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Climbing Alone

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

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.
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.
By Jessica E. Vascellaro, Crimson Staff Writer

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

Trained as a Chinese historian, Kirby has adopted a scholarly approach to his new job—informing all his decisions with careful and deliberative research and consultation.

With much to learn about the intricacies of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Kirby’s inquisitiveness has served him well during his first year in office, colleagues say.

“He has developed his own active tutorial approach to the deanship,” says Allan M. Brandt, chair of the history of science department.

Kirby’s colleagues describe his style as “experiment oriented,” reaching decisions only after broad consultation on the key intellectual issues.

“Kirby keeps uncovering new things and changing his views,” says Lee Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Thomas P. Maniatis. “He is very engaged and frequently meets with department chairs and other members of the department.”

Kirby has identified FAS’s need to expand in the life sciences, and the Chinese historian has stepped right up to the challenge.

“Kirby comes in with little scientific knowledge, relatively speaking,” Maniatis says. “He has had to learn a lot in a short period of time.”

Colleagues say Kirby relishes brushing up on the latest intellectual issues across all fields. Responsible for approving all junior faculty appointments and advising the president on all tenure cases, Kirby says the capacity to help dictate the direction of a discipline through new appointments “is a thrill in itself.”

“I have learned frightfully more than I expected,” Kirby says. “It is very exciting and interesting to follow new trends and ideas.”

Colleagues say they find this style refreshing and appreciate the accessibility to the dean they are afforded.

“In conversations, I can get inside his head in an instant, and that is good,” says Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn.

The model of the scholar-manager suits the leader of the Harvard Faculty well, Brandt adds.

“It is familiar to us—it is the way we work,” he says.

“Kirby is a Faculty member who became dean. He is not an administrator,” Mendelsohn says. “He has strengthened his self image as a Faculty dean.”

The Activist Administrator

But while all are willing to sing Kirby’s praises as an academic, not all are certain how effective the inquisitive historian will be as dean—a job that requires convincing not only oneself of decisions, but others as well.

This year, most have been surprised by the decisive manner in which he has made two major decisions to overhaul the structure of the University Hall bureaucracy.

Come next fall, there will be almost completely new lines of command throughout FAS.

But this time Kirby’s consultation took place behind closed doors.

On March 15, he announced that Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 would conclude his deanship at the end of the academic year and that the offices of the dean of undergraduate education and the dean of Harvard College would be consolidated.

Later that month Kirby announced that the new deanship would be occupied by current Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71.

The move stunned many—including the outgoing dean and his staff.

“I learned in the past two weeks that the dean of the Faculty had decided to reorganize,” Lewis said at the time. “That was unexpected.”

“I was totally, totally shocked,” says Associate Dean of Harvard College for Public Service Judith H. Kidd. “There was no warning, no consultation, and it appeared, no plan on what we were going to be doing in July.”

While Faculty members say they were not necessarily opposed to the idea, most said that this was the first they had heard of it.

“It is a good issue to think about, but I have never considered the matter before,” says Williams Professor of History and Political Science Roderick MacFarquhar.

“He has put in almost an entirely new team, and I didn’t know of any discussion whatsoever,” says Professor of German Peter J. Burgard.

And though Kirby says a consolidated office to address both the academic and extracurricular aspects of undergraduate life was necessary before the curricular review could proceed, even those involved in brainstorming ideas for the review were surprised.

Harvard College Professor Peter Galison, who has met with the dean in several general meetings about the direction of the review, says the reorganization had never come up.

“To combine the offices administratively was never one of the specific topics discussed,” he says.

Similarly, Brandt says that while he is sure Kirby had good reasons to make the change, he “never heard him fully articulate his rationale for doing it.”

And while many say they were caught off guard by the decision itself, others say that the manner in which Kirby proceeded was what most surprised them.

“I don’t know why is was announced as abruptly as it was,” MacFarquhar says.

But according to Kirby, the decision is the realization of a long-considered idea, one he has been contemplating since taking office last summer.

“The possibility had been discussed for a number of years,” Kirby says, referring to a 1994 report—co-authored by Lewis—on the structure of the College. “This change will try to address the artificial separation between our support for the academic and non-academic lives of our students.”

And MacFarquhar says that while Kirby’s decision may have been surprising, to make it was his prerogative.

“Choosing personnel is the key decision to getting many other things done,” he says. “I would expect him to be far more decisive than coalition-building.”

Though many faculty were willing to concede Kirby’s right to act decisively in personnel decisions, several have raised concerns about another major administrative restructuring that will be realized next fall.

By fall, Kirby says he will have in place two new area deans for the humanities and the social sciences.

These part-time positions, to be filled by professors, will last several years and will help the dean make appointments and recruit faculty throughout FAS.

In contrast to his consultative style over making appointments, Kirby decided to implement the new structure without ever bringing it before the Faculty for a formal discussion.

Though he solicited feedback from his colleagues earlier this year, few were aware these deans would be in place so quickly.

“I have no idea whether or not they will be in place in September. That seems quite soon,” says Professor of History Lizabeth Cohen.

Kirby is also in the process of finding a dean for the life sciences.

After extensive discussion with scientists in and beyond FAS, Kirby kicked off a national search to fill the new position this year.

The consideration of area deans is not new but rather the result of a long-discussed concern that the job of dean of the Faculty is too large for one person.

Many have felt that the dean should delegate some of his responsibilities for overseeing the academic mission of each area.

Several deans have considered the plan, but dismissed it for fear of adding an extra layer of bureaucracy between the faculty and their dean.

Some say Kirby has been overwhelmed by the load and that this search for divisional deans is a reflection of a desire to delegate his responsibilities.

“[Area deans] are in part due to his discomfort with his responsibilities,” Maniatis says.

Several Faculty have pointed out that while Knowles was able to work at the job nonstop, Kirby, who has two high school-aged children and, unlike Knowles, chooses to live off-campus, is looking to put new structures in place.

“The structure of the job was possible for someone who was able to work a the job 24/7, but even [Dean Knowles] was spreading thin,” Anthropology Professor William L. Fash says.

And Knowles agrees that the dean would benefit from some advice.

“The time has come,” he says. “We shouldn’t worry about layers of bureaucracy—it is more important to have expert help.”

But already several professors have objected to the plan.

MacFarquhar says he believes the extra administrative layer is a huge mistake and has raised these concerns in several e-mails to Kirby.

“As a chair of a department, I would rethink accepting if the dean above me was an economics professor or even another government professor,” he says.

Kirby has not attempted to rally any kind of consensus behind either of these major restructuring decisions.

His lack of concern for building a coalition of supporters behind his initiatives has some questioning the degree to which values faculty advice.

“Bill Kirby doesn’t listen,” says one administrator. “When people try to offer counsel to Bill, he uses defensive mechanisms.”

Standing Alone

Even when he consults widely, some worry that Kirby doesn’t listen.

Despite the warning signs along the way and without first building a consensus, Kirby put forward a proposal this year to require students to preregister for their classes.

After having failed to rally support for the initiative, one of his first moves in office, the dean backed down.

Since last May, Kirby had been discussing the implementation of Early Course Selection—a proposal that would require students to choose their courses a semester in advance.

The plan would change shopping period into an add-drop period when students would have to obtain several signatures in order to change their schedules.

From the moment he announced his intentions in the fall, the proposal met with formidable resistance. Concerns over the elimination of the flexibility of shopping period had been voiced by both the Faculty Council and the Undergraduate Council—and led 1,200 students to sign a petition against Kirby’s proposal.

According to Mendelsohn, Kirby was fully aware that the Faculty were unconvinced.

“By the time he brought it to the floor of the Faculty he knew there would be a negative response,” Mendelsohn says. “[But] there [had been] much internal discussion among the council and we were willing to give the dean his head.”

When the issue was finally debated in a meeting of the full Faculty in March, professors spoke vehemently against preregistration and the way Kirby was attempting to push it through.

“This seems like a situation where nobody wants this to happen and we just discuss it like it is inevitable,” Professor of Political Economy Benjamin M. Friedman said at the meeting.

Robinson Professor of Music Robert D. Levin, denounced the proposal as “practically and aesthetically repugnant” and “not serving the needs of education, but the needs of the administration.”

After the meeting, Kirby seemed humbled but not discouraged.

“It was, as diplomats say, a full and frank exchange of views,” Kirby wrote in an e-mail.

But within a week, he announced that he would abandon the plan.

Saying he had never wished to restrict student flexibility he said that he remained “open to any plausible solution to the problems that we face.”

Faculty remain critical not only of the proposal, but also of the way it was handled.

“Preregistration blindsided him a bit,” Mendelsohn says. “My guess is that on the next round he will put it out in a more cautious way.”

“Clearly someone should have been more in touch when it was clear that it was a widespread problem,” he adds. “The best way is to sound out faculty opinion and build a coalition in advance.”

Next Year’s Test

Coalition-building will be imperative to pushing through a new curriculum, the next major item on Kirby’s agenda.

By the end of next year, four committees will have drafted recommendations for major revisions to a Harvard undergraduate education.

Invoking Harvard’s “rich modern history of self-examination,” Kirby kicked the review in a letter to professors last October.

“The number of recent changes alone suggests the need for a holistic curricular review, to understand better the interactions among various parts of our undergraduate education,” he wrote.

Thus far, professors have praised the consultative and deliberative style with which Kirby has begun the curricular review, soliciting e-mails from faculty, students and alumni and raising the issue at meetings of the full Faculty and the Undergraduate Council.

“I have seen a real commitment to hearing what people think need to be looked at,” Galison says. “No doubt Bill has his own ideas, but his style has been to listen and meet with large numbers of people.”

“He’s a leader, and at the same time he is committed to collaboration and consultation,” says Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris, who chairs the committee on overall academic experience. “He makes you feel like you’re part of the processes.”

But once a set of recommendations are ready to be put before the Faculty, consultation alone won’t enable Kirby to see their implementation through.

History shows that rallying the faculty behind any new curriculum is a trying task.

In the spring of 1978, it took then-Dean of the Faculty Henry A. Rosovsky three months’ worth of heated meetings to get the Faculty to adopt the Core curriculum.

This time around, professors are predicting that passing even minor changes will require similar political savvy.

“Be bold,” MacFarquhar advises Kirby. “In reforming the undergraduate curriculum there are long-time entrenched issues that need to be argued strenuously when proposals come up.”

But this year’s unilateral restructuring decisions and the preregistration debacle call into question Kirby’s ability to unite the Faculty behind a major initiative.

Some also complain that while Kirby’s commitment to the curricular review is strong, they had hoped he would be more forceful in his vision of what he as dean would like to achieve.

“It isn’t clear that [Kirby] has a vision of what should be done,” Mendelsohn says. “I would have loved to see him pose some deeper questions as to where the inquiry should go.”

The Globe-trotter

Though Kirby has not offered any overarching vision for the curricular review, he does have one clear priority for the future of Harvard College—infusing a more international flavor to the undergraduate experience.

“He’s less concerned with the tradition of Western Civilization to be defended or upheld [than] the capacity to deal with the world’s vast populations,” says Salstonstall Professor of History Charles S. Maier ’60.

Former director of the Asia Center and co-author of the report on study abroad that the Faculty approved last year, Kirby has been a long-time advocate for the internationalization of the curriculum.

In continuing this year with his support for interdisciplinary area studies, Kirby directed half a million dollars of the dean’s discretionary funds to new programs in African and South Asian studies.

While both these initiatives were in the pipeline before he assumed office, many say that Kirby acted decisively to realize them.

“It would have happened anyway, but Dean Kirby speeded up the process when he came in by making several important decisions,” says Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs Sugata Bose, who will lead the new South Asian Initiative.

Bose said that the dean’s help has allowed them to install a new interfaculty program on India and Pakistan and work to expand library resources on South Asian Studies.

Similarly, by endorsing the renaming of the Afro-American studies department to include a focus on African studies, Kirby finally realized a recommendation made in 1991 to increase dedication to the field.

According to W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., Kirby worked diligently to realize the merger—and keep him from leaving Harvard for Princeton earlier this year.

“Another dean who wasn’t interested in foreign cultures and foreign language might have been reluctant to support this in perilous economic times,” he says. “But [Kirby] understood the importance of the initiative right away.”

The Lightning Rod

When describing Kirby, few fail to mention that he is, above all, an academic.

“Kirby is a scholar—his career is as a historian,” Gross says.

But this year the Chinese professor has proven himself a decisive administrator as well, reorganizing the FAS bureaucracy with neither broad faculty consultation nor faculty coalitions to back him up.

And while the consultative, deliberate style of the scholar at times rubs against the quick, decisive nature of the administrator, some see them as one in the same.

Maier says that Kirby, though an intellectual, was drawn to administration because he loves the hands-on approach.

“Kirby enjoys the interactive side of professional life,” Maier says. “Some other colleagues like to write or spend every bit of time with students. Bill has a certain sense of institutional activism.”

In his first year, Kirby has shown he has the ability to listen and to act decisively.

But the dean has yet to rally broad faculty support to see any of his initiatives through.

And some say Kirby has already come under attack for his leadership style.

“Kirby has the toughest job in the University, and is getting lots of pressure and criticism from above and below, and not enough support from either,” says one administrator. “Unlike Knowles, he wants to be an activist dean, take bold steps and accept responsibility himself rather than blaming the president, the Faculty or forces beyond his control. This is bound to make him a lightning rod.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at

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