Susan J. Birren, neurobiologist, appointed as new dean of Arts and Sciences

She succeeds Adam Jaffe, economics professor who expanded experiential learning programs

Photo/Mike Lovett

Newly appointed Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan J. Birren

Susan J. Birren, a professor of biology and neuroscience who is affiliated with the National Center for Behavioral Genomics and the Volen Center for Complex Systems, has been named dean of Brandeis' College of Arts and Sciences.

Her appointment, announced by President Fred Lawrence, Provost Marty Krauss, Ph.D. '81, and Provost-elect Steve A.N. Goldstein '78, was based on recommendations of a search committee appointed by Krauss in March. The committee was chaired by Robin Feuer Miller, the Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities.

Birren is affiliated with the Health: Science, Society and Policy program (HSSP) and the Psychology Department.  She succeeds Adam Jaffe, Fred C. Hecht Professor in Economics, who has served as dean of the college since 2003. Jaffe plans to return to the economics department faculty and to be on sabbatical 2011-12.

 During his eight-year tenure, Jaffe greatly expanded experiential learning programs, instituted systematic mentoring of junior faculty, participated in the conceptualization and creation of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, strengthened the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and chaired the Curriculum and Academic Restructuring Steering (CARS) and Brandeis 2020 committees, which helped the university through the financial difficulties of recent years.

Lawrence praised Jaffe for his "extraordinarily strong leadership during very challenging times" and said Brandeis is fortunate to transition smoothly to such a strong successor.

The president hailed Birren as "a distinguished scholar, an experienced academic leader and a talented educator."

He said that her scholarly accomplishments, which have won international recognition in the field of developmental neurobiology, her experience as an academic leader, recently on display during her service as chair of the Committee on Centers and Institutes, and her talent as an educator are among many attributes that make her a strong choice for dean of the college.

The appointment takes effect July 1.

"I am excited about taking on the challenge of fostering the research and educational missions of all components of the university so that scholarship in all fields of the liberal arts can flourish," Birren said. "I am thrilled to have the opportunity to support a central role for the liberal arts here at Brandeis and to contribute to our achievements as a preeminent research university.  I share the excitement of President Fred Lawrence and of our new Provost, Steve Goldstein, about the future of Brandeis.

"The Brandeis community is made up of faculty and students in the humanities, social sciences and arts as well as the sciences and I am delighted to be part of this smart, interactive and dynamic group," Birren added. "It has been my great pleasure to interact with colleagues across many disciplines and programs and I am consistently amazed and inspired by their creative and scholarly work.

Goldstein said, "Susan has the wisdom to promote what is essential to each of the disciplines in the Arts and Sciences while working closely with each of the four schools, the different groups within the schools, and across disciplinary boundaries.

"She brings energy, thoughtfulness and exquisite sensitivity to critical institutional challenges," Goldstein said.  "She is committed to undergraduate education, to strengthening support for graduate students and to strategic development of the faculty of Arts and Sciences."

Search committee chair Miller said that "what I found most inspiring was the high quality of all the candidates" for the dean's job. All were current members of the faculty "and every single one of them was a viable candidate for dean. It was a reminder to me once again of the dazzling quality of our faculty throughout the arts and sciences.

"Susan will be a great addition to Fred's stellar team," said Miller, who is herself a former dean of the college. "She is deeply thoughtful, very direct but tactful, and she will really endeavor to approach each conundrum that comes her way with all her skills of analysis and with deep love for all the things that a liberal arts university represents."

Birren received her Ph.D. in biological chemistry from the University of California at Los Angeles and did post-doctoral work at the California Institute of Technology, where she studied the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the development of the mammalian nervous system.

Her research program at Brandeis is focused on understanding how functional circuits are established during nervous system development.  Her work has helped define the properties of nervous system stem cells and has elucidated the functions of key molecules in the neural control of cardiac function and in the development of brain circuits that are disrupted in human developmental disorders. Her research and teaching on autism spectrum disorders has been supported by the the family foundation of Nancy Lurie Marks, P '77, P '87, G '01.

Birren's interest in nervous system development is reflected in her teaching, which includes a course on developmental biology and an interdisciplinary course on autism and human developmental disorders.  In addition to her research and teaching, she has served on several university committees, including the University Curriculum Committee, and as chair of the Centers and Institutes Committee, Oral Communications Committee and Brandeis Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Lawrence, Krauss and Goldstein all expressed thanks to the members of the search committee, which included Peter Conrad, the Harry Coplan Professor of Social Sciences; Joseph Du Pont, dean of career services, Hiatt Center; Gabrielle Kaplan '13; Sarah Lamb of Anthropology; Eve Marder '69, head of the Division of Science and Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Neuroscience; Charles McClendon, the Sidney and Ellen Wien Professor in the History of Art; Kris McKeigue, assistant vice president of the Office of Budget and Planning, and Daniel Schwartz, M.A. '10, Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.

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