More than 100 students from the Graduate School of Education (GSE) packed the Gutman Conference Center Monday (Nov. 5) to meet with President Lawrence H. Summers as part of the search for a new dean of the School. Calling the choice of a new GSE dean “one of the most important appointments that I will make early in my presidency,” Summers kept an open ear to student suggestions and concerns while making clear that not all of their criteria would – or should – influence his selection.
“This is a rather large advisory committee,” Summers quipped as students filled the conference center to standing room only. He listened to a variety of issues students hoped a new dean would address – from environmental and arts education to establishing a new gender studies center and creating faculty accountability – but Summers repeatedly refused to hold candidates to a “litmus test” on any specific education agenda. “I hope to find a candidate who has the broadness of vision and the expansiveness of spirit to carry the work of the school forward,” he said.
Asked to elaborate on the selection process and timeline, Summers expressed his gratitude to acting co-deans Judy Singer and John Willett for being “extraordinarily conscientious and extraordinarily capable.” He hopes to name a new dean by the spring, he said, putting the time frame in terms familiar to his audience – like student theses, administrative searches tend to take longer than expected.
The challenging balance GSE faces between training students as teachers and educators and training them as researchers is one that Summers acknowledged the new dean will need to address. “Both are important,” he said. Harvard’s prestige “can have a significant impact on the extent to which teaching and other educational activities are seen as a valued and honored profession.” At the same time, he said, Harvard’s relatively small contribution of teachers to America’s teaching force means that “the greatest possibility for leverage is the production of ideas and in research that leads to better teaching methods across the board.”
To several students who voiced concern about financial aid, particularly the burden of loans for those entering a low-paying field, Summers reiterated the commitment he made in his installation speech, to boost financial aid for Harvard’s professional schools. He also praised Singer and Willett for their success in making the case for increased financial aid funds for GSE students. Asked about diversity, Summers reaffirmed Harvard’s commitment: “It is essential that every source of excellence be tapped,” he said.
Harvard has a special relationship with its education school, Summers said. “Harvard does many things, but it’s not a medical institution, it’s not a legal institution. It is an educational institution.” He closed with a statement of personal appreciation for the work of the GSE and its students. “I have enormous admiration for people … who go into the field of education,” he said. “I don’t think there is more important work in our society than preparing children for the world of the future.”
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