Leslie Kirwan, FAS dean for administration and finance, to retire

Leslie Kirwan.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Kirwan

3 min read

Leslie Kirwan, dean for administration and finance for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) for more than a decade, will retire this spring, Edgerley Family Dean Claudine Gay announced in a Tuesday message.

“Anything but a technocrat, Leslie is a leader who lives her belief in the dignity of every person and who will never shrink from the challenge when she is defending what she believes to be right,” Gay said. “And even as the Zoom calls stretch from early morning to late at night, Leslie’s warmth and humor, her dedication to her team and to the success of our academic community continue to lift me up when I feel my own energy flagging.”

Kirwan, who graduated from the College in 1979 and Harvard Kennedy School with an M.P.P. in 1984, joined the FAS administration for a tenure that would be bookended by unprecedented crises. Her 2009 arrival amidst the global financial meltdown led to a decade-long effort to maintain and invest in the critical work of FAS faculty and staff, which, in many ways, helped prepare the school for the pandemic challenge.

“The work of stabilizing and sustaining the work of the institution is rewarding, though it’s not glitzy and often involves disappointing people. What I have found satisfying is working with two different, amazing deans [Gay and Michael D. Smith] to strike the right balance and make tradeoffs so essential investments in the mission are still possible.”

The first woman to serve as Secretary of Administration and Finance for the Commonwealth under Governor Deval Patrick, Kirwan closed a $220 million structural deficit while expanding financial aid, maintaining the size of the faculty, and taking on House Renewal. Working with University and FAS colleagues, she helped implement multi-year financial planning and Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, including comprehensive annual disclosures of the FAS finances in the form of a standard managerial report.

“I’m a big believer in surrounding myself with people who are much better than I am in their areas of expertise. I’ve been lucky to work with an outstanding team — some who were here before me and others whom I’ve enticed to come, like my amazing 25-year sidekick Mary Ann Bradley [associate dean of administrative operations],” she said. “We all spend a lot of time together, and communication and transparency are critical. Administrative jobs aren’t done in isolation; our work has to be informed by what the community needs.”

Gay praised Kirwan for having an emotional intelligence to match her brilliant decision-making.

“Leslie has the uncanny ability to identify and connect with talented staff at every career stage, to know how they think and what they have contributed, and to cultivate their Harvard careers,” she said.

Kirwan hopes to leave that as her legacy as much as any financial report that bears her stamp.

“The job appears to be all about numbers, but the human element is core to the way I approach it. I hope I have helped make the diverse, disparate, and scattered administrative staff in the FAS feel like more like a community, with transparency, trust and confidence in one another,” she said.

And the task that got her the most notoriety in the Crimson was one of her favorites.

“I also really liked calling snow days,” she added.

Kirwan is looking forward to spending more time with her family and hopes to devote more time to non-profit board service in retirement.

An international search for her successor will begin this fall.