Dozens of professors gathered on Friday at Luce Hall at the ceremony announcing the appointment of Mary Miller GRD ’81, the Sterling Professor of the History of Art, as dean of Yale College. But as University President Richard Levin surveyed the assembled masses, he noted that scientists were conspicuously absent.
Such is now the case with Yale’s senior administration, too. Levin himself is an economist. Both University deans — Jon Butler from the Graduate School and now Miller — are humanists. And after former Provost Andrew Hamilton, a chemist, was replaced by Peter Salovey, a psychologist, there is no longer a hard scientist in the troika that oversees the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
That did not sit well with some scientists.
“In that light alone, it was perhaps not the best choice, not because of her expertise, but because of the message it sends,” said A. Stephen Morse, chair of the electrical engineering department at Yale.
Yale has been striving for years to convey to the world at large that this is a university with a significant commitment to the sciences and engineering, he said. This move, Morse said, runs contrary to this commitment, and will communicate the wrong impression to those outside the University.
But Levin has taken pains to reassure University scientists that although Miller comes from the humanities, the sciences will be well represented in Yale’s administration, said Derek Briggs the newly-named curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History.
“I know that there is a little bit of concern about the fact that with Andy Hamilton’s departure, there’s no senior scientist sitting as dean or provost,” Levin said at the announcement ceremony after surveying the crowd. “But I want to assure you that the attention paid to the sciences will not slacken in the slightest.”
Later that day, Levin sent an e-mail to all science faculty, reiterating that sentiment, said David Bercovici, chair of the geology and geophysics department. Yet in interviews, some science faculty said they are still concerned with her appointment.
“There’s some disappointment in not having someone from science and engineering,” said James Duncan, the director of undergraduate studies of biomedical engineering. “We’d hoped that in the upper levels of the administration there’d be another scientist included.”
But some science faculty are not concerned at all about representation and would give Levin’s choice the benefit of the doubt. Many said they are confident that other administrators can compensate for Miller’s lack of science know-how, while others said that a scientific background is simply not necessary to act as an effective administrator.
More important than the background of a single person occupying a position, Duncan said, is ensuring a diversity of science and engineering faculty on key committees and in other important positions.
And Levin has been doing this successfully, he said.
For instance, Dean of Engineering T. Kyle Vanderlick’s recent appointment to the Tenure and Appointments Policy Committee goes a long way toward furthering Yale’s push for the sciences, said Marshall Long, the director of undergraduate studies of mechanical engineering. Professors cited Steven Girvin, the deputy provost for science and technology, and Michael Donoghue, the vice president for West Campus planning and program development, as other examples of high-ranking administrators from the sciences.
Other professors say scientific knowledge is not necessary for administrators, who can fill the holes in their expertise by consulting with specialists for the advice they need.
If the appointed dean had been a scientist, said Peter Parker, the director of undergraduate studies of physics, people would be questioning his or her ability to administer the humanities.
Duke President Richard Brodhead ’68, GRD ’72, a former dean of Yale College, also said that diversity of academic background is not enough to make an effective administration. “You can’t build an administrative team by a cookbook formula,” he said.
Another physics professor, Ramamurti Shankar, said that it is more valuable for the dean to have sufficient respect for science as an academic discipline than to be a practitioner. In fact, he added, many scientists are only knowledgeable in their own subspecialty.
“I know that Mary is at the top of her field,” Shankar said. “She is excellent and she can recognize excellence. I think that’s much more important than meeting some other criterion.”
Still, Miller herself admitted that she has much to learn about helping Yale expand in the sciences as dean.
“I have a steep learning curve in front of me,” she said.