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Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith today announced that Jones professor of statistics Xiao-Li Meng, chair of the department of statistics since 2004, has been appointed dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). Meng succeeds historian of science and of medicine Allan M. Brandt, who relinquished the position in February to attend to health issues. In the interim, Pope professor of the Latin language and literature Richard J. Tarrant served as dean.

Meng, who earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics and a diploma in graduate study of mathematical statistics at Fudan University, in Shanghai, subsequently completed A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in statistics at Harvard, in 1987 and 1990, respectively. Following service at the University of Chicago (he remains affiliated with its Center for Health Statistics), he joined the Harvard faculty in 2001. His research spans statistical methods in various fields, and also involves statistical aspects of genetic and environmental problems, health and medical studies, and issues in astronomy and physics. That will be useful background at GSAS, where the dozens of programs of study include not only traditional disciplines but also interdisciplinary fields (such as biological sciences in public health; joint law-Ph.D. and medical-Ph.D. tracks; and many others). The Harvard Gazette profiled his research interests shortly after his faculty appointment.

Meng’s University service has included election to FAS’s Faculty Council, the senior advisory body to the dean (2007-2010); membership on the GSAS Graduate Policy Committee; and membership on the committee on undergraduate education. He has also been director of graduate studies for the statistics department.

Teaching and Learning

Meng’s continuous engagement with teaching and learning is of particular interest. During 2006-2007, he was one of nine faculty members to serve on the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development run by then-GSAS dean Theda Skocpol, FAS’s most searching examination of teaching practice, improvement, and incentives and training for faculty members to excel as teachers—the foundation for current FAS efforts aimed at enhancing learning and teaching. In a presentation on the task force’s findings and recommendations, Meng said that Harvard faculty members should have “a beautiful mind for research—and also have a beautiful heart for teaching.” (The task force report is available here.) He served as well on FAS’s committee on pedagogical improvement from 2004 to 2010.

Meng also served on the search committee to identify a faculty director for the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, FAS’s institutional focus for faculty members’ training and development for their classroom and mentoring roles. On his curriculum vita, the first category of keynote speeches and honorary lectures—preceding those focused on his discipline and research—lists those devoted to “pedagogy and professional development.”

In a statement accompanying the University news release on the appointment, Dean Smith said of Meng:

His passion for teaching and learning, his interdisciplinary application of the tools of statistical analysis to topics as varied as climate change, medicine, and astrophysics, and his innovative, entrepreneurial approach as a scholar and an educator—all of this gives him a uniquely creative vision for what graduate education ought to accomplish today and in the future. I expect that he will lead our graduate programs with the same dynamic curiosity that defined his tenure as statistics chair, and that he’ll continue building on the excellent work of his predecessors, particularly Allan Brandt.

The interdisciplinary and applied nature of Meng’s work complements Smith’s own background from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), where the latter, a computer scientist, is Finley professor of engineering and applied sciences.  SEAS has been on a strong growth trajectory, with new degree programs, rising enrollment in computer sciences, bioengineering, and other fields, and expanding faculty ranks. It is a likely priority for further growth in Harvard’s forthcoming capital campaign.

Meng’s statement in the release emphasized both opportunity and Harvard’s global reach and aspirations:

Harvard has been a dream school for generations of students around the world. GSAS made my dream come true by providing me with full financial support when I was literally a village boy on the other side of the globe. I am therefore deeply grateful to Dean Smith for providing me with this tremendous opportunity to work directly with him and the many other Harvard leaders, especially President Faust and Provost [Alan] Garber, and with our incomparable faculty, dedicated staff, exceptional students, and accomplished alumni to continue and enhance the Harvard legacy, including making the possibility of the Harvard dream realizable by many diverse students from every corner of the globe.

His most recent experience underscores that international aspect of his appointment: this summer, he co-taught a Harvard Summer School 2012 life-sciences course in Shanghai, part of the University’s program of funding innovative international education. The course was a version of Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 16, “Real-Life Statistics: Your Chance for Happiness (or Misery),” an offering in the undergraduate General Education curriculum. According to the description for that course, novice students discover statistical principles via modules from real life that can “make you rich or poor (financial investments), loved or lonely (on-line dating), healthy or ill (clinical trials), satisfied or frustrated (chocolate/wine tasting) and more.” (The course was described here.)

It was, in turn, developed in part through a Graduate Seminar in General Education (one of Dean Brandt’s initiatives), a vehicle for faculty members and their graduate students to work together to design and then teach an undergraduate course—an important part of graduate students’ pedagogical training.

Meng, who co-teaches the graduate course Statistics 303hf, “The Art and Practice of Teaching Statistics,” spoke about his interest in training statistics graduate students to be teachers in “Teaching Matters,” a roundtable published in the Winter 2009 Colloquy, the GSAS alumni publication. According to the news release, statistics doctoral students have been among the yearly winners of Derek C. Bok Awards for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching ever since the prizes’ inauguration in 2007. During his department chairmanship, according to the news release, the number of undergraduate statistics concentrators has surged from single digits to more than 70 students.

Sounding themes of creativity, interdisciplinary research, and heightened interest in learning and teaching, President Drew Faust said in the statement:

In his scholarship, his pedagogy, and his mentorship of graduate students and undergraduates alike, Xiao-Li Meng is a true innovator. He has brought a remarkable energy and enthusiasm to his role as a leader in an increasingly critical field, one that helps shape new knowledge across Harvard’s diverse intellectual landscape. He will make an outstanding steward for our Graduate School and an advocate for its students.