Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana is pictured on freshman move-in day with students on the steps of University Hall. “I think this year has been a time of active discussion about how we create a more inclusive Harvard community,” Khurana said.

File photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Dean Khurana’s freshman year

5 min read

College leader takes stock, reinforces import of diversity

Rakesh Khurana, the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School, professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and co-master of Cabot House, took the helm as dean of Harvard College last July. Khurana has been a member of the Harvard community for 16 years, earning his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1998. As Cabot House co-masters, Khurana and his wife, Stephanie, have lived at Cabot with their three children and 375 undergraduates since 2010.

Khurana is an award-winning teacher and widely recognized scholar. In a question-and-answer session, he spoke about his first year as dean: Taking stock of the College’s successes and challenges, contemplating its future, and letting loose with his iTunes playlist.

GAZETTE: As a scholar of management and leadership, how have you approached your role as dean?

KHURANA: I’ve tried not to have any preconceptions of what the right approach is. For me, it’s been about listening very carefully to my faculty colleagues, my student colleagues, and my staff to find the opportunities to ensure the mission of the College is accomplished in a way that is both consistent with our values and meaningful to the present day in the context of the changes that are happening in the landscape of higher education and the increased diversity of our student body and faculty. This first year has also been about ensuring that in all those areas — academic, social, and supporting students — that it’s done in a way that is consistent with the mission of the College to educate citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.

GAZETTE: From Harvard defeating Yale for its eighth straight Ivy League title to responding to record snowfall, Harvard College has experienced great success this year. What were your favorite moments with students?

KHURANA: Of course there are those big moments, but I found the small moments with students to be the most impactful. One that stands out: Early in the fall semester I stayed over in one of the freshman dorms and we had dinner together. It was such a beautiful night we ended up outside on the grass spending time talking about the things that are important — students’ experiences and perspectives and everyone’s dreams and hopes for their Harvard education.

GAZETTE: You have often said you are most proud of the collaborations the College has built with students. How does this collaboration help support the mission of the College?

KHURANA: Most of the significant challenges and opportunities we face in the world are not things that anybody faces alone. They require building a foundation of trust and understanding, while also finding common ground with others. It’s hard for me to separate students, faculty, and administration — and while I know different people play different roles, ultimately I believe we are all “Harvard.” How we work together and how we share our diverse perspectives has led to a deeper understanding of each other. This type of capacity-building has been central to creating a supportive and diverse living environment where students can safely embark on their journey of intellectual transformation.

GAZETTE: What changes can new and returning students expect when they arrive on campus this fall?

KHURANA: I think this year has been a time of active discussion about how we create a more inclusive Harvard community. Additionally, we have sought to strengthen ourselves as a learning community in which the intellectual experience is the foreground of the Harvard College student experience. I think we can expect those discussions to continue to evolve this fall, and we will see meaningful progress in strengthening important academic aspects of the College, including expository writing, freshman seminars, and the General Education program. Also, students will see a renewed focus from the College on ensuring the Houses and the residential Yard experience provides greater inclusive social alternatives for students to engage with each other.

GAZETTE: You’ve made diversity and inclusion a central part of your work this year as dean. Why does Harvard College place so much value on a diverse community of students?

KHURANA: Our diversity is our strength. To me, diversity of intellectual thought, which is deeply enriched by people who bring different cultural perspectives and lived experiences, is what is most valued here at Harvard College. We are educating our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders in one of the most diverse societies in the world, one that is becoming even more diverse, and the challenge for the American experiment — the challenge for the global experiment — is how we continue to thrive in that world, rather than retreat back into tribalism, conformity of values, and closed-minded thinking.

GAZETTE: Finally, perhaps most importantly for some of your students, what are the three most recently played songs on your iTunes playlist?

KHURANA: [Laughs.] “Wagon Wheel” by Darius Rucker, “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners, and “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.

GAZETTE: Any parting words as you close out your final weeks of your freshman year as dean?

KHURANA: I want to express my gratitude to the faculty, the students, and the staff of Harvard College for being so helpful and supportive in welcoming me to this community and to this role. I knew that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the College was special, but being part of it this year has made me realize the positive and important role the College plays not just in in higher education, but also … in creating an environment that cultivates respect for differences in points of view, and where all of us can learn from each other. We are all teachers and we are all learners.