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Sander van der Leeuw retires after storied ASU career leading multiple schools

Sander van der Leeuw

Sander Van der Leeuw has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers and book chapters, and he is the author or co-author of 20 academic books. He was named the United Nations Environment Program’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation in 2012.

December 14, 2021

Sander van der Leeuw knew early in life that he wanted to be an archaeologist. It was the influence of two high school teachers in his native Holland that drew him to the field — including a history teacher fascinated by the subject.

“For a whole year he just read all kinds of archaeology adventure stories to us,” van der Leeuw said. “Because in the 1900s and the 1800s archaeology was an ‘adventure’ field.”

That early interest would lead him to an academic career on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and an opportunity to grow two transdisciplinary units at Arizona State University. Van der Leeuw, who served as founding director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, dean of the School of Sustainability and Foundation Professor, retires this month after 18 years with the university.

Following high school, van der Leeuw spent a year in an exchange program at the University of Arizona. He took courses in Maya archaeology, Southwestern archaeology and anthropological topics, further developing his passion for the field. He returned to Europe the following year and found his studies to be quite different, with archaeology viewed as a form of art history.

“The fact that, while I was in Tucson, I had been confronted with American archaeology meant that I had a very different attitude about archaeology than all of my colleagues in Holland,” he said.

He changed his focus to study history, earning the equivalent of a BA and then an ABD (all but dissertation) in the discipline, developing specific expertise in medieval history. He went on to earn a PhD in prehistory at the University of Amsterdam.

Van der Leeuw soon joined the faculty ranks, teaching and researching while at universities in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France. He enjoyed the work immensely, eventually making the transition to academic administration and then leadership in government research organizations. During this time, he began to yearn for more transdisciplinary approaches to research and higher education.

“When I asked to do something novel in France they would always say, ‘No.’ And then when I went for my interview at ASU, people were saying, ‘Yes, let’s try it.’ That made a big difference for me,” he said.

Transforming an anthropology department

Sander van der Leeuw speaks at the renaming ceremony for the School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Sander van der Leeuw speaks at the launch event for the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in 2005.

Van der Leeuw spent part of a sabbatical with ASU’s Department of Anthropology in 2000 and was impressed by the spirit of cooperation he found there. Three years later, he learned from a faculty member that the department needed a new chair. Drawn by the collegiality among faculty and by President Michael Crow’s vision for the university, van der Leeuw applied and won the job.

The new chair was charged with transforming the department into something new — a transdisciplinary school, rooted in anthropology, driven by academic teamwork, and covering the whole of human history. It would be called the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and it represented a profound shift.

In those early years, the new school focused on expanding its research productivity with the support of a staff member who helped write grant proposals.

“That showed the people in the department that it was not a question that if one of them won something, the others couldn’t get it,” he said. “They could all gain by applying to new, transdisciplinary sources of funding and that promoted working together.”

In his first year at ASU, van der Leeuw also had the opportunity to bring 14 new faculty members into the school.

“Sander made a huge impact at SHESC,” said President’s Professor Kaye Reed, a former director of the school. “Under his leadership, we actually became a school that encompassed more than anthropologists. One of the most impactful contributions that faculty still discuss years later was his acquisition of funding that he used to propel interdisciplinary research with the Late Lessons in Early History Program, which led to the procurement of many outside research grants by the faculty.”

Van der Leeuw made this funding available to faculty who proposed transdisciplinary projects, building a spirit of collaboration within the school.

While expanding its research program, the school also grew to serve more learners with more degree programs. It began offering a Bachelor of Arts in global health in 2007, bringing together experts in the discipline who were previously spread across the university. The program continues to expand, with a Master of Science in global health degree launched this past fall.

“Sander is an extraordinary scholar and intellectual with the unusual ability to foresee future scientific directions before they emerge and become common,” said Foundation Professor Curtis Marean, who has been with the university since 2001. “As an example, Sander foresaw the emergence of quantitative social science and particularly computer modeling of behavior, and positioned SHESC through several hires to become a world leader in that research.”

Growing sustainability initiatives

With the successful launch and growth of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, university leaders tapped van der Leeuw as dean of the School of Sustainability in 2010. He was involved in early discussions about the program when he first arrived at ASU. He also drew from earlier experience leading a project, with funding from the European Union, that explored the role of human decision-making about their environment.

“I was really fascinated by this possibility to combine the natural sciences and the life sciences with the social sciences — with anthropology and other fields,” van der Leeuw said.

He led the School of Sustainability for three years.

“Sander exemplifies a true planetary systems intellectual, having moved from his disciplinary foundation in archaeology into the fields of sustainability and complex systems, shaping them along the way,” said Peter Schlosser, vice president and vice provost for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory. “Sander’s recognition as a Champion of the Earth reflects this evolution and the admiration for his commitment to research and education across the entire globe. ASU has been extraordinarily fortunate to have him lead our programs the last 18 years.”

Major contributions to the study of complex adaptive systems

As a scholar, van der Leeuw is a pioneer in what has become known as the complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach to socioenvironmental research. As he describes it, CAS explores the emergence of novelty over time. Rather than looking at something in the present and trying to identify its origins in the past, the CAS approach starts in the past and follows its evolution over time.

Following his leadership with the School of Sustainability, he remained at ASU to help lead CAS initiatives. ASU’s School of Complex Adaptive Systems later emerged from this work, done in partnership with other complex adaptive systems experts at the university.

Van der Leeuw cites two major contributions as a researcher. Early in his career, he developed a new method for inspecting ceramics — “the food of archaeology.” He worked with a potter to help reconstruct pottery technology from traces on the pots. Later, he used the complex adaptive systems approach on the long-term project in Europe, which tied into his earlier research.

“From my work with technology, I got a very particular view about the relationship between people and their environment,” van der Leeuw said. “Because in ceramics, the potter works with clay, with water, with geology, with fire and things like that.”

Rather than focusing on the end products of this process, he chose to look at the dynamic between people and these materials.

Van der Leeuw has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers and book chapters, and he is the author or co-author of 20 academic books. He was named the United Nations Environment Program’s Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation in 2012.

“Sander was one of the few university administrators I have known in my career who was not only a good leader administratively, but also an intellectual and scientific leader,” Professor Michael E. Smith said.

Van der Leeuw will continue his research as a professor emeritus at ASU while spending his retirement in France. He wants to explore why, despite a wealth of knowledge about the climate system and what needs to be done to create sustainability, society is not taking more action.

He is troubled by the ways that information technology, particularly social networking, are fragmenting society and making it difficult to achieve sustainability.

“That is a very, very major problem that, one way or another, our societies will have to deal with,” he said.

Van der Leeuw also sees many of today’s challenges as being linked to the colonial period, which he said created gaps between people and “uniformized” much of the thinking around the world. He sees anthropologists, and particularly the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, playing a key role in helping to create understanding.

“We need much more cultural diversity,” van der Leeuw said. “We need Western people to actually live and familiarize themselves with what it is living in the developing world. Only by sharing those experiences can we ultimately build up a discussion that will bridge some of the gaps.”

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