Marvin Chun — Being a Psychologist Dean

(Image: Dean Chun lecturing from https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/TeachingExcellence/Marvin-Chun)

LC: In your addresses to students during the opening assembly for new first-years, you always seem to address some aspect of psychology, whether the drawbacks of multitasking, confirmation bias, or how diverse perspectives benefit teamwork. I’m wondering if that same psychological mindset affects how you approach being a Dean, either in terms of how you manage your tasks but also how you view the job of shaping students’ minds. 

MC: I think my psychology interest and background shapes my deanship profoundly. Psychology gives you a lot of things. One is it helps you understand people at a group level, how the average person will act, but it also gives you a lot of respect for individuality and diversity and understanding that people are very different. People are going to respond to the same presentation of a policy or decision or communication in very different ways, and I just think that’s a very fundamentally useful thing to know about any interaction with others and any leadership position. It gives you a lot of humility and care and caution about how you do things. 

But in some ways the group is pretty predictable, right? And having that predictability is also very very helpful, and I think it has helped me more than it has hurt me. 

LC: So being able to predict the student response to a policy maybe lessens the blow or gets you more excited about what’s going on? 

MC: Yeah, maybe lessens the blow or lets you prepare for the blow better. And there are also just some basic principles of administration that aren’t necessarily the ownership of psychologists, but we’re just in a good position to anticipate them. People don’t like change–things like that. People like to be heard–very basic stuff. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know this stuff, but it just helps. And behavioral economics, I don’t know if you’ve taken courses in psychology or behavioral economics, but there are a lot of things about human nature that Dan Ariely the author would say are “predictably irrational.” But also people are very rational in ways and all psychology allows you to predict that. 

LC: So students are broadly resistant to change and follow these sort of trends. So how do you prepare for and respond to those?

MC: Well it really depends on the issue at hand, but fundamentally we really have to focus on what we think best improves our education or our services to students and faculty. And again it’s all through consultation–I’m very averse to making decisions on my own, I’m always in partnership with people and in many cases with students. Ultimately that’s the driving force behind every decision we try to make within the constraints that we have for budget, time, and resistance to change. 

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