In 1978, Mary Miller taught her first batch of Yale undergraduates as a teaching assistant for legendary art history professor Vincent Scully while she was a doctoral candidate in art history.
Miller joined Yale’s faculty three years later as a professor of art history and has since served in almost every position imaginable — chair of the History of Art Department, faculty adviser, master of Saybrook College, Sterling Professor of the History of Art and, since Dec. 1, 2008, dean of Yale College.
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Now, as she enters her second year on the job, Miller’s goals for her deanship reflect a long-standing personal interest in undergraduate life and education, cultivated during years of work with Yale College students.
“The student body is neither consistent nor stable,” Miller said. “It is our job to change, adjust, adapt and stay nimble.”
Though Miller said her work overseeing the humanities for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences makes up 40 percent of her duties as dean, it is often “invisible” to students. Miller said she has established goals for her tenure as dean within the context of the upcoming fall 2010 Committee on Yale College Education review , which will evaluate the changes to academic standards and distributional requirements triggered by the CYCE’s 2003 report. Miller will build off the work of her predecessor, Provost Peter Salovey, who said Monday that the CYCE was a “blueprint” for his own term.
In an effort to learn more about the impact of the curricular changes, Miller said, she will begin a long-term examination of senior capstone work, as well as academic support and advising for freshmen.
But budgetary constraints out of Miller’s control could have just as great an impact as the CYCE review on the goals she pursues during her term as dean.
“At the time that I accepted the position, we were in a very different frame of mind in terms of the economy,” Miller said.
TRIAL BY FIRE
Since Miller took office, meetings about the budget have taken up a great deal of her time, Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon said.
“It’s always an issue, but it is particularly an issue with the budget shortfall,” Gordon said. “And we’re looking forward to another year of cuts.”
Though several administrators interviewed said Miller’s prior experience has been an asset for her in her first year on the job, Miller said some aspects of the deanship have been tougher to adjust to than others.
Miller served two three-year terms as chair of the History of Art Department, but she said her skills as an administrator have been tested by the sheer size of the Yale College Dean’s Office.
“Depending on how you count the number of people over whom I have responsibility, there are between 150 and 200 employees in this office,” Miller said. “It is a very different kind of administration than the ones I had been a part of before, which were on a much smaller scale.”
Despite this, Miller has been able to set goals for herself and her office, Gordon said, and she collaborates with the associate and assistant deans who also work in her office.
Miller said some of her lessons about the deanship had to be learned the hard way, pointing to her role in the conflict over Freshman Class Council T-shirts for the Harvard-Yale football game. In November, Miller expressed concerns about the FCC shirts — which included the word “sissies” in an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote — and the FCC eventually scrapped the design, having interpreted her comments as a directive. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent an open letter to University administrators in December, criticizing their involvement. In response, University President Richard Levin said he regretted the misunderstanding between Miller and the FCC.
When the dust settled, Miller asked the Office of General Counsel to conduct a legal workshop on the Woodward Report, Yale’s policy governing free speech, for her and other deans.
“We could have done a better job,” Miller said. “I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to be sure that other officers of the Dean’s Office learned along with me.
Before Miller took office, Levin said, he consulted with her about her long-term goals, as he does with all new deans.
“One major goal for her is to evaluate systematically the changes in the curriculum produced by the CYCE,” Levin said.
Miller said she emphatically agrees: The CYCE’s effects, she said, will reach beyond her own tenure as dean and will shape Yale College education for the next decade. And the upcoming CYCE review will provide detailed insight into the consequences, both intended and unintended, of the changes that resulted from the CYCE, Gordon said.
“The review will be of great interest to students,” Miller said. “It will shape curricular options for students in the near term.”
As the committees that will conduct the review begin to set their agendas, Miller said she will pursue improved monitoring of freshmen academic progress using existing tutoring programs and support systems to catch faltering students before they fall through the cracks.
And for the first time, Miller said, the Yale College Dean’s Office will digitally archive and analyze each senior project created by the class of 2010 for evidence of how the changes recommended in the CYCE report have shaped undergraduate education.
Still, though Gordon said he supports these projects, he said he does not expect the CYCE review to serve as a catalyst for curricular changes. He said the committee will only have information on the classes of 2009 and 2010, which are the only two classes to graduate after the changes were made in 2005.
“I would be surprised if we got very clear indications of problems from the review,” Gordon said. “Two data points is not sufficient in my mind to make a complete change in the current planning of degree requirements, but it can tell us what to watch for.”
But even as the Yale College Dean’s Office gears up for the fall review, Miller said she and other deans are still trying to implement recommendations made in the 2003 CYCE report.
Miller and Gordon said they are in the process of creating a new program in health studies, recommended in the CYCE and widely supported by premed students and others interested in public health policy. It would begin as a series of courses, she said, and could eventually become a major.
“We will need to do it with existing resources,” Miller said of the program, which would rely on faculty in the schools of Public Health, Nursing and Medicine.
Once upon a time, though, administrators would not have batted an eye at the expenses associated with founding such a program for undergraduates, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said.
“Back in our rich days, we would say, ‘How much would a program in global health cost?’ and we would go hire some people,” Butler said.
Though the Dean’s Office has always reallocated existing resources to fill gaps in academic programs and faculty, Gordon said, this strategy will be used “more intensely” this year and in the future.
Some open teaching positions have gone unfilled this year in the name of financial savings, Gordon said, and administrators are working with existing faculty to create new programs.
“We’re trying to get them to offer courses that more closely match our needs,” Gordon said.
ROOM FOR THE ARTS
Though the CYCE focused on Yale’s undergraduate curriculum, Miller said, the report also recommended improvements to Yale’s arts facilities and integration of the arts into undergraduate education.
Miller said she plans to expand opportunities for students in the arts and humanities — two disciplines close to Miller’s heart as an art historian — and allow students to “pursue new paths.” Associate Dean for the Arts Susan Cahan, who originated her position in August, said she and Miller are working together to make these improvements despite budgetary concerns.
Miller, for example, provided input on student spaces in the new residential colleges from the view of a residential college master. But the construction of the new colleges — which could eventually provide storage space for theater equipment — has now been delayed indefinitely. Cahan said renovations to aging and overburdened facilities may also be a long way off.
“These are long-term issues,” Cahan said.
Cahan said she has already been able to make some changes based on Miller’s vision, pointing to the new hours of Broadway Rehearsal Lofts, extended at the request of the Alliance for Dance at Yale.
“It is very important to Dean Miller that students have a say in developments that affect them,” Cahan said. “She has modeled that for me.”
For Miller, Yale College has always been defined by the character and interests of its students. Now more than ever, Miller said, Yale’s undergraduates are globally minded, and they seek a diverse college experience.
In the CYCE review, Miller said, she hopes to learn more about how trends in student behavior drive curricular change and how the curriculum can change the student body. And though budget cuts are unavoidable, Gordon said, Miller’s aim is to make them invisible and painless for students.
“Students are only here for four years, and I sometimes think students feel the institution operates on them,” Miller said. “But I would also say that Yale undergraduates change the institution. And perhaps it’s that intersection, that amazing feedback, that I see now through all these years of different positions in the University.”