Xiao-Li Meng, PhD ’90

Xiao-Li Meng is the Dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Whipple V. N. Jones Professor and former chair of Statistics at Harvard, an Honorary Professor of the University of Hong Kong, and a faculty affiliate at the Center of Health Statistics at the University of Chicago. He is well known for his depth and breadth in research, his innovation and passion in pedagogy, and his vision and effectiveness in administration, as well as for his engaging and entertaining style as a speaker and a writer.

Meng, a native of Shanghai, China, started his academic career at the age of 19, when he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Fudan University. After two years of teaching at China Textile University, he went back to Fudan and received a Diploma in Graduate Study in Mathematical Statistics in 1986. He then entered the Harvard Statistics Department, from which he was awarded his PhD in 1990. He was on the faculty of the University of Chicago from 1991 to 2001, before returning to Harvard as Professor of Statistics. He was appointed as the department chair in 2004, and the Whipple V. N. Jones Professor in 2007. He was appointed GSAS Dean effective August 15, 2012.

Meng has authored more than 150 publications in more than a dozen theoretical and methodological areas, and was ranked by Science Watch (May/June 2002) as one of the world’s top-25 most-cited mathematicians for articles published and cited during 1991–2000. His work spans from theoretical foundations of statistical inferences (e.g., the interplay among Bayesian, frequentist, and fiducial perspectives; quantify ignorance via invariance principles; multi-party inferences), to statistical methods and computation (e.g., posterior predictive p-value; EM algorithm; Markov chain Monet Carlo; bridge and path sampling), to a wide range of applications in natural, social, and medical sciences and engineering (e.g., complex statistical modeling in astronomy and astrophysics; quantifying statistical information in genetic studies; detecting and estimating trends in environmental and geophysical measurements; measuring disparities in Latino and Asian mental health services; assessing reporting delay in AIDS surveillance systems; and de-noising and de-mosaicing in digit cameras).

For his research contributions, Meng received the 2001 COPSS (Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies) Award, the most prestigious award by five statistical societies to a single statistician annually for being “The outstanding statistician under the age of forty.” He also received the 2003 Distinguished Achievement Award from International Chinese Statistics Association (ICSA), and was elected fellow by Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS) in 1997 and by American Statistical Association (ASA) in 2004. Most recently, he was the 2010 Medallion Lecturer of IMS, 2011 Mosteller Statistician of the Year by ASA Boston Chapter, the recipient of a 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award by Fudan University, and a recipient of the inaugural (2012) PL Hsu Award for distinguished achievements in research and education by a statistician under the age of fifty. His research accomplishment together with his presentation style has made him a much sought-after speaker in statistics and neighboring fields, with over 300 seminars, keynotes, and banquet speeches since his PhD.

In additional to his research presentations, he is also a frequently invited speaker to teaching conferences and career development workshops for his pedagogical innovations and leadership. He is internationally known for his Real-Life Statistics: Your Chance for Happiness (or Misery), a general education course at Harvard that he designed and taught with the help of his “Happy Team,” a dozen masters and PhD students in statistics. The pioneering project of directly involving graduate students in designing undergraduate courses, and hence providing them with hands-on pedagogical training, together with his other innovations — such as a year-long required course on teaching and communication skills for all first-year PhD students (The Art and Practice of Teaching Statistics) —helped win Harvard Statistics, in 2008, a $25,000 GSAS (Graduate School of Arts and Science) Dean’s Prize for Innovations in Graduate Education at Harvard.

The impact of these innovations is also reflected in the fact that Statistics PhD students have won the Derek C. Bok Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching of Undergraduates every year since the award’s inception in 2007. Meng’s effort in helping students’ career development has led to students’ nomination of him for the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award in 2009–2010. For similar efforts, previously he was nominated by students and awarded the 1997–1998 University of Chicago Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching.

Meng is also known as a dedicated citizen and energetic leader in the statistical profession. He has served on the editorial boards of nearly all leading statistical journals such as IMS’s flagship journal The Annals of Statistics and ASA’s The Journal of American Statistical Association, as well as the co-chair editor of ICSA’s flagship journal Statistica Sinica (2005–2008). Currently he is the Statistics Editor for IMS-CUP (Cambridge University Press) Series on Monographs and Textbooks. He has served on numerous national and international professional committees and governing boards, including chairing the 2004 Joint Statistical Meetings and the Committee on Meetings of ASA. His recent articles on the future of statistics in American Statisticians (2009/2010) “Desired and Feared—What Do We Do Now and in the Next 50 Years?” and on gateway statistical education in Amstat News (2009/2010) “AP Statistics:  Passion, Paradox, and Pressure” have sparked much discussion and debate in the statistical profession. For his services and contributions as such, he was awarded the ICSA Distinguished Service Award in 2008, and was selected as the final two candidates by ASA nomination committee as vice president and as president of ASA in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

At Harvard, Meng is appreciated for his chair’s role in reforming the statistics department into a role model in FAS in terms of education programs at all levels and interdisciplinary outreach on all fronts. During his time as chair, the Department doubled its faculty size, tripled its graduate program, and increased its undergraduate concentration tenfold. The course enrollments also went up dramatically, from little over 1,100 to now over 2,500, partially due to the introduction of subject oriented statistics (SOS) courses, another pedagogy idea Meng advocates in the statistical profession. He also introduced social gatherings such as “Applied Probability Night” (poker and other games), annual holiday talent shows, and departmental lunches (Chinese catering) to improve the interactions among faculty, graduate and undergraduate students outside the classroom. These efforts helped to change the statistics department from one of the most isolated departments in FAS to one with the reputation of being “notoriously friendly and cozy bunch” among students. The department also entered, for the first time in its 50-year history, the top three statistics departments in the nation, as ranked by the US News & World Report.

Meng worked closely with alumni to establish the first endowed biennial distinguished teaching lecture and junior faculty/teaching fellow awards (David Pickard Memorial Fund) and graduate student research awards (Art Dempster Fund) in statistics. He also led the faculty to engage itself in periodical vision and mission planning, including the Long-term Strategic Planning (2004), Interdisciplinary Science Planning (2006), and Five-Year Academic Plan (2008).

As a mark of his effectiveness as a department chair, Meng was elected to the FAS Faculty Council (2007–2010) and appointed to the Task Force on Teaching and Career Development (2006–2007), the Committee on Pedagogical Improvement (2004–2009), the Committee on Undergraduate Education (2007–2009), and the Graduate Policy Committee (2008–present), all at FAS. In each of these capacities, Meng advocates that faculty members at top research universities should possess “both beautiful minds for research and beautiful hearts for teaching.”