Yale’s president is not one to take risks. But with the selection of Saybrook College Master Mary Miller as dean of Yale College, he is taking a sizable one.
With the appointment, Yale’s senior academic administration will be absent a hard scientist for the first time in the Levin administration’s 15 years.
At the ceremony earlier this month announcing Miller’s appointment, we could not help but notice that scientists were relatively absent, too. Regardless of whether that was by design, it was clear that many on Science Hill were not wholly enthused by the selection of Miller, an art historian.
Levin surely knew this was coming. He has made it a priority of his administration to prove that at Yale, the sciences are not merely an appendage or an afterthought. Yet when science professors look to their top leadership, they do not see any of their own.
“In that light alone, it was perhaps not the best choice, not because of her expertise, but because of the message it sends,” A. Stephen Morse, chair of the electrical engineering department, told a reporter after the appointment.
We agree. Ideally, Levin would have appointed a scientist. More ideally, he would have been able to appoint a scientist who is an underrepresented minority. And, maybe, a Yale alum. And the teacher of a popular lecture.
But no such candidate existed. Rather, Levin concluded Miller brought the best blend of qualities to the job.
We think Levin made a wise choice.
Granted, Miller lacks the disarming warmth and charisma of Peter Salovey. She lacks the oracular majesty of his predecessor, Duke President Dick Brodhead. She brings a different personality to the dean’s office.
But no matter, we say. For one, Miller does not bring a thin resume to the deanship. In a position that sets the tone for the academic pulse of Yale College, we now have a person who can safely be proclaimed one of Yale’s most eminent scholars. It is clear Miller has the academic background to guide the broader faculty (as evidenced by her being entrusted to serve as acting director of the Division of the Humanities, which comprises subjects far beyond her immediate expertise).
Miller is sensitive to the needs of students, too, even if you won’t see her conduct the YPMB anytime soon. We should recall that she inherited a residential college whose previous master and dean were a child molester and murder suspect, respectively. Miller calmed the college and has since presided over happy times.
So where does this leave us? Levin, for his part, wrote to science department chairs after the Miller appointment to promise he did not intend her selection to signal a backing away from his commitment to the sciences. “I am aware that many of you may have hoped that a faculty member from the sciences or engineering would have been appointed as dean,” he said. “I write to assure you that building the sciences at Yale remains a top University priority.”
We can’t blame scientists for being disappointed. But there is no doubt Miller is qualified for the deanship. Scientists should recognize that and give her a chance.
For her part, Miller recognizes the challenges that await. “I have a steep learning curve in front of me,” she told a reporter.
Indeed, Miller does face a challenge. But we trust her to rise to it.