The Association of Yale Alumni’s video lecture series “The Great Teachers at Yale” features lectures by 10 of the University’s most revered professors, including Peter Salovey GRD ’86, dean of Yale College from 2004 to 2008, and Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72, dean of Yale College from 1993 to 2004.
If being deemed a “great teacher” is any indication of a faculty member’s worthiness to assume the job of dean of Yale College, University President Richard Levin’s likely short list can quickly be reduced to one candidate: Mary Miller GRD ’81, who, like Salovey and Brodhead, was featured in the series.
Miller, member of the Yale faculty since 1980 and master of Saybrook College since 1999, is no stranger to campus leadership positions. She has, after all, served as director of undergraduate studies, director of graduate studies and chair of the History of Art Department as well as director of graduate studies in Archaeological Studies. She has also been a member of the steering committee of the Women Faculty Forum and of the Study Group to Consider New Residential Colleges.
Like many of the other top contenders, Miller, who declined to comment for this story, attended Yale, and her administrative experience and her edge as a woman — at a time when University President Richard Levin has said he wants to add diversity at the dean level — may push her name toward the top of the list of candidates.
But the 55-year old Sterling Professor — the highest academic rank at Yale — may have a different life path in mind, one that does not lead to the spacious corner office on Prospect Street. Miller announced three weeks ago that she plans to step down from her post at Saybrook next year to become the A.W. Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
So now it’s up to Levin to decide: Can the master who helped her college rise from the ashes balance her prestigious new job with Yale College’s ultimate promotion? Or perhaps more importantly, should she have to?
‘To be well received’
Miller assumed the post of Master of Saybrook College in 1999, an exceedingly tumultuous time in the history of the college. Antonio Lasaga, Miller’s predecessor, had just been arrested for sexual assault and possession of child pornography, and former Saybrook dean James Van De Velde had been the only suspect named in the investigation of the December 1998 murder of Davenport senior Suzanne Jovin ’99.
But under Miller’s leadership, Saybrugians’ pride in their college has been revitalized during the past nine years, students said.
Miller is in fact so popular among Saybrugians that students designed T-shirts emblazoned with a portrait of her face for spring 2008’s Say & Sele Day, the college’s annual outdoor fun day. The shirts proudly declare, “It’s Miller Time.”
Saybrook Master’s Aide Jeanne Snow ’11 said Miller consciously strives to reach out to every Saybrugian because she wants to her students to succeed in all aspects of their lives, whether in the classroom, on the IM fields or after graduation.
“She is eager to chat with students about their personal lives,” Snow said. “And she is always dedicated to promoting a dynamic and homey college atmosphere, whether it is through creative study breaks or Master’s Teas.”
And students from all colleges have emphasized the importance of congeniality in the next dean. Although some students said they find it difficult to connect with Miller, most Saybrugians interviewed said she is always approachable and friendly in the halls of their college.
“A necessity for the next dean is to be well received among students,” Riley Scripps Ford ’11 said. “Master Miller would be perfect in that regard.”
“[Miller] is part of a new wave with Maya scholarship,” Sterling Professor emeritus of the history of art Vincent Scully said of Miller’s academic specialty, Mesoamerican art with a focus on Mayan culture. “She changed everyone’s attitude. Pre-Columbianists wanted to think of Mayans as philosopher kings, and her book [“The Blood of Kings”] reveals that they were more bloody than the Aztecs.”
Elizabeth Cropper, dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Art at the National Gallery of Art, said the gallery’s prestigious lecture series is only offered to scholars with an international reputation and that the series will provide an opportunity for Miller to speak to the broader public about her field of expertise.
In interviews, colleagues and experts in the field have praised Miller’s extensive scholarship in Mayan art and architecture. She has published 10 books and over a dozen articles on the subject.
In addition to her six-week appointment at the National Gallery, Miller has also been selected as Cambridge University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art, the senior post at Cambridge in art history, for the academic year 2014-2015.
With such apparent focus on expanding her recognition in academia, Miller may not be prepared to balance her own scholarship and the needs of thousands of undergraduates at Yale College.
But at least one colleague considers Miller capable of that very sort of balance.
Simon Martin, senior epigrapher at the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, spent six months at Yale collaborating with Miller on an exhibition and catalogue for the National Gallery and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Versatility, he said, is one of Miller’s strongest personal characteristics.
“The thing about her is she is amazing at wearing many different hats and spinning many different plates,” Martin said. “She is really astonishingly capable.”
Martin said Miller’s ability to balance life as Saybrook Master and “leading scholar” is evidence that she could also successfully juggle the responsibilities of dean if she is appointed.
A complicated candidacy?
After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1975, Miller earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at Yale and immediately began her ascent up the University’s academic ladder as a lecturer in the History of Art Department in 1980.
Miller is widely considered to be an expert in her humanistic discipline, but some faculty members in the sciences have said they hope to see a scientist fill the dean post. Levin’s stated desire to strengthen the scientific reputation of the University might be enough for him to pass Miller by as an option.
Miller’s upcoming positions at the National Gallery and Cambridge might appear to complicate her candidacy further. But the National Gallery’s Cropper said if Miller were named as the next dean, her lecturing position would not force her to compromise her commitment as academic leader of Yale College. The National Gallery tends to appoint people with full schedules, such as Pierre Rosenberg, the former director of the Louvre, Cropper said.
Cropper said Miller has not spoken with her about a potential candidacy as dean.
Few could claim that Miller has not led a distinguished career as an art historian. The question that remains for Levin, though, is whether her academic distinction and experience as Master are enough to qualify Miller to fill Salovey’s shoes.