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Demographer Preston Takes the Helm at SAS

Some 15 months after Dr. Rosemary Stevens stepped down as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, the school finally got a permanent leader: Dr. Samuel Preston, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography and director of the Population Studies Center who has been at Penn since 1979.
Q & A with Sam Preston
He replaces Dr. Walter Wales, the professor of physics who had served as interim dean since Stevens's resignation in September 1996.
   In announcing the appointment of Preston, who took office last month, Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the University, called him "the ideal person to lead SAS into the 21st century," and added: "We are extraordinarily lucky that, having scoured the nation to find a great new dean for SAS, the search committee ultimately located right here at Penn the best candidate I can imagine."
   Although he was reluctant to discuss it, Preston had actually been approached about the post several times in the past, but had turned it down. He cited "personal and organizational reasons" for his change of heart: "Personally, I have been doing what feels like the same thing, in a sense, for 30 years. This looked like an opportunity to do something different -- and important -- for a while." Furthermore, having been a member of the SAS faculty for 19 years, he said: "I have loyalty to the school.
Photo by Jim Graham
I am very impressed with the faculty, the students, the leadership, and it was an opportunity to serve that unit that I feel is worthy of my efforts ... I'm full of enthusiasm for the school and its programs. There are so many exciting things going on here, and there is a wonderful staff of associate deans and staff members.
   "What the arts and sciences do is among the most important activities" on earth, he added. "We do fundamental research and we transmit the fruits of that research to new generations. Try to identify a human activity that is any more important than that. And because it's so important, it's essential that we manage the resources that we have to do it as efficiently as we possibly can. We're going to be looking very, very carefully at everything that we do in the school to be sure it is contributing to the dual missions of education and research. And I promise that I am going to be extremely diligent in examining the logic of every dollar that we spend."
   The 54-year-old Preston has had, in his own words, a "fair dose of administration" over the years, including stints as chairman of the sociology department for two terms, director of the Population Studies Center for two terms, and graduate chair of demography. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he served as chairman of its Committee on Population for four years and of the Social Political Science section for four years. Until he accepted the deanship of SAS, he had been serving as the University Council's moderator and had headed the Faculty Senate's committee on the economic status of the faculty.
   Vivian Seltzer, the professor of human development and behavior who serves as head of the Faculty Senate, called him a "wonderful choice" to lead the school. "He's a really good guy: very serious, thoughtful, deliberative -- and flexible, which is a very important characteristic in a dean. And as is clear by his record of accomplishments and achievements, he gets the job done and he gets it done well. The quality and importance of his work is very highly regarded. He does not and would not deal in trivial matters. He goes into great depth in his study."
   A prolific scholar who has published a dozen books and more than 120 papers and reviews, Preston won the Population Association of America's Irene B. Taeuber Award for Excellence in Demographic Research in 1983. Having earned his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University in 1968, he acknowledges that he is "very comfortable with numbers," which will stand him in good stead when dealing with the large and perennially tight budget at SAS.
   "A demographer's job is to generate and interpret numbers about populations and population change," Preston notes. "I think that would give me a leg up on budget analysis, and certainly the budget and finance features of the deanship are important. The manner in which we allocate our resources and generate new resources is pretty vital to being able to move the school ahead."
   The school's budget of approximately $220 million covers some 25 departments in a vast range of disciplines and a standing faculty of approximately 457. There were 498 standing-faculty members at the start of Stevens's tenure in 1991, and some 540 at the school's peak. "I think everyone agrees that the period of decline should end," says Preston. "Certainly, my aspiration is to maintain the number of faculty members that we have. In a period of decline, of course, the faculty ages, and, disproportionately, the burden falls on junior faculty ... So I think we need to revitalize the faculty with a very measured program of recruitment of assistant professors ... I will sacrifice many other things before I sacrifice recruiting of faculty."
   Preston's was not the only significant academic appointment over the last two months. Dr. Richard Beeman, professor of history, was named associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the College, succeeding Dr. Robert Rescorla, professor of psychology, who is returning to full-time teaching and research. And Dr. Michael Wachter, the William B. Johnson Professor of Law and Economics who had been serving as deputy provost, is now the interim provost, following the resignation of Dr. Stanley Chodorow, who is now a full-time professor of history.
   Although the deanships are technically supposed to last for seven years, no one has actually stayed that long at SAS. Given that Stevens's five-year tenure represented the longest so far, Preston said: "I hope and expect to stay for five years. My commitments are to Penn. I don't see myself as having branched to an alternative career path of academic administration."

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