Campus & Community

Dean has his day

5 min read

With only 365 of them per year and a goodly portion occupied with Christmas, Passover, Halloween, and the like, it’s not everyone who gets a day named after him.

Michael Shinagel, senior lecturer in English, Master of Quincy House, and Dean of Continuing Education and University Extension, is one of the happy few.

Yesterday, June 7, was Michael Shinagel Day in Cambridge. The proclamation was made on Tuesday, June 6, by Cambridge Mayor Anthony Galluccio. At a dinner at Quincy House celebrating Shinagel’s 25 years as Dean of Extension, Galluccio read a list of benefits conferred on the School’s host city by the guest of honor.

Galluccio noted the thousands of Cambridge residents who have taken courses at the School and the hundreds who have received degrees, the many Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students who have taken Extension School courses under the Community-Based Learning and Lowell Scholarship programs, the city employees who have taken management courses under the Leonard J. Russell Scholarship, and the hundreds of thousands of Extension and Summer School students from all over the nation and the world who have improved the quality of their lives while contributing to the Massachusetts economy.

“Be it therefore resolved,” Galluccio concluded, “that the City of Cambridge proclaim June 7, 2000, as Dean Michael Shinagel Day, and be it further resolved that the citizens of the City of Cambridge salute a great educator and devoted neighbor.”

The proclamation took Shinagel by surprise, although he had come prepared with a short speech titled “A Backward Glance: My 25 Years of Nocturnal Harvard.”

“The Harvard Extension School is very much a part of Harvard University,” he said. “But it is special because at night we take it over; we are nocturnal Harvard, and we represent to the multitudes beyond Harvard Yard a hallowed haven of teaching and learning.”

Shinagel’s association with the Extension School goes back even further than his 25-year tenure as dean. He first taught in the School as a Ph.D. student (he earned his degree in English in 1964, specializing in literature of the Restoration and 18th century). Teaching and administrative jobs at Cornell and Union College followed. He then returned to Harvard in 1975 to take over as Extension School dean.

Even before he arrived, the School had earned a reputation for innovation. In the early 1950s it was one of the first schools to offer college courses over the radio, and in the early 1960s it pioneered the creation of televised courses for sailors serving on nuclear submarines.

Shinagel has continued to push the School into new areas. He added many new degree programs, increasing the number of alumni from 600 when he took over to 6,000 today. Much of that expansion has been in the School’s graduate division, which now offers master’s degree programs in 21 different fields and certificate programs in six fields.

The School has also continued to be a pioneer in the application of new technology to education.

“We have 13 distance education courses now,” Shinagel said. “And this year we will grant our first MA degree in information technology.”

Shinagel admits that it is quite costly to put a course online right now, but the costs are bound to come down as the technology advances.

“It’s coming along,” he said. “Distance learning will be one of the major revolutionary trends of the 21st century.”

He sees this change as part of a general shift away from educational models that have their origin in the remote past.

“The tradition of the professor delivering a lecture dates from the Middle Ages. Why? Because the professor owned the book. What we will see now is a power shift with the student accessing material when he or she wants to, on the Internet.”

This on-demand educational technology will be important for adult learners who will increasingly need training to qualify for new careers. But Shinagel does not believe that distance learning will entirely replace traditional modes of education for those earning bachelor’s degrees because social interaction plays a more crucial role for undergraduates.

But as important as degree programs are to the Extension School, the majority of students still take courses for personal improvement. Many are older students who already have advanced degrees, and many are Harvard employees taking advantage of the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

Shinagel was on the committee that recommended TAP, and the program fits well with his ideas about the role of education for University employees. He expresses this relation using a metaphor from the manufacturing sector.

“If I were president of Ford and I looked out at the employee parking lot and saw a lot of Toyotas, I’d know that something was wrong. Harvard should be making its education available to its staff. If not, then it’s disconnected from its energy source.”

Being Dean of what is generally referred to as a night school has its own peculiar charms. “I sometimes think that as Batman is to Gotham City, I am to Harvard,” he joked. But he isn’t joking about his intention to write a history of the School for its centennial in 2009.

“I’d like to call it Harvard After Dark. With a lurid cover, it’s sure to be a bestseller.”

A quarter century as Extension School Dean has not slowed Shinagel down. If anything, he is doing more now than ever before. He estimates that running the School, serving as Master of Quincy House, and teaching courses in 18th century English literature add up to about two and a half jobs. In addition, he is editor of the Continuing Higher Education Review and co-publisher of the Harvard Review.

“It can be managed,” he said. “I remember what Confucious said: If you find work you truly enjoy, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.”