Double take: How Yale picks a master

As he announced the appointment of Paul Hudak as the next master of Saybrook College last night, University President Richard Levin took some time to acknowledge a bit of give and take that helped bring Hudak to the college.

It all started when Hudak in 2002 lured Julie Dorsey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Yale. The hire was seen as a coup, and one of a series of coups that Hudak orchestrated in his time as chair of the computer science department. It was also a hire that would prove convenient for Hudak. After all, just seven years after he brought Dorsey to Yale, she was made chair of the Saybrook search committee that ended up recommending Hudak to Levin.

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“I know this is going to sound a little like inside baseball,” Levin acknowledged with a laugh.

But for some students and faculty, even as they expressed excitement over Hudak’s appointment, there was a sense that the process of selecting a master actually sounds a lot like inside baseball — or even like tap night for secret societies.

After all, there are no job applications, no interviews and little way for a professor to know whether he or she is even being considered for the job.

Indeed, Mary Miller, the former master of Saybrook College who is now dean of Yale College, was asked to become master while sitting on a lakefront in Guatemala. In an interview yesterday, Miller acknowledged that there is “little transparency” in the hiring of masters, but she added that there is still “quite a bit of process to it.”

Speaking to the News by phone last night, Levin said the first step in selecting a new master is to establish a search committee. In the case of Saybrook, that committee included four faculty members and six students.

Peter Luehring-Jones ’09, one of the students on the committee, said the group met five times in the fall as it evaluated candidates. The committee received around five nominations from students, Luehring-Jones said, and ultimately arrived at around 30 names for consideration through its own deliberations.

From there, said Iris Vuong ’11, another student member of the committee, the group took time to conduct research on each candidate. Students sat in on lectures and talked to friends about professors who were under consideration; professors on the committee spoke to their colleagues and everyone looked into the background and involvement of each person on the committee’s list.

The committee, however, never met directly with any of their candidates.

“It’s an imperfect system,” Luehring-Jones said. “A lot of times I didn’t have any personal knowledge of the person we were looking at, and it would have been helpful to have spoken with them. But it also could have been awkward — we wouldn’t have wanted to get anyone’s hopes up.”

At least one professor on the Saybrook committee’s list expressed concern that the secrecy might ultimately be self-defeating.

“Conversation allows questions people might have about the position and questions people might have about you to be aired,” said the professor, who asked to remain anonymous. “Remember, hearsay is always unreliable.”

But based on hearsay or not, the committee did ultimately narrow its list to around a dozen candidates that they presented to Levin. The list was broken up into three categories: a top tier, a second tier and Hudak, the candidate placed above all others.

For his part, Levin said in the interview that “there is the concern that the committees don’t always have the deepest knowledge of the candidates that they recommend.” But he defended the process, noting that he calls on the advice of his aides and other colleagues as he makes his determinations.

And even the professor who wished that the committee had conducted interviews noted that, in the end, “the results are good. Yale has fabulous masters.”

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