Townsend will replace Bill Chameides, who has served as dean for seven years and announced his intent to step down in August. Chosen from an international search that involved 270 candidates, Townsend will step into the role July 1.
"We felt great about everyone, but we were particularly ecstatic from the beginning about Alan," said Dean Urban, chair of the Nicholas School's Division of Environmental Sciences and Policy and head of the search advisory committee for the position. "He didn't disappoint."
Townsend was first considered for the position of Nicholas School dean in 2007, when William Schlesinger left the role. Townsend was named one of five finalists, but Chameides was ultimately given the position, said Urban, who was also part of the 2007 search committee.
"The issue earlier was that he was just too junior," Urban said. "Since that time, he has been deliberately getting the experience he needed to be our dean."
Townsend, now 48, has engaged in a number of ventures in the time since he was last considered for the role. At the University of Colorado he launched an interdisciplinary program and secured several notable grants for doctoral research, and he proved his capability with working in science administration as director of the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation, Urban noted.
The combination of academic credentials and administrative leadership was appealing to the search committee, Urban added.
"We wanted somebody who would be a leader that people would look up to," Urban said.
Townsend has also been named a Google Science Communication Fellow and been an author on more than 100 peer-reviewed publications. His research focuses on the ways in which ecosystems interact with the changing global environment.
Townsend will be the fourth person to serve as dean since the Nicholas School was established in 1995. In April, the school debuted its new home—the 70,000 square foot Environment Hall, completed after two years of construction that totaled $40 million.
"Alan Townsend is a distinguished scholar who has the proven ability to get large, diverse groups to work together in the environmental field," President Richard Brodhead said in a Duke News release. "Under his leadership, the Nicholas School will play an ever greater role in research and teaching on campus as well as in the national and international conversations on the care of the natural world."