James Hanken was chatting with colleague Hopi Hoekstra at a Harvard faculty meeting this spring.
“I said to her, ‘Are you going to be the next FAS dean?’ I had no inkling; I was not involved in the dean search in any way,” the biology professor said. “But all along she struck me as an ideal candidate.”
Hanken, reached Tuesday by phone while conducting fieldwork in India, said he was thrilled to learn the news that Hoekstra indeed will become the next Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He ticked off a series of superlatives concerning Hoekstra’s academic accomplishments, teaching credentials, work ethic, and personal warmth.
“I’m very excited for her, and very excited for Harvard,” said Hanken, who works alongside Hoekstra in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. “I think she’s a terrific choice.”
Across the FAS, colleagues echoed these sentiments about Hoekstra, who currently holds the titles of C.Y. Chan Professor of Arts and Sciences, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Departments of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and curator of mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. As dean, she will succeed Claudine Gay, who will become Harvard’s 30th president on July 1.
“I think the combination of President Gay and Dean Hoekstra will be a formidable one,” said Scott V. Edwards, professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, chair of OEB, and Curator of Ornithology and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at the MCZ. “We’ve been hearing for a number of years about re-imagining Harvard, and this, in many ways, is the dream team to make that happen.”
Edwards, who served as Hoekstra’s Ph.D. adviser at the University of Washington and recommended her years later to his colleagues at Harvard, specifically praised her record on recruiting diverse scientists and building an inclusive environment. “She’s shown a lot of evidence of promoting diversity, achieving diversity, and frankly just being strategic about diversity,” he said.
Others were happy to see the FAS select a woman with considerable STEM expertise. “I’m excited to have a scientist in that position,” said Rachelle Gaudet, professor of molecular and cellular biology and co-director of the Biophysics Graduate Program as well as the incoming chair of the Department of MCB. Gaudet felt this particular scientist, who always brought such passion to her research, is “a great choice.”
Enthusiasm about the new dean extended beyond the FAS Division of Science, where Hoekstra has taught since 2007.
“This is a great moment for Harvard,” said Alison Simmons, the Samuel H. Wolcott Professor of Philosophy and co-founder of Embedded EthiCS. “Hopi is devoted to all aspects of higher education, from serious research to quality teaching, from administration to outreach. She really loves the whole enterprise. That makes her special.”
Simmons, who has served with Hoekstra on multiple FAS committees, expressed confidence in her colleague’s ability to help the Division of Arts & Humanities navigate its future. While Hoekstra has been a vocal advocate for the sciences, Simmons said, the evolutionary biologist and mammalogist recognizes that some matters require interdisciplinary thinking. “Hopi understands that the challenges science and technology pose are really humanistic ones,” Simmons said. “I think she’ll be an excellent dean for both scientists and humanists.”
Several colleagues including Simmons said she has proved her leadership mettle via committee assignments and other forms of University service. That includes her work on the presidential search advisory committee that resulted in Larry Bacow’s hire in 2018 and the FAS Committee on Appointments and Promotions, where Hoekstra served from 2016 to 2021.
“CAP is one of the most time-intensive pieces of service you can do at FAS,” Simmons noted. “And Hopi just loved it. She was sad when she left because she loved the chance to engage in intellectual conversations with her colleagues in different areas.”
Gay also entrusted Hoekstra with chairing the FAS Tenure-Track Review Committee, which issued recommendations in 2021 on minimizing bias and clarifying expectations throughout the promotion process for junior and senior faculty alike.
“She’s earned people’s respect, both in terms of how she carried out the work and the decisions that were ultimately made,” said Hanken, who is also the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the MCZ.
Outside of Harvard, Hoekstra demonstrated leadership abilities at the National Academy of Sciences, where she chaired the section on evolutionary biology for three years starting in 2020.
“She had an extraordinarily successful tenure,” remarked her predecessor, Gene E. Robinson, the Swanlund Chair and director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “She really moved the section forward with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.”
At the recent faculty meeting, Hoekstra shrugged off Hanken’s inquiries about a possible move to University Hall. Instead, the professors started cooking up dinner plans, with Hoekstra and her husband hosting Hanken at their home a couple of weeks later.
Now Hanken is sorry the invitation will be difficult to reciprocate. “She’s going to be so busy,” he said with a laugh. “Our socializing is probably going to be very limited, which I regret because she’s just very pleasant and fun to be around.”
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