An Asia Expert for Arts and Sciences

The brief, intense search for a new dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) concluded May 20, when President Lawrence H. Summers announced the appointment of William C. Kirby, Ph.D. '81, Geisinger professor of history, to the position. He succeeds Jeremy R. Knowles, who made public in February his plan to conclude an 11-year tenure as dean on June 30 (see "A Dean for All Weathers," May-June, page 48). The new Dean K. is a scholar of modern China; his predecessor, a chemist, analyzed enzymes. Kirby figured in speculation about likely decanal candidates from the outset. Since arriving as professor of history in 1992, he had chaired his department (1995-2000) and directed the fledgling Asia Center (beginning in 1999)—important administrative, programmatic, and development credentials. He has also chaired the search for a new Harvard College librarian; served on the Resources Committee (through which FAS monitors its fisc, negotiates with the University administration, and advises the dean on internal policies, such as faculty leaves, and their costs); and has been a member of the Board of Syndics of Harvard University Press.

Dean-designate William C. Kirby accepts the faculty's applause May 21.

Photograph by Justin Ide / Harvard News Office

Summers praised Kirby's "exceptional effectiveness and energy" in discharging those extraprofessorial roles. But other factors may have been decisive in his selection as dean. For one thing, his studies and scholarship embody the international scope Summers has championed. Kirby, a 1972 summa cum laude history alumnus of Dartmouth College, also studied in Germany and at Wellesley College as an undergraduate; as a graduate student, he spent a year in Berlin. At Washington University in St. Louis (1980-1991), he directed an international-affairs program and Asian studies (and was also dean of the unit serving part-time, evening, and summer-school students: a useful experience for an FAS dean, who oversees Harvard's Extension School). More recently, Kirby was a visiting professor in Heidelberg and Berlin during the 1995-1996 academic year; his scholarly writings frequently cross borders, comparing historical developments in Germany and China. A current project, involving colleagues in Berlin and Beijing, explores the internationalization of China.

For all his technical rigor, Kirby is low-key in his public demeanor and communicates easily. His brief foreword to Iris Chang's 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, is a model of moral clarity; it ends with lines from "In Time of War," by W.H. Auden:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

Kirby outlined the University's widening global agenda in an appreciation of Neil L. Rudenstine's administration written for this magazine ("The International President," July-August 2001, page 40). Drawing upon his own past, he was a passionate, funny, and effective advocate for FAS's new policy easing study abroad (see "Changing the College Curriculum," May-June, page 50, and this issue, page 78). Complementing his graduate-school experiences as student and teacher, Kirby has also been in the thick of undergraduate academics at Harvard. During his tenure as chairman the history department overhauled its tutorial program for concentrators, increasing faculty involvement. He has taught a Core course on contemporary China, and co-taught another, on China in historical context (with colleague Peter K. Bol)—gaining direct familiarity with a part of the College curriculum that will figure centrally in a much-anticipated review of undergraduate learning as a whole.

And finally, there are certain intangibles. In his studies of China's foreign economic and cultural relations, Chinese business history, and the role of science and technology in China's interactions with the world, Kirby's interests appear a comfortable fit with those of Summers, who continues to speak out on economic issues and globalization from a social scientist's perspective. Kirby, 51, is also of the same academic generation as Summers (a 1975 MIT graduate who earned his Harvard doctorate in 1982).

Whatever the bonds, president and dean-to-be had found a common vocabulary on the day of the announcement. Summers praised Kirby as "not only an influential scholar of China, but also a devoted teacher and mentor, with a strong interest in the quality of both undergraduate and graduate education" and an "appetite for thoughtful innovation." Kirby acknowledged that the deanship would be "an honor and a privilege, not to mention a challenge," citing two likely preoccupations of his decanal agenda: "rethinking our undergraduate curriculum" and "expanding the faculty significantly."

In an interview later in his modest Asia Center office, Kirby amplified some of those points. The Core curriculum, he said, is "the envy of many universities," and notably succeeds in getting senior faculty members to teach undergraduates from across the College. But it is also in danger of choking on its own success. Kirby said he was startled to learn from five students in his recent Core course that its enrollment—170 undergraduates—was the smallest of any Core class they were taking. "I don't think that's right," he said.

More broadly, the "structure and size of concentration requirements," while organized to help undergraduates "become specialists, more than at peer colleges," perversely afford "rather less flexibility in the curriculum." Thus, while students crowd Core lectures, they are unable to take the many smaller departmental classes—25 of them in history alone, each with 10 students or fewer.

Accordingly, "Students need to have room in their schedule" to find such courses and to take advantage of the newly liberalized opportunity to study abroad—an essential enhancement of a Harvard education for the twenty-first century. Ultimately, he said, the curriculum must be supple enough to accommodate new areas of study and to enable students to change their minds about their concentrations. Effecting all that requires not another round of evaluations of each part of the curriculum, but an examination of the whole—taking into account what it means to be educated today, and satisfying urgent needs such as "a serious immersion in the sciences" for all students.

As for the faculty, Kirby hopes to "improve our linkages with all of Harvard's schools"—something the Asia Center and its regional kin have begun to do. If Arts and Sciences is Harvard's intellectual heart, as he believes, it is very much "part of an intellectual circulatory system," with individual faculty members and departments finding peers elsewhere around the University in academically fruitful ways. The opportunity now, he believes, is to encourage those scholarly connections faculty to faculty.


When Summers introduced Kirby as dean-designate at the faculty's May 21 meeting, he cited comments from the search, among them that "He has both charm and backbone."

Joined by his family—historian Yvette Sheahan Kirby, Ph.D. '80, and their children Ted, 15, and Elizabeth, 13—Kirby acknowledged thunderous applause and declared, "This is a good time to be dean at Harvard." He ticked off some reasons why: the College's student body; a graduate school that had become "leaner but not meaner"; engineering and applied sciences and the extension school; and the faculty itself, which he noted had grown in size and diversity, drawing increasingly from its own junior ranks, without compromising its standards.

Then he thanked Jeremy Knowles for the "intellectual and institutional and physical rejuvenation" of FAS. Knowles, for his part, exhumed a story from the faculty's annals. As Henry Rosovsky narrated in The University: An Owner's Manual, when President Derek Bok asked him in 1973 to be FAS dean, Rosovsky inquired, "If I say no, whom will you choose?"—and when told the answer, promptly accepted the position. Had he known that Kirby would be his successor, Knowles said, he would have relinquished the post years earlier.

After the faculty completed its business for the afternoon, Knowles offered a final literary assessment of his deanship, containing strategic advice for the new Dean K. Ignoring the straits in which Catholicism currently finds itself, particularly in Boston, Knowles said he had been guided by Pope John XXIII, who once said, "See everything, overlook a great deal, improve a little."        

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