Grad School Dean Will Step Down

After a five-year tenure as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Peter T. Ellison will step down from his post at the end of this academic year, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby announced last week in a letter to members of the faculty.

“I was glad to do it. We accomplished a lot, but I am looking forward to getting back to my first love, which is teaching and research,” said Ellison, who will continue to teach courses as Cowley Professor of Anthropology.

“I don’t think it was a jarring decision, just a mutual recognition that this was a nice cadence point,” he said.

According to Professor of the History of Science Everett I. Mendelsohn, who worked closely with Ellison while serving as Master of the graduate student dorm Dudly House, it is not out of the ordinary for graduate school deans to step down after tenures as short as Ellison’s.

Ellison’s tenure as dean was marked by a significant increase in the amount of financial aid given to GSAS students. Every student admitted in this year’s admissions cycle will receive full funding for all five years of graduate study, said Ellison. When he first took office, the graduate school extended two years of financial aid to only 60 percent of students. This increase in funding has allowed the graduate school to attract increasingly better students.


Kirby launched the search for Ellison’s successor in his letter to the Faculty, soliciting the names of qualified colleagues “who have the energy, vision and tolerant spirit that this important position demands.”

Ellison said he first became intimately involved with the GSAS when he chaired a committee which suggested ways to improve graduate student financial aid. Ellison was then appointed GSAS dean in 2000 to oversee the implementation of these recommendations.

“He is seen by most of us who are involved with the graduate school as someone who has really hung in with the needs of Harvard students,” Mendelsohn said.

During his tenure, Ellison oversaw the creation of five inter-Faculty Ph.D. programs, and was responsible for combining three Harvard biological science programs into the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program.

Mendelsohn lauded Ellison’s championing of graduate student housing, especially in light of Harvard’s expansion into Allston.

“He was pushing very hard to make sure that housing for graduate students was up towards the top of the agenda. Certainly from what I’ve seen of the planning to date, he was successful in getting there,” Mendelsohn said.

During his first four years as dean, Ellison chose to teach a full load of courses—two undergraduate classes and two graduate seminars.

Ellison said that before he returns to teaching Harvard students, he will take a year-long leave of absence—his first sabbatical since 1987.

“I plan to try to catch up on many years of my own discipline,” Ellison said.

But Ellison’s administrative days might not be over, said Ford Professor of the Social Sciences David Pilbeam.

“He’s one of the most judicious, wise people that I know,” Pilbeam said. “My greatest fear has always been that he will leave and go and be president of a college somewhere.”

—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at

—Staff writer Sara E. Polsky can be reached at

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