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Kirby Appoints Divisional Deans

Three new administrators will oversee related departments

By Simon W. Vozick-levinson, Crimson Staff Writer

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announced the appointment yesterday of three “divisional deans” to oversee broad groupings of academic departments, the latest in a series of administrative reorganizations Kirby has undertaken since he assumed office last summer.

Kirby wrote in a letter to faculty that the appointment of the deans, who will occupy a new level on the University Hall power structure between Kirby and the department chairs, aims to “improve communication, facilitate research, and expedite the recruitment of new colleagues.”

As of Sept. 1, Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Maria M. Tatar will become dean for the humanities; Loeb Professor of Social Sciences David M. Cutler, an economist, will become dean for the social sciences; and Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS) Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti will add dean of the physical sciences to his title. A nationwide search for a dean for the life sciences is ongoing, Kirby said.

Unlike Kirby’s surprise announcement of his intent to merge the offices responsible for students’ academic and non-academic lives in March, this latest restructuring has been mentioned as under consideration through much of Kirby’s first year in office.

Divisional deanships had been discussed during the tenure of Kirby’s predecessor as dean, Jeremy R. Knowles, and were included as an option in a 1994 report on the structure of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) administration.

The appointments come at an important moment for FAS, as professors and administrators get to work on an overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum, and plan to expand the Faculty by 10 percent over the next decade.

While Kirby wrote that the exact duties of the new deans have yet to be finalized, he said they will lead academic planning on the divisional level, help to allocate resources and have an advisory role in the faculty appointment process.

Knowles wrote in an e-mail that he approved of the move.

“This is a good plan, and its time has come,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Tatar, too, said she thought her appointment came at an opportune moment.

“The humanities are in a state of flux now, so this is a good time to think about what lies ahead, how we can take advantage of new initiatives,” she said.

Developing Deanships

Though the deans’ duties will vary from area to area, Kirby wrote in a press statement that one of their primary objectives will be to break down barriers between departments and fields.

“Our success in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences rests on our respect for each other’s unique contributions, and our openness to collaboration and innovation,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what we, as a Faculty, can accomplish in and across our disciplinary and divisional structures.”

Tatar echoed Kirby, saying that she sees fostering interdisciplinary cooperation as an integral part of her new job.

“Departments tend to be sort of silos, autonomous entities, and I’m hoping that what a humanities dean will be able to do is facilitate dialogue,” she said.

One important way divisional deans could encourage such dialogue while advising on new hires, she said, was in “trying to identify scholars who are sometimes missed in departmental searches because they’re doing interdisciplinary work.”

Narayanamurti said he looked forward to making connections between fields which do not obviously relate to one another.

“Once you decide to put some structure in, I think the real thing is to build some bridges,” he said.

He said that as dean of DEAS he had already served as an informal coordinator with the physical sciences which he will now oversee.

“I see my role being some of the things which I normally did anyway now becoming official,” Narayanamurti said.

In addition to facilitating academic planning on this broader level, Tatar and others said the new divisional heads will help bridge the gap between professors and administration while also relieving some of the burden of a taxed dean of the faculty.

Tatar said she thought she would serve as “a mediator” between professors and Kirby—solving a problem she said was inherent in the present administrative structure of FAS.

“Clearly faculty have not felt comfortable about just going in to talk to the dean about an issue,” she said. “They can always go to Bill Kirby about salary issues or needs that they have, but they can’t go in and talk about a great idea they have.” She said this obstacle had resulted from the limits of any individual dean overseeing a group as large and complex as FAS.

“It hasn’t been the job of the dean of FAS to micromanage or to think about the curriculum,” she said. “I know that as a Faculty member I sometimes felt frustrated.”

But Narayanamurti was careful to point out that the new structure won’t mean professors will have less face-time with Kirby.

“The faculty in a university always have access not only to the dean of the faculty but also to the president,” he said. “I don’t expect to be that kind of gatekeeper—I wouldn’t want to view it as just an intermediary but rather as a facilitator.”

However, Narayanamurti said the FAS dean’s job as presently defined is unusually challenging.

“Harvard is the only place where you have such a large faculty reporting to one person,” he said.

Both Narayanamurti and Tatar said they were ready to shoulder their share of such an outsized burden.

“Certainly the first couple of years I expect it to be somewhat consuming,” Tatar said.

Gray Areas Ahead

Both Tatar and Narayanamurti stressed that their roles as divisional deans are still very much up in the air.

“We are in the process of defining the job, so we’re looking at different models,” Tatar said. “Right now we’re not even sure where it would make sense to have our offices.”

Tatar said planning would continue through the weeks until her September installation as dean.

“We’re not making it up as we go along, but no one has any fixed ideas,” she said.

Though she did not expect all the questions surrounding the divisional deanships to be answered by Sept. 1, Tatar said this was not necessarily regrettable.

“I wouldn’t want them to be resolved before talking to chairs and colleagues and getting a better sense,” she said.

Narayanamurti—who is co-chair of the search committee for the life sciences dean—said that a lengthy search process beyond Harvard’s walls as well as within them means that the last divisional dean’s seat will remain unfilled beyond the coming semester.

“We are still in an exploratory phase,” he said of the 11-member search committee. “Hopefully in the fall term we will have a small list,” he said.

University President Lawrence H. Summers has identified strengthening life sciences as a top priority, making this final appointment a closely-watched one.

While the search continues, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences Douglas A. Melton will chair an executive committee that will advise on the life sciences.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at

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