Graduate School Dean Susan Hockfield will become the University’s 19th provost Jan. 1, Yale President Richard Levin announced Friday.

Hockfield, the William Edward Gilbert Professor of Neurobiology, has served as dean since 1998. She takes over the position vacated by Alison Richard, who will leave Yale in January following her appointment as vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Levin praised Hockfield’s compassion and toughness and said that as dean, she has already built a working relationship with the officers of the University.

“I am pleased that the whole University will now enjoy the benefits of her tireless effort, wisdom and insight,” Levin said.

Hockfield said it was an honor to be asked to serve as provost, the University’s chief academic and financial officer.

“It would be an extraordinary priviledge during any era, but it is particularly exciting during our current period of dramatic renewal and rejuvenation,” Hockfield said.

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said the change will not be disruptive because the University had a wonderful provost and now it will have another.

“[Hockfield] is a most wonderful person to work with,” Brodhead said. “She takes things very seriously. She keeps the big picture in sight and she has a great deal of wisdom and warmth.”

Levin said Maria Rosa Menocal, Spanish professor and director of the Whitney Humanities Center, will lead a committee to search for a new graduate school dean. He said the committee will begin work next week and that he hopes to appoint a new dean as soon as possible.

During her tenure as graduate school dean, Hockfield has helped secure health care benefits for students and increased graduate stipends.

“She has made as great a contribution to graduate student education as anyone in the history of the University,” Levin said.

As dean, Hockfield oversaw the development and growth of the McDougal Graduate Student Center, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in November. The McDougal Center has become central to graduate student life, providing teacher training, career counseling and social activities.

Director of the Graduate Teaching Center William Rando said Hockfield’s appointment was bittersweet.

“We’re going to miss her terribly, but we’re very happy for her,” Rando said.

In 1999, Hockfield reorganized the administrative structure of the graduate school to increase efficiency and improve interaction between graduate students and administrators. She established two associate and two assistant dean positions rather than the previous three deanships.

Biology professor Robert Wyman said a big part of Hockfield’s work as dean was handling issues with the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, which Wyman said she did with comparative calm.

GESO spokeswoman Anita Seth GRD ’05 said she hoped Hockfield would use her new position to engage in discussion about graduate student unionization.

“I hope she can take her perspective of interaction with graduate students to sit down and talk to us about graduate student unionization — and steer the administration toward a more productive dialogue,” Seth said.

Prior to becoming graduate school dean, Hockfield served as chair of the Department of Neurobiology at the School of Medicine. She will become the first provost with a background in the sciences as the University works to strengthen its science programs, Levin said.

“No full-fledged, honest-to-goodness scientist has ever been provost,” Levin said.

Wyman said Hockfield’s experience as a scientist and a professor will help her as provost.

“She understands the financial problems of the medical school, which will help when she’s Provost and the school’s financial officer,” Wyman said. “She’s also a real scientist, and because she has been a professor, she understand the undergrad arts and sciences programs.”

Law School Dean Anthony Kronman praised Hockfield for her character.

“She is intelligent, gracious and interested in everything under the sun,” Kronman said. “She’s firm when she needs to be. Her combination of warmth and discipline is exactly what her new job needs.”

Psychology Chairman Peter Salovey said Hockfield knows the University as well as anyone.

“She can be both visionary and a detail person and that’s the job description of the provost,” Salovey said.

University Secretary Linda Lorimer said she was thrilled by the appointment because Hockfield has been an exceptional leader.

“She has a natural talent as an administrator that was evident from her first months in office,” Lorimer said. “Alison Richard is a hard act to follow, but if anyone is up to it, it’s Susan Hockfield.”

Richard said that when you have “poured your heart and soul” into work, it is important to pass the torch to someone wonderful. Richard said that with Hockfield’s appointment, that was absolutely the case.

Richard, who has served as provost since 1994, announced she would step down in January in order to head Cambridge, her alma mater. In her ninth year as provost, Richard’s tenure has been longer than any other provost since Charles Taylor, who held the post from 1964 to 1972.

History professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said the position is a good stepping stone for other positions in higher education. All three of the previous female provosts have gone on to become heads of other major universities.

“I think it’s excellent — [Levin] knows where to look for talent,” Smith said.

–Staff Reporters Claire Kenny, Shinzong Lee and Lindsey Mergener contributed to this article.

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