Sarah-Jane Leslie has been just about everything you can be at the University. Now, she steps into a new role: dean of the Graduate School.
“I just cannot imagine anyone better for the job than her,” Vidushi Sharma ’17 said. “I know the philosophy department pretty well, and whenever anyone talked about Sarah-Jane, they would have this air of pure respect. She just inspires genuine respect in people because of the way that she conducts her work.”
Leslie is an affiliated faculty member in the psychology department, the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Center for Human Values, and the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy. Her research and academic work have also led to her authoring and publishing a number of writings, focusing primarily on her advocacy for diversity and gender equality, as well the intersections of language, philosophy and psychology. Much of Leslie’s recent research has focused on why some academic disciplines are more diverse than others, especially when it comes to gender, exploring the barrier to participation to women and other minorities when it comes to certain academic disciplines.
“My collaborators and I have looked into a role of beliefs about ,” Leslie said. “Culturally speaking, brilliance is something that is more associated with men than with women, and what we found was that disciplines such as philosophy, my home discipline, that have very few women in them, tend to believe you have to be ‘brilliant’ in order to succeed.”
Major outlets such as , , and have covered her work on brilliance. The use of brilliance as a requirement in academia is something Leslie outspokenly opposes. Based on her research, she says that messages of brilliance being an academic requirement unveil the psychology behind categorization and generalization that cause so much discrimination and stereotyping in not only STEM fields but, as she says, “the entire academic spectrum.”
“These messages combined with cultural stereotypes to discourage women’s participation in a number of ways, including by making women more vulnerable to outright bias and discrimination,” Leslie explained in a lecture for a YouTube channel dedicated to her research. “These findings suggest that academics who wish to increase the diversity of their fields should pay particular attention to the messages they send concerning what’s required for success.”
Leslie’s hiring comes as the graduate school faces certain gender-based controversies such as those previously reported in 'Prince'. In the , students have alleged gender-based discrimination, and a graduate student in the spoke out about her experience of sexual harassment by a professor. As someone who speaks about diversity, and whose research frequently focuses on the necessity of academics promoting diversity, Leslie is now in a position to do so herself.
“I look forward to combining that kind of database socially, scientifically informed approach to these rich and concrete questions that impact lives such as including diverse groups in our graduate student population,” Leslie said.
Whether focusing on gender diversity or the practical methods of pursuing career choices, Leslie plans on taking a student-centric approach to her leadership of the graduate college. The most enjoyable parts of her work, she explained, always involved students.
“I’ve always found it especially rewarding to be involved in initiatives that include students,” said Leslie. “In all of the programs that I’ve run, including the programs in linguistics and in cognitive science, we’ve made it a priority to include students, offer them the most rich educational experiences possible.”
Her family emigrated from the United Kingdom. Leslie herself is a New Jersey native, and was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University, where she studied philosophy, math, and cognitive science. She came to Princeton as a graduate student in 2002, and her dissertation work was mainly concerned with how the human mind understands language — drawing from linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science. She received her Ph.D. in 2006, after having started teaching as an assistant professor a year earlier. She was then awarded tenure and promoted to full professor in 2014.
“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to stay at Princeton,” said Leslie. “I enjoyed my experiences here as a graduate student very much and was delighted to be able to stay on here and contribute to the University as a professor.”
Her fellow students and collaborators also agree that her time as a graduate student will be a significant advantage when it comes to her position as Dean of the School, including Adam Lerner GS, one of Dean Leslie’s academic advisees.
“Dean Leslie is especially well placed to be an excellent dean of the graduate school,” said Lerner. “She was a graduate student at Princeton in the 21st century, so she has a keen sense of what kind of challenges today’s graduate students face and what kind of conditions they need and tools they need to thrive in their research, their teaching, and eventually on the job market.”
Leslie is currently the Vice Dean for Faculty Development in the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, the Director of Princeton's Program in Linguistics, and the Director of the Program in Cognitive Science, which she in 2015.
“Some priorities of mine include increasing the diversity of the graduate student body, making sure that students from all walks of life and identities are supported and experience welcoming environments at Princeton,” Leslie said. She said she eagerly anticipates working with all members of the graduate school faculty and staff to make the graduate student experience “terrific.”