Campus & Community

Q&A with Rakesh Khurana

5 min read

New College dean talks teaching, tending, tutoring, and tempering

Rakesh Khurana, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School (HBS) and co-master of Cabot House, will become dean of Harvard College on July 1. Khurana has been a member of the Harvard community for 16 years, earning his Ph.D. through a joint program between HBS and Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1998.

Since 2010, he and his wife, Stephanie, have lived as co-masters at Cabot with their three children and 375 undergraduates.

Khurana is an award-winning teacher and widely recognized scholar. In a question-and-answer session, he recently spoke about his appointment, the challenges facing the College and higher education in general, and the role of the College dean.

GAZETTE: When you were younger, thinking about a career path, did you ever imagine that one day you would be dean of Harvard College?

KHURANA: It was not something I had imagined. Like most faculty, my primary focus has been on research, teaching, and service to my department, profession, and the College as co-master of Cabot House.

The opportunity to serve as the dean of Harvard College is a great honor, and I am humbled by it. I am excited by the opportunity to work alongside Harvard’s faculty and staff to create a transformative educational experience for our students.

GAZETTE: What does it mean to you to be dean of Harvard College?

KHURANA: Words cannot capture what I feel in my heart. There is a profound sense of responsibility. But I think the feelings are similar to the ones that Harvard faculty, staff, and students experience every day. It means being a part of a meaningful institution. It means being part of a community devoted to the idea that a liberally educated mind and the pursuit of knowledge are ends in themselves. I believe the role of a dean is to closely listen to our faculty, students, and staff to help develop a collectively shared vision of our future, and then providing them the direction, resources, and support needed to make that vision a reality.

GAZETTE: What do you see as some of the challenges facing the College right now?

KHURANA: Harvard has played a unique role in the history of higher education by actively shaping its future in response to external challenges. I believe this means our community cannot be complacent or simply wait for things to happen. If our core values about the importance of liberal education and faculty self-governance are to endure, we must articulate them in ways that are resonant with present times and renewed by embracing the best methods for learning and advancing knowledge.

GAZETTE: You and your wife, Stephanie, have served as Cabot House masters for about four years. Do you feel being a House master can help prepare a person to be dean of the College, and if so, in what ways?

KHURANA: I believe that the perspective and the experience we bring by having the privilege of living with our undergraduate students and tutors at Cabot House gives me a window into our students’ day-to-day experiences and the questions they are trying to answer. As masters, we have a sense of the pressures students feel in making choices about concentrations, navigating Harvard’s social scene, negotiating parental expectations, and exploring who they are and who they are trying to become.

In addition, serving as co-master has helped me realize how important it is for students to see themselves as leaders who can shape our House community. When we asked students to find ways to create more vibrant social spaces or to bring arts into House life, our students responded with solutions that we could not have imagined. They created the Cabot Café, a late-night undergraduate coffee house, the Cabot House Theater Company that now organizes eight student productions a year, and the Third Space, an arts studio where students can explore their creative and artistic interests.

GAZETTE: Your research focuses on management and leadership. Do you believe elements of your research have helped prepare you for this role?

KHURANA: One of the things we teach is that effective institutions are never about one person; rather the most effective institutions are motivated by a collective vision and serve to advance society’s most cherished values. Institutions like Harvard exist and persist not because they are built around a cult of personality, but because they transcend a single individual. Institutions allow us to do something together that none of us could do alone.

We also teach that the most effective leaders look to their colleagues for advice, guidance, and honest input. I have had the benefit of working alongside and being mentored by many Harvard colleagues who have served or are serving in administrative leadership roles and whose wisdom, guidance, and feedback I plan to draw upon.

GAZETTE: Looking back, what would today’s Rakesh Khurana think about the past’s Rakesh Khurana, the undergraduate?

KHURANA: If I could go back to my younger self, and assuming that my younger self would listen, I would tell him not to be so anxious and not to treat every decision as if it was going to determine his destiny. I would tell him that serendipity plays a bigger role in what happens to you than what you plan. I would also tell him not be afraid to ask for help and give thanks to all the people who have nurtured him along the way.