Hopi Hoekstra Appointed Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean

President-elect Claudine Gay names a life scientist as her successor—and fills a crucial leadership position.

Hopi Hoekstra

Biologist Hopi e.Hoekstra will become dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) effective August 1. She will succeed Claudine Gay, president-elect, who is the first FAS dean chosen to lead the University. During July, Emma Dench, who continues to serve as Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean, will also stand in as interim FAS dean. Hoekstra’s appointment, announced by Gay today in an email to FAS members—the most important she has unveiled since she was elected president last December—is especially timely:

•Gay officially moves from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall at the end of this week (President Lawrence S. Bacow concludes his service June 30); 

•the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Harvard College and University of North Carolina affirmative-action lawsuits as soon as tomorrow, possibly upending established undergraduate admissions policies; and

•FAS is scheduled to convene as a whole in August to deliberate on the broad strategic planning effort Gay initiated as dean, with possibly sweeping effects on its operations and structure.

Clearly, not everyone in academia gets the summer off.

Apart from the FAS deanship, in recent weeks a new University vice president for finance and chief financial officer has been chosen—a position reporting to the executive vice president and the president. And separately, Gay has arranged for short-term continuing or interim deanships at the divinity, engineering and applied sciences, and public health schools while searches continue for their new, regular-term leaders.

In the deanship announcement, Gay said:

Hopi Hoekstra is a pathbreaking scholar with a highly interdisciplinary outlook and inclusive style, a devoted educator known for her engaging lectures and her generous mentoring of both undergraduates and graduate students, and an academic leader experienced in addressing a broad array of opportunities and challenges facing the FAS and the University. She radiates an enthusiasm for all she does, and she will bring to the deanship a combination of thoughtful judgment, intellectual curiosity and breadth, deep integrity and values, and an appetite for innovation and collaboration.

In her message to faculty colleagues, Gay added that the dean-designate’s “sterling CV belongs to a person of equally remarkable human qualities. She is a scientist who brings humanity and imagination to the process of discovery, an educator who both challenges and inspires her students, and a leader focused on enabling others to thrive.”

Hoekstra said:

For as long as I can remember, I have experienced the world with a deep sense of curiosity and wonder. That same sense of curiosity is what excites me about the prospect of becoming dean. Harvard is filled with amazing people doing amazing things, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is at the vital center of an ecosystem that’s awe-inspiring and energizingly diverse.…

This is a time of extraordinary opportunity as well as challenge for us, as we work not only to create new knowledge but to do what we can to contribute to a better world. I’m eager to partner with President Gay and work with colleagues in the FAS and beyond at a critically important moment for Harvard and for higher education.

She was not available for further comment today.

Provost Alan Garber, who co-led the search with Gay, called Hoekstra “one of our most widely respected professors for very good reasons. She’s a superb scientist who is deeply devoted to the University, understanding its complexities and all that makes it special. She has a heartfelt commitment to the success of our students, staff, and faculty. She epitomizes the best of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The New Dean

Hoekstra, age 50, is, like Gay, among a new generation of Harvard leaders. A 1994 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (in integrative biology, a harbinger of research to come), she earned her doctorate in zoology from the University of Washington in 2000. After a fellowship at the University of Arizona and assistant professorship at the University of California, San Diego, she became Loeb associate professor at Harvard in 2007—about the time Gay came to the faculty from Stanford—and was tenured in 2010.

The science. “Dean” will represent a significant simplification of Hoekstra’s current titles—an indication of the depth and breadth of her research and teaching, and of her campus engagements beyond the laboratory. As a scientist, she has elucidated the genetic bases for evolutionary changes and evolved, complex behaviors that affect animals’ ability to survive and reproduce—from differential coloration in wild mice (also see this video from a Museum of Comparative Zoology exhibition) to the distinct kinds of burrows built by diverse mice species (described in this lecture and in the New York Times) and “sexual imprinting.”

Reflecting the breadth of the work, she is Agassiz professor of zoology in the departments of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and cellular biology. Hoekstra is also curator of mammals in the MCZ and, as of July 1, Jianming Yu professor of arts and sciences: a five-year, honorary recognition conferred in May by Dean Gay on five faculty members in recognition of their significant research and teaching achievements. Unusually, and perhaps uniquely, Hoekstra was also awarded a Harvard College Professorship in 2014: a separate honorary five-year appointment which recognizes outstanding undergraduate teaching and advising. (Dinner-table conversation in her household might be fairly scientific, too: Hoekstra’s husband, James Mallett, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology in residence, studies evolution and speciation, mainly in butterflies.)

Hoekstra was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in 2013. HHMI, which pays the salaries and benefits for the outstanding scientists it chooses as investigators (and underwrites their research), describes her work as broadly probing “the mechanisms responsible for biological traits that affect the survival and reproduction of organisms in their natural environments”—based on studying wild and captive populations of deer mice. In 2016, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. It characterizes her research as spanning “ecology, evolution, behavior, genetics, genomics, development and neurobiology, and…typified by its integrative nature—working in both the lab and field to make connections between genotype, phenotype and fitness.” She became a fellow of the American Philosophical Society in 2018, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2021.

Alongside an obviously brisk academic-scientific trajectory, Hoekstra has been unusually involved in high-profile faculty and campus service, spanning a number of activities pertinent to her new leadership role.

•Faculty affairs. From 2012 to 2015, early in her Harvard career, Hoekstra served on the Faculty Council, the dean’s primary working group and sounding board for FAS-wide business (major policies, review of proposed new fields of study, general oversight of financial matters) brought before faculty meetings for discussion and votes. From 2020 to 2021, she chaired the Tenure Track Review Committee, commissioned by Gay and charged with examining the tenure track, introduced 15 years earlier. The committee found a system that, by and large, worked, but one in which clearer communications—and a much more significant commitment by tenured professors to teaching, advising, and mentoring junior colleagues—would go a long way toward reducing stress and “varying degrees of mistrust and dissatisfaction.” Perhaps usefully, the committee’s 10 members serving alongside Hoekstra included senior professors across FAS’s academic divisions.

From 2016 to 2021, she also served on FAS’s Committee on Appointments and Promotions, which considers senior faculty appointment cases from across the faculty’s many disciplines.

University service. Hoekstra was a member of the faculty advisory committee for the 2017-2018 Harvard presidential search that resulted in the election of Bacow. Among the benefits of that experience, no doubt, was exposure to the governing boards and their perspectives on the University as a whole. She also got to work alongside fellow committee members Claudine Gay and Bridget Terry Long, who became FAS and Graduate School of Education deans, respectively, in 2018. Other committee members included a past dean, an FAS divisional dean, and various high-level academic administrators and department chairs from across Harvard’s schools: a broadening bunch.

Hoekstra has been a member of various provostial advisory groups and the University’s Life Sciences Steering Committee, and co-chairs a monthly seminar series on evolutionary genetics involving scientists from Harvard, MIT, the Broad Institute, and other area institutions.

As a productive young scientist whose laboratory produced exciting discoveries, and who could readily explain that work to lay audiences (see the videos cited above), Hoekstra was also asked to participate in events with broader University audiences. These included FAS’s 2012 symposiums looking forward to the faculty of the future and University at its four-hundredth anniversary, in 2036, and the 2013 academic symposiums that helped launch the Harvard Campaign.

During the former, then-FAS dean Michael Smith described the panelists as “young superstars.” Months before Harvard and MIT launched their edX online learning venture, Hoekstra spoke presciently about the classroom of the future.Where a lecture or class a decade earlier might have held a population of students with notebooks and raised hands, by 2012 “a sea of laptops” had become the norm. She wondered if the future classroom would be empty, as students watch lectures online in bed, and asked what the role of the lecture is—and whether it is necessary. She traced the evolution of lecturers’ technology from chalk and blackboards to Power Point to tablet computers and clickers; the future, she speculated, might hold software allowing teachers to see students learning via close-up views of their faces. (One wonders whether the idea of inventing Zoom occurred to her then.) “We need tools to teach the teachers to teach more effectively,” she said.

In the meantime, she declared, given the technology already available, “Now, students are analyzing a lot of data, and are spending less time in the lab gathering data”—making “critical and creative thinking…increasingly important.” She illustrated the scientific applications by reference to the MCZ’s collections and exhibitions.

Hoekstra described graduate students’ “journal clubs”—analogous to book clubs, except that the students read a journal article and then discussed it together. Some clubs had enhanced these conversations by inviting the researcher to join their discussion via Skype. This helped them not only to get questions answered on the research, but to “learn about the research process.” Read today, this seems another eerie anticipation of the changes that remote instruction during the pandemic would force, and which would subsequently spread across Harvard’s classrooms as Zoom and other tools effectively made the world smaller for teaching purposes.

(Interestingly, in another of the 2012 FAS symposiums professor of government and African and African American studies Claudine Gay made the case for the powerful effects of residential, in-person learning, alongside whatever changes might unfold in lecture and other formats. Much as “citizens are not unmoored social isolates,” Gay said, it is virtually “axiomatic” that a physical campus matters to students and scholars. “Discovery,” she said, “is not possible without dialogue”—and a campus is “the only place where the caravans meet.” Some mashup of those perspectives—technologically enabled instruction and remote access, combined with more intensive, productive classroom experiences—is a fair description of the evolving state of Crimson coursework today.)

Hoekstra reprised some of these perspectives in September 2013, as one of five “Future of Knowledge” panelists for the capital campaign, and then again in October for the FAS campaign launch. She conveyed some sense of the burgeoning access to biological data made possible by genomic, computational science, and the implications for both research and teaching. Her inclusion on the panels obviously suggests that the campaign organizers found her work engaging—and her ability to explain it clearly to donors and fundraising volunteers a valuable attribute. Again, the exposure and the experience appear useful, in the longer term, for someone transitioning from running a 23-person laboratory to leading FAS (and ultimately helping it to secure resources for the researchers and students of the future, in some to-be-planned Gay administration capital campaign).

Students, teaching, and learning. Hoekstra’s Harvard College Professorship and her symposium comments on changes in pedagogy both suggest a faculty member accomplished at teaching and attuned to students and learning. Her classroom responsibilities convey the same message: she has been course head for the large, introductory Life Sciences 1b course, “Genetics, Genomics, and Evolution,” and among the lead instructors. (She also offers OEB 370, a graduate course, “Mammalian Evolutionary Genetics.”) Another bit of service points in the same direction: her role as president of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa chapter from 2018 to 2020. The faculty members who assume PBK offices obviously tend to be committed to student learners and their intellectual achievements. And her lab website (Hoekstra has been on leave this year) shows the usual complement of professional staff members, postdoctoral researchers (eight), and graduate students (five)—but also a sizable undergraduate cohort (six).

To University Hall

The new FAS dean arrives under what should be favorable circumstances. Smith’s deanship no sooner began than the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession decimated the faculty and turned the job into a protracted grind to right the ship—and then to refloat it courtesy the Harvard Campaign. Gay assumed the reins in 2018, when campaign donations, combined with largely favorable economic conditions and decent endowment returns, made it seem like smoother sailing—until the pandemic transformed University leadership into an exercise in severe crisis management.

Emerging from that, Gay said in a decanal exit interview in May, FAS itself is now in very strong financial shape (with more unrestricted funds on hand than in recent decades: dry powder for future academic investments), putting it in position to “assure our mission remains vital and impactful.” She is eager, she said, to see how her successor deploys those resources: “It’s empowering, an opportunity maybe to take some risks.” A number of those, and likely the most expensive ones, might entail investing in the sciences.

Hoekstra can obviously apply useful perspective and hands-on experience to such decisions. But whatever directions FAS pursues, she also brings to her new role established connections to colleagues across the faculty, and familiarity with its governance and policymaking; clear thoughts about the classroom, learning, and the effects of technology on instruction and research; deep immersion in some of Harvard’s collections and museums, and their academic uses; and the ability to engage lay audiences in the excitement of discovery that is at the heart of the enterprise.

Read the University announcement here. Claudine Gay’s message to FAS is available here.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
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