Xiao-Li Meng, Ph.D. ’90, the Whipple V.N. Jones Professor of Statistics and chair of the Department of Statistics, has been named dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) at Harvard University, effective Aug. 15.

Meng succeeds Allan M. Brandt, the Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine and professor of the history of science, as permanent dean. Brandt stepped down in February to begin treatment for an illness. Richard J. Tarrant, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature, served as interim dean of GSAS following Brandt’s departure.

As Statistics Department chair since 2004, Meng has overseen a dramatic expansion of the department, as the number of undergraduate concentrators has grown from a single digit to more than 70, and the department’s core undergraduate courses have surged in popularity. He also has worked closely with alumni and alumnae to raise funds to establish the first endowed biennial distinguished teaching lecture series, junior faculty/teaching fellow awards (David Pickard Memorial Fund), and graduate student research awards (Art Dempster Fund) in statistics.

Meng has been a leader in encouraging connections between disciplines at a time when the importance of statistical analysis has been broadly recognized, and as breakthroughs in fields ranging from genetics to astronomy have demanded more-sophisticated data crunching. He and his colleagues have conducted projects with faculty and students in biology, medicine, chemistry, engineering, economic and health policy — and even history and language, making statistics one of Harvard’s most interdisciplinary departments.

“I am delighted to welcome Xiao-Li Meng as the new dean of the Graduate School,” said Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). “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.”

“In his scholarship, his pedagogy, and his mentorship of graduate students and undergraduates alike, Xiao-Li Meng is a true innovator,” said President Drew Faust. “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 advocate for its students.”

“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,” said Meng. “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.”

“I also look forward to continuing Allan Brandt’s legacy, of which I am a direct beneficiary,” said Meng, who recently returned to campus after co-teaching a study-abroad course in Shanghai this summer.

“Like Allan, Xiao-Li recognizes and celebrates the ways in which graduate and undergraduate education work in tandem, with graduate students and undergraduates directly benefiting each other,” Smith said. “This is best exemplified in the Gen Ed course he developed with his graduate students.”

The course Meng just co-taught in Shanghai was a summer-school variation of the Gen Ed course EMR 16, “Real-Life Statistics: Your Chance for Happiness (or Misery),” a course designed by him and a dozen graduate students (known as the “happy team”), partially via the Graduate Seminars in General Education program that Brandt established. The pioneering project of directly involving graduate students in designing undergraduate courses, and hence providing them with hands-on pedagogical training — together with Meng’s other innovations such as a yearlong required course on teaching and communication skills for all first-year Ph.D. students (STAT 303, “The Art and Practice of Teaching Statistics”) — contributed substantially to his department’s winning, in 2008, a $25,000 GSAS Dean’s Prize for Innovations in Graduate Education at Harvard.

Meng is one of Harvard’s leading voices on pedagogical innovation, working to make the Department of Statistics a laboratory for educational experiments whose common theme involves the vital connections and mutually rewarding pathways between research and teaching. Ph.D. students in statistics have been among the winners of the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching in each year since the award was created in 2007.

As part of his efforts to promote exceptional teaching and learning on campus, Meng has also served on the FAS Committee on Pedagogical Improvement (2004-10) and the FAS Task Force on Teaching and Career Development (2006-07). He is a recipient of numerous research and teaching awards, including the 2001 COPSS (Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies) Award for being “the outstanding statistician under the age of forty” and the 1997-1998 University of Chicago Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching.

Born in Shanghai, Meng received a B.S. in mathematics (1982) and a diploma in graduate study of mathematical statistics (1986), both from Fudan University in Shanghai. He received his Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard in 1990. From 1991 to 2001, when he came to Harvard, Meng was assistant, associate, and then full professor in the Department of Statistics at the University of Chicago. He remains affiliated with the University of Chicago as a faculty member of its Center for Health Statistics.

The tangled web around spiders