Campus & Community

Q&A with Dean Michael Shinagel

6 min read

The following is an interview with Harvard Extension School Dean Michael Shinagel.

Q. Harvard University Extension School played a pioneering role in continuing higher education 100 years ago. In what ways will it be a pioneer in this century?

A. The Harvard Extension School will strive to be a leader, not just in continuing education, but in higher education, with new courses and degrees in emerging fields, such as biotechnology, environmental management, and information technology.

Just as we were pioneers in formatting Harvard courses for radio and television back in the 1940s and ’50s, today we are pioneers in delivering distance-education courses through the unique streaming video format that gives students a classroomlike experience, and in some case allows students from all over the world to participate in real time with other students taking the course.

Q. There have been only 13,000 graduates of the Extension School, yet its programs have educated more than 500,000 people. What are the roles of after-hours education – beyond granting degrees?

A. The Extension School provides courses that serve many purposes for many different types of people. With most of our students possessing at least a bachelor’s degree, they take courses for personal interest, to tune up or switch careers, or to explore new interests. Several thousand Harvard University staff members enroll each year, using the University’s tuition Assistance Plan, for myriad reasons.

Q. The Extension School has among its attendees and graduates some famous people. Who are they (or who have they been), and what do their success stories illustrate?

A. One of our most famous graduates is President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, who received a certificate of special studies in administration and management in 1993. Joseph Paolino, mayor of Providence, earned an A.L.M. in government in 1989. But we are equally proud of Mary Fasano, who received her A.L.B. in the 90th year of her age and then joined the HILR [Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement], or Thomas Small, who received his A.L.M. also in the 90th year. Both degree recipients hold the record for the oldest earned degree in Harvard history.

We have had many other successful individuals who have passed through our doors, many on their way to greatness, and others who had already reached some level of success before they found us. Our graduates have gone on to the finest advanced-degree programs in the world, including Harvard’s, have started successful businesses, published books, produced and directed films, and are experts in their fields.

Q. Why do full-time (and often famous) Harvard faculty teach in the Extension School?

A. Since its inception in 1910, the Harvard Extension School has attracted distinguished senior Harvard faculty to teach adult students in the evening. The annals of Harvard faculty who have taught in Extension reads like a “Who’s Who.”

We have Harvard faculty who will often teach the same course that they do to day students, and others whose day courses are videotaped for the Extension School audience. For those who teach in person, they often remark about how enjoyable it is to teach such a motivated and educated group of students who want to be there. They will experiment with teaching techniques and course material before bringing it to their day course.

Professor Harry Lewis [Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science], “I enjoy interacting with an older student body that typically has a more extensive life experience . . . I find Extension students bring more broad perspectives to the class.”

For those who participate in distance learning, an online course gives the faculty member the chance to share their content with a broader and more diverse audience.

Q. As you point out in the introduction to your book “The Gates Unbarred,” Harvard Extension School has been virtually ignored by chroniclers of Harvard history. Why?

A. As I suggest in my history, the Harvard Extension School was the beneficiary of neither benign neglect nor malign neglect; we were a nontraditional adult evening program that was easily overlooked by the daytime Harvard faculty, students, and staff.

Q. Do you have a favorite story about James Hardy Ropes?

A. In choosing James Hardy Ropes, Hollis Professor of Divinity, as the first dean of University Extension, President Lowell wisely selected anoutstanding member of the Harvard faculty to champion the new evening academic program.  On June 10, 1910, Ropes wrote in the Harvard Graduates’ Magazine on “The Possibilities of University Extension in Boston,” saying, “Many persons who wish they had a college education will be able to get gradually an effective substitute for it – in some respects more effective than the ordinary college education because of the greater eagerness and maturity of such students.” Ropes’ prophecy has been borne out in the succeeding century of the Harvard Extension School.

It is also noteworthy that Ropes was related to President Lowell by marriage, as his wife was a Lowell.

Q. Reflect a little on distance education and “night school” in the digital age. How has it changed Extension?

A. Distance education allows us to fulfill our mission on an even grander scale by sharing the resources of Harvard with a broader community, both nationally and internationally.

It meets the demands of the nontraditional student (typically an adult, working full time, juggling demands of work and family, etc.).

In the United States, the number of nontraditional students is now greater than the number of traditional students. This challenges faculty to embrace new teaching techniques, engage students who attend remotely, and design courses that attract an international audience.

Q. If John Lowell Jr. climbed into a time machine and came back to the Yard in time for after-hours classes, what would he say?

A. John Lowell Jr. would doubtless be gratified to see that the Lowell Institute continues to serve the Greater Boston community, as he envisioned in his will, but he would be astounded by what President Lowell created by establishing University Extension at Harvard, a premier evening academic program that provided collegiate and graduate instruction to half a million women and men.

— Corydon Ireland