STERN: A tale of two deans

A Stern Perspective

The dean of one of the best colleges in the world just stepped down. She had been appointed in 2008, the first woman to hold the prestigious post. She was indisputably among the foremost scholars in her field and repeatedly won recognition from her peers. Though she led the college through a transformative period, she recently came under fire for controversial decisions that many felt displayed a fundamental lack of respect for the rights and opinions of those on campus.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianThis dean’s name was Evelynn Hammonds. From 2008 to 2013, Hammonds presided over Harvard College. She is a widely respected historian of race, gender and medicine. In mid-2013, she admitted to violating Harvard’s privacy policy by covertly searching the emails of administrators and faculty. Hammonds quickly resigned, though she claimed the resignation was unrelated to the controversy.

Hopefully you can predict where I’m going with this. The dean of the best college in the world just stepped down too. Her name is Mary Miller. In many respects, her story is bizarrely similar to Hammonds’. She too was appointed in 2008; she too was the college’s first female dean; she too is well known for competence and dedication; she too has made some controversial decisions; and she too just announced her departure to return to teaching.

The similarities are striking. Yet there is a limit to these parallels. Hammonds, public protestations aside, almost certainly resigned because of the firestorm surrounding her violation of Harvard’s privacy policy. Miller’s decision had been in the works for a while, and her term was soon to expire anyway. Her announcement was almost certainly unaffected by the controversies surrounding her tenure: the attempt to quickly and quietly overhaul Yale’s grading system and the decision to shut down CourseTable.

More importantly, Hammonds made no attempt to move past her controversial decisions, whereas Miller tried to grow from hers. When Yalies protested the hasty vote on grading, Miller responded by appointing two students to the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading. When students reacted with outrage to the sudden shutdown of CourseTable, Miller sent two open letters attempting to explain the administration’s decision. It’s doubtful that the two open letters and the two student appointments are sufficient to resolve the controversies. Nevertheless, Miller’s attempts to respond to student grievances should be praised.

With regard to the startling parallels between Miller and Hammonds, one more question remains, and it is perhaps the most troubling of all: Who will replace them?

One week ago today, Harvard announced that Hammonds would be replaced by Rakesh Khurana, a distinguished professor of sociology and management and the co-master of Harvard’s Cabot House. Khurana is an eminent and creative scholar and, by all accounts, a good master. Yet there is one line missing from his résumé — a Harvard College diploma.

Hammonds went to Georgia Tech. Miller went to Princeton. Khurana went to Cornell. Again, I hope you can predict where I’m going with this.

For Yale’s next dean, I want a Yale College graduate.

Every college has a unique undergraduate culture. Surely no one will deny a distinctive difference between Harvard’s and Yale’s campus cultures, for instance. And being in tune with a campus’s culture is critical in enabling administrators to handle controversies.

In light of the Harvard cheating scandal, Hammonds searched faculty emails trying to discover who leaked information to the media, and then lied about it in a press release. Would time spent as a Harvard College student have better attuned her to the hyper-competitive culture that led to the cheating incident? Would four formative years as an undergraduate have better equipped her to respond to the scandal? Perhaps.

Would a graduate of Yale College have better understood the undergraduate culture that is so informed by Yale’s grading system? Would a graduate of Yale College have better understood how students feel about their right to use whatever criteria they like to choose their classes? Perhaps.

Perhaps a Yale College diploma is not too high a bar for Yale College’s next dean. Far more for a dean than a university president, time spent as an undergraduate should be a make-or-break qualification. This is in no way an indictment of Miller; it is merely an expression of my hope for her successor.

We have all spoken with professors who just don’t understand the residential college system or shopping period or so many other fundamental aspects of the Yale College experience. For Yale’s next dean, I want someone who knows where all roads lead, which dining hall is best and the weight of the words “one in four, maybe more.” I want someone who understands — from experience — Yale’s unique undergraduate culture, because I’m not sure that knowledge can be attained any other way. We should all want someone with that experience.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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