For Miller, a tenure of balancing acts

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Photo by Yale Daily News .

When Mary Miller was appointed dean of Yale College on Oct. 10, 2008, the stock market — along with Yale’s endowment — was in free fall.

The first years of Miller’s term, which will come to a close when she steps down as dean at the end of this academic year, were deeply affected by the University’s financial woes, which froze new faculty hiring and prevented the planned construction of the two new residential colleges. But balancing the fiscal storm that ensued after the 2008–’09 financial crisis with the University’s efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate education and increase accessibility was only one part of Miller’s term as dean. A series of initiatives — a review of the findings of the Committee on Yale College Education, an administrative effort to address the University’s sexual climate, the return of ROTC to Yale’s campus for the first time since the Vietnam era and a push to increase Yale’s accessibility to low-income and first-generation college students — will likely be regarded as Miller’s lasting contributions to the College.

“Her experience as an exceptional scholar, wonderful teacher and residential college master [has served] her well as dean,” University Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews said. “I have been in many meetings with her where her wisdom, based on her knowledge and experience, has helped identify and address issues inside and outside the classroom.”

Miller cited Yale College’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct as a crowning achievement of her tenure. After a Title IX scandal rocked the University in 2011, when 16 complainants filed a suit charging Yale with improperly addressing incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault, Miller appointed Melanie Boyd as an assistant dean of student affairs with responsibility for addressing issues of sexual misconduct.

But while the Title XI scandal forced the University to redouble its efforts against sexual misconduct, Miller had engaged with the issue from the first days of her deanship. Upon becoming dean in 2008, Miller appointed Boyd to a quarter-time position as a special assistant on gender issues, which became a half-time position after a 2010 incident when pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon marched on Old Campus chanting sexually degrading phrases.

“I have from the beginning wanted to be sure that access to and equality of education and resources would not be impeded in any way by sexual misconduct along any dimension,” Miller said.

In August 2012, Miller oversaw the return of Reserve Officers Training Corps to Yale for the first time since 1972. At the time, President Obama’s repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” prompted colleges around the nation to reinstate the program, which many colleges — including Yale — had dropped during the Vietnam War.

Miller told the News she was “very happy” to have been the dean to relaunch ROTC on campus.

“I think that institutions cannot afford to not be training the people who will be making the military decisions of this nation,” Miller said. “Students who aspire to military careers should be tested in Yale classrooms.”

Miller attributed her leadership style, which she characterized as “collegial and personal,” to being a longstanding member of the Yale faculty and having risen through its ranks, from a non-tenured position to a Sterling Professorship, the highest academic achievement for faculty at Yale, which she was awarded in 2008.

When Miller took office in 2008, the Yale Corporation had given then-University President Levin the go-ahead to build two new residential colleges. Miller would have overseen the largest expansion of the college in over half a century, adding 800 new students to Yale’s ranks. But deteriorating markets and a 25 percent tumble in the endowment forced the University to table its plans in late February 2009.

The delay in the building of the colleges, which are now slated to begin construction in early 2015, was only the beginning of the fiscal headaches Miller would face.

In the ensuing months, across-the-board budget cuts swept the University. By October 2009, searches for new hires in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — for which Miller, along with Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard, is ultimately responsible — had largely ground to a halt, with the size of the FAS capped at around 700 professors. And by early 2010, the University faced a projected $300-million budget deficit.

At the time, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon told the News that meetings about the budget were taking up a significant portion of Miller’s time and that she was looking toward another year of budget cuts.

Since then, the Yale’s fiscal position has largely recovered, though the University still faces a $39 million budget deficit and the prospect of additional University-wide administrative cuts in the future. But while financial restrictions called for belt-tightening, Miller promoted the expansion of Yale’s educational offerings.

Miller spearheaded the 2010–’11 review of the Committee on Yale College Education 2003 report, a document that had sparked the expansion of STEM offerings, the construction and renovation of art spaces and the implementation of the distribution requirements in writing and quantitative reasoning.

Miller told the News that the CYCE review, which published its report in November 2011, examined what steps the University would need to take to move forward with the expansion of Yale College.

“We should think of such growth as a time of re-think, re-imagine, and re-commit ourselves to teaching in the 21st century,” the 2011 report said of the construction of the two new residential colleges. “We should view this moment as once in a lifetime opportunity for the institution.”

Still, Miller’s popularity amongst students has been a mixed bag, with disagreement centering on whether or not she effectively communicated with the college’s undergraduate population.

“She established a legacy for having an ear for the students,” Rodney Evans ’14 said.

Yanbo Li ’16, on the other hand, said he hopes the next dean will be more responsive and sympathetic to students. Jerusalem Hadush ’17 offered a similar sentiment, adding that he hopes the new dean will be “more out there.”

After leaving her post as dean, Miller will teach two courses at Yale in the fall: one on the year 1000 and one on her academic specialty, Mayan art. Next spring, she will deliver the Slade Lectures, considered among the most prestigious in the field of art history, at the University of Cambridge.

 

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