Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor Thomas Near will be the next master of Saybrook College, University President Peter Salovey announced to a crowd of students Friday evening in the college’s dining hall.
Near will succeed Paul Hudak, who will step down at the end of this academic year. Amid applause from the roughly 200 Saybrugians, Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway lauded Near for his research on fish and already-proven commitment to the Saybrook community as a fellow of the college. Near’s five-year term will start on July 1.
“I, like you, started at Yale as a Saybrugian,” Near said. “There will be time for us to get to know each other. There will be time for us to share our stories with one another.”
Near came to Yale in 2006 after teaching for three years at the University of Tennessee. He currently serves as the director of undergraduate studies in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, in addition to being the associate curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Near, who teaches the course “Ichthyology,” focuses on fish in his research and has led a Yale Summer Session class on the topic.
“Let’s hear it for fish!” Salovey enthused, drawing cheers from the audience.
Near has won many research and teaching awards, most recently the Northern Illinois University College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Golden Anniversary Alumni Award in 2009.
Near’s wife, Allison Near, who practices criminal law in her own New Haven firm, will join her husband as Saybrook’s associate master. The couple has two daughters, Alice and Rebecca, who will be three and five when they move into the master’s house this summer.
Before introducing Near, Salovey took a moment to acknowledge Hudak’s years of dedicated service. Hudak, who was diagnosed with leukemia several years ago, announced in December that he would depart at the end of this year due to health concerns. A Yale faculty member since 1982, Hudak told the college that while he had hoped to serve for longer, he no longer feels able to bring Saybrook as much vibrancy and energy as he would like.
Hudak’s wife Cathy Van Dyke SOM ’86 spoke briefly on his behalf.
“[Near is] someone I have known for many years and is already a part of the Saybrook community,” Van Dyke said, reading from a statement Hudak wrote.
However, Hudak said he plans to continue his teaching and research in the Computer Science Department, where he worked with his colleagues to design a new major called “Computing and the Arts” — an interdepartmental program designed for students interested in both disciplines.
Both students and administrators lamented Hudak’s premature departure, but said they have high hopes for the future.
“Speaking with [Near] a month ago, there was already a clear recognition of how great this community is, and an awareness of the special kind of intention it deserves,” Holloway said. “I’m convinced you’ve got the right master and associate master to continue the kind of care and attention you’ve received over the last few years.”
Jordan Coley ’17 said Near appeared eager to introduce himself to his fellow Saybrugians after the announcement Friday evening. Coley added that it did not make a difference to him that the college’s new master was previously a Saybrook fellow since he has had little interaction with them to begin with.
Alec Downie ’16, a student in “Ichthyology,” said Near is an engrossing professor, adding that he always looks forward to Near’s lectures. As an EEB major, Downie has also had the chance to interact with Near many times in his role as DUS. Downie said Near has been a very helpful resource in this capacity and is always enthusiastic — qualities that will make for a great master as well.
Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures William Fleming, who served on the Saybrook search committee, said Near is a great teacher whose warm personality and ability in the classroom transformed a small class on fish biology into a popular lecture.
“It’s wonderful, although of course not always possible, to have a master with existing ties to a college,” Fleming said. “We’re lucky that Professor Near falls into this category.”
Harrison Miller ’16 said that while he does not know Near personally, he has heard from a friend taking his course that he is upbeat and cheerful. Miller also said he has fond memories of Hudak from his freshman move-in, and that the current master is in his prayers.
Sijia Yang ’16, a student member of the search committee, said Near has already shown himself to be very friendly during his years as Saybrook fellow.
“We don’t feel like he’s the new master, but a friend we’ve already known for a long time,” Yang said.
This article has been updated to reflect the version published in print on March 2, 2015.