Early last week, Mary Miller GRD ’81 was set to move into a new house, resume her research and step down at the year’s end as master of Saybrook College.

Then University President Richard Levin called, and everything changed. Miller is now poised to become the first female dean of Yale College, effective Dec. 1, filling the post vacated by Peter Salovey’s move to the provostship at the start of October.

The appointment of Miller, the Sterling Professor of the History of Art, was first reported by the News on Friday morning and was made official at a ceremony in Luce Hall later in the day. Although the announcement was a surprise to some, Levin emphasized in his remarks that the selection was in certain ways an easy one — although he recognized that some may be disappointed in Miller’s lack of a science background.

“Mary is the embodiment of what you would look for in a Yale College dean,” Levin said in an interview after the ceremony. “She is a magnificent scholar, a devoted teacher and a terrific master.”

Miller joined the Yale faculty in 1981 and, since then, has served as the director of undergraduate studies and chair of the History of Art Department and chair of the Latin American Studies Department. She became Saybrook’s master in 1999 — following two major administrative scandals linked to the college — and announced last month that this would be her final year in that post.

Speaking to Saybrugians on Sunday evening at a surprise party in her honor, Miller said the past week has shown her how life can quickly take unexpected turns.

“This was not my plan,” she said. “Sometimes life does change very radically.”

Her husband, Edward Kamens ’74 GRD ’82, Saybrook’s associate master and a professor of Japanese Studies, will finish the year as master. The couple has two children: Bill, a senior History of Art major in Berkeley College, and Alice, a high school senior.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph W. Gordon GRD ’78, who is serving as the acting dean of Yale College, will continue in his post for two more months, at which time Miller will take over. Gordon will also serve as acting dean next summer, when Miller will take two months off to focus on her academic work. She is currently preparing for a prestigious series of lectures she will deliver at the National Gallery of Art in the spring of 2010.

In his remarks to faculty, Levin pointed out that with the departure of former Provost Andrew Hamilton, a well-respected chemist, there is no longer a scientist sitting in a top administrative position. Levin is an economist; Salovey, the new provost, is a psychologist; and Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School, is a historian.

“I know that there is a little bit of concern,” Levin said, adding, “I want to assure you that the attention paid to the sciences will not slacken in the slightest.”

Levin noted that the recent appointment of Michael Donoghue, a biologist, as vice president for West Campus planning and program development ensures a scientist’s perspective in administration meetings. Steven Girvin, the deputy provost for science and technology, will continue to be involved in overseeing the science faculty, alongside Butler.

Gary Haller, the master of Jonathan Edwards College and chair of the search committee that recommended eight names to Levin for consideration just two weeks ago, said in an interview that Miller is, in some ways, a scientist’s humanist.

“Mary is the kind of humanist who thinks like a scientist,” he said. “She’s direct, quantitative in the way she thinks, and I think scientists will do very well under her leadership.”

For her part, in brief remarks delivered at the ceremony, Miller emphasized the importance of the coming expansion of Yale College and of continuing efforts to diversify the University’s academic community.

“My hope,” she said, “is that together we can build not only the best university in the world with the best students and faculty, but also the most diverse university, with the most diverse students and faculty.”

Speaking to the News after the announcement, the newly-minted dean added that continuing to fulfill the recommendations of the 2003 Committee on Yale College Education — particularly those related to the expansion of Yale’s arts programs — would be a priority of hers.

The chair of that committee, Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72, the current president of Duke University and Salovey’s predecessor as dean of Yale College, said in an e-mail to the News that Miller, with whom he worked closely in his time at Yale, would be an excellent dean.

“She’s a famous scholar and great teacher, and is a person of strong good judgment who’s endlessly devoted to the well-being of students,” he said. “I predict that she’ll love the job, and that Yalies will love having her as dean.”

When Miller became master of Saybrook in the fall of 1999, two major scandals had recently rocked the college. In the fall of 1998, within a span of two months, Saybrook’s master, Antonio Lasaga, had been arrested for child pornography charges and sexual assault of a minor, and a former dean of the college, James Van de Velde ’82, had been named a suspect in the murder of Suzanne Jovin ’99.