular and physical planning across the life science departments, while he oversees a nationwide search for a divisional dean.
Though Kirby and University President Lawrence H. Summers both say they expect to name a dean in the next few months, they have yet to articulate why the life sciences alone should require such an extensive search process.
Moreover, the absence of a divisional dean—which comes at a time when the future role of life sciences at Harvard is in flux—has placed the burden of making long-term decisions on a committee created as a temporary stand-in for the future dean.
“This committee, in my view, and I think in Dean Kirby’s view, is a placeholder until there is a divisional dean,” says Chair of the Executive Committee on Life Sciences Douglas A. Melton. “So you could think of it as a substitute for a dean but not even having all the responsibilities that the new dean will have.”
“What we are doing now is helping [the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)] plan for the next 10-plus years in the life sciences,” adds Melton, who is also Cabot professor of the natural sciences.
To date, Kirby has repeatedly declined to explain why the appointment of a divisional dean for the life sciences necessitates a nationwide search, nor has he explained what benefits such an external appointment would bring.
In an e-mail last night, Kirby responded only that “I have never been more optimistic about the future of the life sciences in the FAS and in the larger University.”
While the search committee is considering external candidates, it has not ruled out an internal hire either, according to committee member Andrew H. Knoll, who is Fisher professor of natural history and professor of earth and planetary science.
The committee is currently meeting about once a month, Knoll said, but they are not quite ready to make an offer.
“Certainly there’s been some narrowing down,” he says.
“I’m not aware of any major decisions that have come down the pike one way or another,” he adds.
Summers says that Dean of the Physical Sciences and the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, who was lured from the University of California at Santa Barbara, serves as a model of the cross-department appeal that the administration is seeking in a life sciences dean.
“We should prepare to consider outside candidates given that this is a priority area,” Summers said.
Biewener echoed Summers, saying that it would be challenging to find someone who can appeal to “broad intellectual scope of the life sciences.”
“Dean Venky is a good example of broad intellectual ability,” Biewener says.
Biewener says that Kirby is focused on finding an external dean candidate with similar breadth of experience, noting that he suspects that Kirby and Summers were unable to settle on a single internal candidate with sufficient appeal across the life sciences. He added that procuring an outsider might enable FAS to kill two birds with one stone, simultaneously luring a top researcher and procuring an administrator to lead the life sciences.
“The thought was to bring someone in with a new vision was a good thing. I think that there was support for an outside candidate from the faculty,” Biewener says.
The Committee’s Burden
The search for a dean of life sciences within FAS has taken on a particular importance, as Summers has always placed development of the life sciences among his top priorities.
Within FAS alone, he has raised such questions as how the College can best provide a general science education to all undergraduates and what role the life sciences should play in the University’s future Allston campus.
In the absence of a dean, the executive committee this year has taken the lead in answering such major questions.
But though the committee members’ opinions carry great weight, they still lack the formal authority of a dean.
According to Melton, the committee does not consider recruitment and hiring decisions, which are some of the top priorities of the divisional dean position. This has been a particular setback in the life sciences, an area in which a divisional dean is supposed to unite interrelated but currently fractured departments, promoting interdisciplinary work and seeking out scholars to further such study.
Informally, however, the professors on the executive committee do discuss appointments across departments that could benefit all of the life sciences.
“The people on that list [of executive committee members] are the chairs of all the relevant departments, so it’s not like they’d forget about that department when they come to that committee,” Melton says. “There is a coordinated effort—at least there is an open exchange of what people are looking for.”
And once a new life sciences dean is selected, the decisions and actions taken by the committee this year will be handed off to the new individual.
“My view is that when there is a new divisional dean we might spend a few meetings talking to the person about what we’ve accomplished as a committee and then hand it all over to her and say go for it,” Melton says.
Melton, at least, says he plans to hand over the reins by the end of the school year.
“I’m hoping that it will be done by June,” Melton says. “That’s sort of what I signed up for—within the next year.”
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at email@example.com.
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