Judy Singer and John Willett
Judy Singer and John Willett are the temporary acting dean at the GSE. Former Dean Jerome T. Murphy called them “the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the statistics world.” (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

Are two deans better than one?

John Willett and Judy Singer, acting dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE) since July 1, are betting on it. To back up the odds – they are statisticians, after all – they point to their 16 years of collaborative success, highlighted by two books, numerous academic articles and conference presentations, and two years as co-academic deans. Their predecessor, former GSE Dean Jerome T. Murphy, once referred to them as “the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the statistics world.”

Their unique partnership style serves them, their research, and the school well, so when former President Neil L. Rudenstine asked them to share the acting dean position, they accepted the appointment – for the short term. “We see this as an opportunity to shepherd the school through this transition period and focus on the strengths of the institution,” says Singer. “But neither of us see ourselves as career administrators.” Singer and Willett will continue their duties as academic co-deans of the Ed School, but they have dropped their teaching duties this year “in the interest of our physical health,” says Singer.

As academic deans, the pair deals with faculty, curriculum, grading, plagiarism, and student issues. Now, as they add the primary dean position to their duties, “we’re picking up more of a role that involves a relationship with the University center,” says Willett, noting that fundraising and other broader issues will be on their plate.

Singer and Willett talk in general terms about some of the initiatives they hope to put in motion as deans: They’ll grapple with doctoral training, technology, and the quality of student life at the Ed School. They may appoint up to eight new faculty members in the coming year – in gender studies, human development and psychology, and math and science teacher education. “It’s not as if the school is standing still,” says Singer.

Willett and Singer will split their co-deanship the way they’ve split their academic dean position, their research collaboration, and even their office space: right down the middle, albeit with a fuzzy line. Rather than partitioning duties – one working on faculty hiring, the other on fundraising, for instance – they approach all issues and decisions collaboratively.

“Problems that come across the table to us, we talk about jointly. We have a joint to-do list, we make joint decisions, we write joint letters,” says Willett. “Anything anyone tells one of us, we tell the other.” They’ve turned their two offices into a suite, with one serving as a meeting room and the other housing both desks, telephones, and computers.

While such double-teaming might appear to take twice the time, Singer and Willett firmly believe that their collaborations are more efficient than not. “While it might cost you more time initially, it’s a lot more productive,” says Willett. “We’ve learned the product is better than the sum of its parts … the creativity is worth the extra time it might cost.” When the duo disagrees – which is often – it’s a sign, they say, that they haven’t explored all possible scenarios. “We’ve been pretty successful in adding value to the discussion by trying to generate novel alternatives that we can reach a consensus on,” says Willett.

Singer adds that, over the years, they’ve streamlined their collaborative processes, knowing each other well enough that one can sometimes act without the other’s input. “We have a pretty good instinct about what the other person will think differently about,” she says.

Singer and Willett trace their partnership to Chinese food and a shared fervor for statistics. Although both were hired in 1985, Singer arrived a semester ahead of Willett. By the time he got to Cambridge, Willett’s mailbox was stuffed with messages from Singer, who was eager to meet her new colleague. “We started, not by any grand design, having lunch together every Tuesday” at a now-defunct Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square, says Singer, admitting that her enthusiasm for Chinese food has since waned, a casualty of an otherwise fruitful alliance.

Those Tuesday lunches spawned a two-headed beast that has met with great academic success. Willett and Singer have co-written two books, “By Design: Planning Better Research in Higher Education” and “Who Will Teach? Policies That Matter,” as well as dozens of articles on statistical methodology, research design, and education policy. Their research has been honored with the prestigious American Educational Research Association’s Raymond B. Cattell Early Career Award for Programmatic Research in 1992 and its 1993 Review of Research Award. They spent much of this summer finishing a new book, “Analyzing Longitudinal Data: Modeling Change and Event Occurrence,” to be published by Oxford University Press, “hoping to get it done before the real business of deaning kicks off in the fall,” says Willett.

Realizing the productivity of this pairing, the Ed School has honored and fostered Singer and Willett’s collaboration. “The school tried to keep our careers in step, so that our reviews took place at the same time, and our promotions took place at the same time,” says Willett. “There’s no status differential between us; we have no sense of a pecking order,” he adds.

Although Willett and Singer are enthusiastic about their unique arrangement, they’re unlikely to use the bully pulpit of the nation’s top education school to proselytize job-sharing. Two years ago, when they first moved their research partnership into administration, they thought they might have hit on a great solution for other professors loathe to give up teaching and research for administration: by sharing both, they could have it both ways. “We have concluded that was naïve,” Singer admits.

“You need the partnership in place before you can put the people in the position,” says Willett, pointing out that he and Singer had more than a decade to create their well-oiled collaborative style before they took on administration. “We don’t think this is an automatic solution.”

If their passion for job-sharing isn’t quite evangelical, it is palpable. “What does get distributed is the stress,” says Willett, noting the advantage of sharing the burden of the high-level and confidential decisions.

“We have a built-in sounding board, someone who is as knowledgeable about the situation as the other person. It’s a lot less lonely at the top if there are two of you,” says Singer. Plus, she says, “we have a lot of fun.”

Contact Beth Potier at beth_potier@harvard.edu