Campus & Community

Turning a chipper 100

5 min read

Convocation launches Harvard Extension School centennial

Late last week (Sept. 25), the Harvard University Extension School launched what will be a yearlong celebration of its centenary. Hundreds streamed into the Northwest Science Building for a gala convocation, took in a speedy hour of heartfelt speeches, and afterwards milled pleasantly around with old and new friends.

The event started and ended with a prayer. And why not? The Extension School — which turns 100 on Feb. 23 — has much to be thankful for in its past: visionaries who unbarred Harvard’s gates to men and women of little means and fervent desires to learn.

And it has much to be thankful for in its present state of inclusive expansion. In 1910, the Extension School — an outgrowth of a community lecture program sponsored since 1840 by the Lowell Institute — had 863 students. Today there are 14,000, including online registrants from 122 countries. Faculty come from nine of Harvard’s 12 Schools.

“Bless the Harvard Extension School, all who teach and learn,” said the Rev. Dorothy Austin, opening the official ceremonies, where guests included Álvaro Uribe, the two-term president of Colombia and a 1993 Extension School graduate. Austin praised an unsung seat of Harvard learning, “where many are given a second chance for a first-rate education.”

Austin is the Sedgwick Associate Minister in the Memorial Church and chaplain to the University. Matching her prayer at the close was one by the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

But before closing his eyes to intone the final words, Gomes told a story or two. He started his long the Extension School teaching career with a course in the history of Christian thought, and his students “were always prepared for more work,” he said. “They wore me out.”

Gomes later dared, he said, to teach a course at night on Harvard history. In his first class was a token taker from the Central Square subway station. He was built like a prizefighter and immediately confronted Gomes. “I’ve always hated Harvard,” the token taker said, “and I’m taking your course to find out why.” (The two became friends.)

Extension students are “intellectually stimulating, provocative, and alive,” said Gomes. “They made teaching fun. This is what I thought it was all about. And here they were.”

Harvard anthropologist William L. Fash Jr. — who has taught at the Extension School for 15 years — earlier made the same point. “Each and every one in that classroom wants to be there,” said Fash, the Charles P. Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology. “Our students dig deep.”

He called the Extension School “the most laudable thing this University does.”

In her own brief remarks, Harvard President Drew Faust put the Extension School into a historical context — as an early and visionary example of how universities serve the public and democratize the idea of higher education.

“We’re celebrating here not just a milestone of longevity,” she said, “but the importance of principles that led to the Extension School’s creation and that are still so central — not just to the School, but to the University as a whole.”

Michael Shinagel, dean of the Extension School since 1975, gamely took five minutes to summarize a book that took 30 years to research and write — this year’s “The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard.”

He built a timeline, starting with that moment on the banks of the Nile river in 1835, when merchant and world traveler John Lowell Jr. wrote out his final will, envisioning an expansion of public lectures then offered by the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

The Lowell Institute began funding lectures in 1840 — and by 1900 had sponsored 4,400. From this platform came the Harvard Extension School, which through the years pioneered public learning through radio and television and finally online classes that threw Harvard’s gates open even wider. “Now the lectern is electronic,” said Shinagel.

Uribe, who arrived at the Extension School with a law degree from his native Colombia, recalled struggling to get a passing grade in a course on introduction to computers, a class that compelled him that year to spend Holy Week studying the binary numeral system.

The Extension School was “a great opportunity,” he said — flexible and rigorous, and a model for universities everywhere to share knowledge with the world at large.

“You are setting a good example,” said Uribe of Harvard, where he earned a certificate of special studies in administration and management. “Today, we need to be lifetime students.”

Two former degree students took the stage: Harvard Faculty Club administrator M. Sandra Klemm, A.L.B. ’00, and an A.L.M. candidate in government, and Latanya Sweeney, A.L.B. ’95, who went on for a Ph.D. in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is now a tenure-track professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Klemm called her June 8, 2000, graduation in Harvard Yard “a life-altering moment” that now brings to mind the diverse, gifted, and tough-minded fellow students who “enriched my life beyond my wildest experience.”

Decades ago, Sweeney had dropped out of MIT as an undergraduate to pursue her own programming business. “I could feel the revolution around me,” she said — but after some years she started at the Extension School to finish what she had begun. “There were easier routes,” said Sweeney of her untraditional bachelor’s degree. “But none were best for me.”

Like Klemm, she recalled her own vivid set of Extension School friends: the widow, the former star student, the future lawyer, and the medical doctor. One friend graduated at 78, said Sweeney, and another set out on his eight-year journey to a degree, night by night, “with the patience of a bricklayer.”

“There are many stories within the walls of the Extension School,” she said. “All amazing.”