News analysis | Scholarship swayed choice

Last Friday at precisely 2 p.m. in Luce Hall, University President Richard Levin introduced Mary Miller GRD ’81 as the next dean of Yale College. But for Miller, the celebration was just the beginning of a busy weekend of scholarship: By 4:45 p.m., Miller was on a plane to Washington, D.C. for a conference on writing systems and graphic notation of Mayan civilization, one of her areas of expertise.

Her eminence as a scholar was a top factor in pushing Miller over other candidates for the deanship, according to two senior University administrators who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing their colleagues.

Levin also considered factors such as whether the candidate was a scientist, like astronomy professor Charles Bailyn ’81, or a minority, like Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95, both of whom were often mentioned by faculty as likely candidates for the deanship. But in the end, it appears Levin gave even heavier weight to scholarship, and that meant Miller — who holds Yale’s highest academic rank, a Sterling professorship — emerged as the right person for the job.

“She had a clear advantage in academic accomplishment,” said one of the administrators.

Indeed, at the official ceremony publicly revealing his decision, the first words out of Levin’s mouth concerned Miller’s scholarly track record.

“One of the wonderful features of Yale is that the dean of the College has so often been an exemplar of the highest levels of scholarship,” he said. “Mary fits the bill — she is an exquisite scholar.”

Scholars in Miller’s concentration — Mesoamerican art — say she has made a significant impact on the field, specifically in Mayan art and architecture.

Two decades ago, Miller helped put together an exhibit featuring Mayan art that debunked the popular notion that the Mayan people lived peacefully, in contrast to the violent Aztec civilization.

Stephen Houston GRD ’87, director of graduate studies in anthropology at Brown University and a longtime colleague of Miller, said the exhibit’s accompanying catalogue, “The Blood of Kings,” has long been regarded as an “authentic classic in Mayan archaeology.” In fact, Yale has been able to maintain its reputation as one of the preeminent centers for studying pre-Columbian art due to Miller’s work, he said.

Although the link might not be clear at first, Houston said, the skills behind Miller’s scholarly achievements — including her pioneering exhibitions and catalogues of Mayan art — will play directly into her role as dean.

“Securing permission to extract or basically transport the treasures of another country to the United States [took] an enormous amount of skill, because these artifacts are often at the core of the cultures’ identities,” he said. “You have to have the ability to communicate at all levels simultaneously. … She has an organizational genius that really confirms this appointment as the right one.”

Miller’s scholarship is impressive, but stellar academic credentials are an “implicit” requirement of any high-level position in a university, said Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School. Instead, successful experience as a department chair is usually seen as an “exceedingly important” qualification for Yale College deans, he said, pointing to Miller’s two predecessors. Both Provost Peter Salovey, who left the deanship last month, and Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72, Yale College dean from 1993 to 2004, previously served as department chairs. Bailyn served as chair of the astronomy department for six years, but Holloway has not held a department chair position before.

Miller has served as the director of undergraduate studies and chair of the History of Art Department, chair of the Latin American Studies Department and a member of faculty tenure committees.

But scholarship itself is only one element of what makes a good dean, several faculty members said, given that the dean of Yale College, along with the dean of the Graduate School, presides over the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Tamar Gendler, a member of the search committee that recommended candidates for the deanship, said in an e-mail that exceptional academic scholarship and leadership was only one of four factors the committee used to whittle down the shortlist to eight people. The committee also considered candidates’ demonstrated managerial abilities and interpersonal skills, their visions for undergraduate education at Yale and records of interaction with undergraduates, both inside and outside the classroom.

Gendler emphasized that all eight candidates “satisfied all four of these criteria.”

But Miller would be the last to tout her scholarly achievements over her dedication to undergraduate life.

After the conference in Washington ended on Saturday, Miller flew back to New Haven in time to host her regular knitting club for Saybrook students and a pizza study break.

At the event — which morphed into a celebration of her new appointment — outside the master’s house Sunday evening, Miller looked ahead to her new position, but did not credit her scholarly pursuits in the least.

“The only reason I feel that there are parts of the dean’s job that I do know something about is because of you, Saybrook,” she said. “Spending nine years with Saybrugians … in Saybrook, in Swing Space, in good times and in bad. It helps me know what a Yale student is like.”

Many faculty members interviewed said they thought Miller’s constant accessibility and commitment to undergraduates most likely played a large role in her selection as dean, apart from her academic record.

George Chauncey, a Saybrook fellow and search committee member, said Miller’s clear commitment to Yale College and its undergraduates set her apart as a candidate for the deanship.

“We paid a lot of attention to the quality of the teaching and to the degree of commitment people had shown to the college and its students,” he said. “On top of her scholarship and administrative capacity, it was her obvious commitment to students, her thoughtfulness about undergraduate education, that really made her an excellent candidate.”

Gary Haller, master of Jonathan Edwards college and chair of the the search committee, said while Levin’s pick has pleased the committee on the whole, she inevitably lacks certain attributes — a science or minority background, for example. Still, he said, no one person can embody all of the desired elements.

“On balance, everybody, I think, is happy,” Haller said. “[But] to be honest, there will be many of my science colleagues who will be disappointed simply because she does not represent science.”

Butler pointed out that ironically, Miller may have to scale back on her scholarly research as the new dean of Yale College. “If she has had any free time,” he said, “she no longer will.”

Comments

  • Why

    Why does YDN rely so much on anonymous sources these days?