It was Alice Miller’s first Halloween in Saybrook College. When her mother, Mary, opened the doors of the master’s house to Saybrugians that night, it was young Alice’s face students saw first.
The night stands out in the memory of Emily Pressman ’02, then a sophomore in the college.
“It felt very homey and welcoming,” Pressman recalled.
Saybrook had been without such feelings for some time. The year prior had rocked the quiet courtyards with scandal: In November 1998 Saybrook’s then-master, Antonio Lasaga, had been arrested for child pornography charges and sexual assault of a minor. A month later, the college’s former dean was named a suspect in the grisly killing of Suzanne Jovin ’99. The community was shattered.
It fell to Miller to pick up the pieces. Nine years later, she stands on the verge of leaving Saybrook for Yale College’s highest administrative post. Her legacy as Yale College dean is before her.
But the legacy she leaves in Saybrook is clear — and it begins with Antonio Lasaga.
A Difficult Fall
On Nov. 6, 1998, Lasaga, a popular professor of geology and geophysics, abruptly resigned the mastership of Saybrook. Speaking to Saybrugians that evening, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD ’72 offered only “personal reasons” as the explanation for the exodus of the college’s sixth master.
Days later, the University released an official statement: Lasaga was the subject of a federal child pornography investigation.
It was a bolt from the blue.
“Nothing prepares you for something like that,” said Dan Fingerman ’00, who was president of the Saybrook College Council at the time. “There was a lot of shock and some numbness about what might be going on that we weren’t aware of.”
In the weeks to come, Lasaga would be charged with storing child pornography on two Yale computers and with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old New Haven public school boy he had once mentored.
“Saybrook really was demoralized,” explained Saybrook fellow and history professor Cynthia Russett GRD ’59 Ph.D. ’64. “There had been a feeling, certainly among the students, that [Lasaga] had been very good as master.”
University President Richard Levin acted swiftly to replace Lasaga. On the day of Lasaga’s resignation, Levin appointed former Trumbull College Master Harry Adams ’47 DIV ’51 as interim master of Saybrook.
“Master Lasaga had been very much respected and admired,” Adams recalled. “To have him suddenly removed one night was obviously shocking and disappointing.”
But Lasaga’s arrest was only the beginning. In early December 1998, media reports emerged that James Van de Velde, Saybrook’s former dean, was a suspect in the murder of Davenport senior Suzanne Jovin, who had been killed on the night of Dec. 4.
Van de Velde had left his post as dean just two years earlier. Saybrook’s upperclassmen knew the political science lecturer, who was Jovin’s senior essay advisor, from their freshman and sophomore years in the college.
“It just wasn’t a good time for Saybrook,” Miller said in an interview this week. “There had been too much attention placed on the former administrative personnel of Saybrook College and their legal difficulties.”
The Healing Begins
With Lasaga gone, Adams and his wife Manette quickly moved into to the Saybrook master’s house to begin the process of rebuilding a shaken community.
In his first weeks as acting master, Adams held student gatherings to talk about Lasaga’s departure. Adams also worked with Levin and the Saybrook College Council to ensure students that, as he put it, “their interests would be looked after, that their concerns would be dealt with.”
The healing process, then, was in motion before Miller arrived on the scene.
“The college had a pretty strong community, which I think really helped,” added Eric Peterson ’99, then the Saybrook College Council’s vice president and chair of the Saybrook Student Activities Committee. “We were there for each other.”
But Adams was nearing retirement, and Saybrook needed someone for the long haul. In the spring of 1999 a search committee of students and faculty formed to select a new master for the college.
“We wanted someone who’d really … sort of anchor the college,” Peterson said.
“We needed someone who would be able to create an atmosphere that was happy and positive, and could kind of put what was in the past well into the past,” added Russett, who also served on the committee.
Russett said many committee members did not have any personal experience with Miller, a specialist in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art who had been with Yale since 1980.
“Since Mary Miller is an art historian, not that many of us [on the committee] had taken her classes,” Peterson added. “But the people who had felt that she was a very engaging, warm professor.”
Miller won out over what Levin then called “a really stellar list of candidates.” Russett said the committee picked Miller for her “top-flight” scholarship and organizational skills. As for her leadership and personal qualities, the committee simply had to have faith in Levin and others who knew Miller well.
On April 15, 1999, Miller stood in the Saybrook dining hall with her husband Edward Kamens ’74 GRD ’79 and her grade-school-aged children Bill and Alice. Before what the next day’s News termed “a crammed Saybrook dining hall,” Levin announced Miller as the seventh master of Saybrook.
“In all honesty, I wasn’t even sure where Branford ended and Saybrook started,” Miller recalled. “I really didn’t know anything about Saybrook except that it was under a lot of stress.”
The family moved into the college for the fall term. There, students saw Miller and her family eating meals in the Saybrook dining hall, and their golden retriever Schooner soon became a “hit” with Saybrugians, the News reported at the time. Early morning meetings with students involved in the college’s upcoming renovation featured homemade scones from Miller’s oven.
Having a master with a young family helped renew confidence in Saybrook’s leadership, Fingerman said, especially given the nature of the crimes with which Lasaga had been charged.
“At least for me, that was kind of reassuring,” he said. “I felt there couldn’t be another situation like what happened with Master Lasaga again.”
That fall Miller vowed to learn the names of all of Saybrook’s freshmen, the News reported. She became an active advocate for student activities in the college, said Jonathan Criss ’01, who led the college council during the 2000-’01 school year.
“[Miller and Kamens] were strong supporters of intramural athletics, and it was during her term in Saybrook we won the Tyng Cup,” Criss said.
There is little doubt Miller’s scholarship weighed heavily in the decision to appoint her dean. But in terms of gauging her leadership and empathy, Levin may have turned not to Miller’s lengthy curriculum vitae but to memories of 1999.
“She did an excellent job at handling that transition,” Fingerman said. “I think the experience she had being a master is definitely good prep for being the dean because she understands all the intricacies of student life now.”
Nine years in Saybrook also gave Miller time to hone her administrative talents, Russett said.
Barely a year into her tenure as master, Miller was called upon to oversee the college’s sweeping, $40 million renovation. Pressman — who worked as a master’s aide and served on a committee that met periodically with the project’s architects — said Miller supervised the renovation with attention to detail and an “art historian’s eye” to the college’s traditional aesthetic.
“It was very difficult for the college to have a renovation planned because most of the renovation was planned without a master,” Miller said of the project. “One of my biggest tasks in that year was to work intensively on the plans for the renovation.”
The construction crews left in 2001. Miller would stay on, long enough to watch her son Bill enter Berkeley College, where he is now a senior.
“I think they brought a stable [nine] years to the college,” Adams said of Miller and her husband Kamens, who will serve as master of Saybrook for the duration of this academic year.
Levin echoed much of the same last Friday, when he named Miller dean at a ceremony in Luce Hall. The University president described the Saybrook community in 1999 as “discombobulated” and praised Miller’s “steady presence” at the college’s helm.
On Dec. 1, Mary Miller will take the wheel of Yale College. It is a new post, though not entirely unlike her old. But Miller has been here before, standing before a crowd of new faces and a host of responsibilities. Her words then — spoken in Saybrook’s soaring dining hall — still ring true today.
“With every different aspect of my life at Yale,” she said then, “there’s always new lives to live.”
—Paul Needham contributed reporting.