Campus & Community

Kirby to step down as dean of FAS

9 min read

To conclude service at the end of academic year

Kirby will return to teaching at the end of the academic year, and will serve as director of the Fairbank Center.

William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Geisinger Professor of History, has announced his plans to step down from the deanship at the end of the 2005-06 academic year. He will return to his scholarship and teaching, and take on a university-wide role in guiding Harvard’s expanding array of academic initiatives focused on China, while serving as director of Harvard’s John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.

A highly regarded historian of modern China who joined the Harvard faculty in 1992, Kirby has led the FAS since 2002 through a period of extraordinary growth and consequential change.

His tenure as dean has seen the unfolding of a comprehensive review of the undergraduate curriculum as well as steps to improve residential and extracurricular life, accelerated growth in the ranks of the FAS faculty, new investments in financial aid for both undergraduate and graduate students, and ambitious efforts to strengthen FAS resources in the sciences, in international studies, and beyond.

“Together, I believe we have set a strong foundation for the future,”

Kirby said. “We have expanded the ranks of the faculty, invested in the architecture and infrastructure that give form to our ambitions, and, most important, recommitted ourselves to our students. The events of the past year have posed serious challenges for all of us, yet we have continued to focus on the important business before us. For myself, the allure of my area of study – modern and contemporary China – has made my decision a timely and compelling one. I look forward to working with colleagues and students as we extend our study of a dynamic society whose influence on our world continues to grow. And I look forward to the full agenda before us this spring, working with the faculty, students, and staff whom I am privileged to serve.”

Letters to the Harvard community

“Bill Kirby has guided the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with remarkable foresight, openness to change, and deep devotion to the University’s highest values and purposes,” said President Lawrence H. Summers. “He has committed himself to assuring the best possible experience for our students, while guiding the most ambitious growth of the faculty in decades. He has pursued essential enhancements in student financial aid, while initiating critical investments in facilities that will help shape Harvard’s future.

“To these and other initiatives, and through what has been a not-uncomplicated time in the life of the University, he has brought a consistent commitment to the best interests of the FAS and to fruitful collaboration with Harvard’s other faculties and schools,” Summers said. “I am grateful for his imaginative and dedicated leadership, and together with him I look forward to a productive semester ahead.”

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Shortly after becoming dean, Kirby launched the first comprehensive review of Harvard’s undergraduate curriculum in more than two decades. He has guided that process through the completion of faculty reports and faculty-wide discussion regarding key aspects of the undergraduate academic experience, including general education, concentrations, advising and mentoring, and pedagogical improvement. Following further faculty deliberation, legislation on key curricular innovations is expected to be taken up by the FAS this spring.

Meanwhile, the FAS has moved forward with a range of targeted educational initiatives, such as expanded opportunities for study abroad, a dramatic rise in freshman seminars, the launch of junior seminars in several of the largest concentrations, and new collaborations with the New England Conservatory and the Silk Road Project founded by Yo-Yo Ma. In addition, the first pair of an envisioned new set of foundational interdisciplinary courses, known as Life Sciences 1a and 1b, has been introduced, and similar courses in the physical sciences and other academic domains are under active development.

During Kirby’s time as dean, the FAS faculty has achieved its most ambitious growth in decades. The number of assistant, associate, and full professors has increased from 636 in 2002 to more than 700 today. The accelerated growth has reflected an emphasis on promoting closer student-faculty engagement, adding strength in fields of rising scholarly importance, and brightening the tenure prospects for members of the FAS junior faculty.

Kirby has also overseen the completion or initiation of a range of major capital projects intended to strengthen the FAS’s academic resources for the coming decades. Both the renovation of Widener Library and the construction of the Center for Government and International Studies have been completed, and three new state-of-the-art science and engineering facilities in the North Yard are moving forward: the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering, the Biological Research Infrastructure, and the Northwest Laboratory.

In addition, Kirby’s tenure as dean has featured efforts to enhance residential and extracurricular life for undergraduates. Recent and ongoing steps include the opening of the Harvard Dance Center, the construction of the New College Theatre in the shell of the old Hasty Pudding Building, the transformation of Loker Commons, and the plans to provide refurbished space at Hilles for dozens of student groups.

Financial aid for both undergraduates and graduate students has grown markedly, as part of the broader effort to attract the most promising students to both the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In 2004, Harvard launched an initiative to draw more students from low-income families to the College, including the elimination of parental contributions for families with incomes up to $40,000 and the reduction of such contributions for families with incomes up to $60,000. Meanwhile, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has significantly upgraded its fellowship programs, including the provision of a full year of support at the dissertation-writing stage for all entering Ph.D. students in the humanities and the social sciences.

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Summers said that the search for Kirby’s successor would begin promptly. In a letter to the community, he said that, after consultation within the faculty, he would be inviting a broad-based group of faculty members to advise him on the search, consistent with customary Harvard practice. He added that, as the search proceeds, he would also be consulting more widely with members of the faculty, including the FAS Faculty Council and department chairs, as well as students, staff, and alumni. He encouraged interested members of the Harvard community to send advice and nominations, in confidence, by letter addressed to him at Massachusetts Hall or by e-mail (starting Jan. 30) to

Kirby will return to his teaching and research on modern China while taking on the directorship of the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. In so doing, he said, he envisions three broad aims: first, to sustain and build on Harvard’s leading role in scholarship and education about modern China; second, to support and advance new initiatives and collaborations among the diverse array of Harvard scholars interested in China; and third, to explore the prospect of the University’s eventually establishing a more concrete institutional presence in China, in order to extend China-related studies and to strengthen relations with leading Chinese scholars and academic institutions.

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Kirby came to Harvard as Professor of History in 1992 and has been the Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History since 1999. He chaired the History Department from 1995 to 2000 and served from 1999 to 2002 as director of the University’s Asia Center. He currently chairs the board of the Harvard-Yenching Institute and serves on the board of syndics of the Harvard University Press.

Kirby received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, summa cum laude in history, in 1972, having also studied at the University of Mainz (Germany) and at Wellesley College during his undergraduate years. After a year’s graduate study at the Free University of Berlin, he undertook doctoral studies in history at Harvard and was awarded his Ph.D. in 1981. He was a student of Franklin L. Ford, himself a former dean of FAS; John King Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese studies at Harvard, for whom the Fairbank Center is named; and Philip A. Kuhn, now Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

From 1980 to 1991, Kirby was a member of the history faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, rising to become professor of history. There, he held several positions of academic leadership, including director of the International Affairs Program (1983-88), director of Asian Studies (1988-91), and dean of University College (1988-91).

Kirby’s scholarship and teaching have focused on 20th century China. His books and articles explore China’s development in an international context, with work on such topics as Sino-European relations, the history of modern Chinese capitalism, the international socialist economy of the 1950s, and relations across the Taiwan Strait.

Kirby has taught the Core courses on “Contemporary China: The People’s Republic and Taiwan in the Modern World” and (with Peter K. Bol) “China: Traditions and Transformations,” which interprets 3,000 years of Chinese history. He has trained numerous doctoral students in modern Chinese history and has offered regular graduate seminars on the use of Chinese archives and the reading of documents of 20th century China. In addition, he has taught courses on China’s foreign economic and cultural relations, Chinese business history, and the role of science and technology in China’s relations with the West.

As dean, he has remained active in China studies through graduate teaching, conferences, and publications. He led several conferences on the concept of the practice of “freedom” in China, culminating in the volume “Realms of Freedom in Modern China” (2004). Together with colleagues in China and Europe, he directed a series of recent conferences on China’s internationalization, whose products include the forthcoming “China and the World: Internationalization, Internalization, and Externalization” (2006). A third volume, “Normalization of U.S.-China Relations: An International History” (2006), edited with Robert Ross and Gong Li, grows out of a joint conference between Harvard’s Fairbank Center and the Central Party School in Beijing.

A frequent traveler to China, Kirby is an honorary visiting professor at both Beijing University and Nanjing University. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Heidelberg and the Free University of Berlin. His research has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.