In her first year as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), Emma Dench focused on trying to give all 4,400 of her charges a deeper sense of connection to the School; managing the transition of Dudley House to the newly formed GSAS Student Center; and communicating with alumni here and abroad. She has also been rethinking ways to promote effective advising, something she sees as “central to the successful completion of a graduate student’s education.” Dench said she enjoys spending time with students and so keeps regular office hours and hosts a British-themed tea each semester. The McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History and of the Classics continues to engage in her own scholarship and views that as key in helping her relate to everything GSAS students go through. The Gazette recently spoke with Dench about her vision for what she considers “the beating intellectual heart of the University.”
GAZETTE: What has your first year has been like? Biggest surprises, challenges?
DENCH: This past year I have been getting ready to launch initiatives and grappling with what I consider the biggest challenge, which is the enormity of GSAS. It’s a School, but it’s also a platform. We really are One Harvard, as we oversee 59 master’s and Ph.D. programs based in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and at nearly every School at the University. We’ve got more than 4,400 students, many of whom are Ph.D. students imbedded in and working with faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education or Harvard Kennedy School or across the river in the Longwood campus at Harvard Medical School or the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. While we bring Ph.D. students together, we also deal with the extreme atomization that comes from being located in the different Schools. Our challenge is in reaching out to students to let them know we are there for them and to reinforce the idea that they are both connected to whatever School they reside in and are part of the broader GSAS identity.
GAZETTE: Are there particular areas or themes you have been focusing on?
DENCH: I have focused on three areas this past year. First, I have been addressing that atomization, helping students establish a connection with GSAS, and also with me, by developing programs that make me more accessible. The students all know, in theory at least, to call me Emma, and I started holding office hours, which have been very popular. Students are encouraged to come with a question, an issue, or just to say hello. Some bring a complicated issue, a paper, or even a PowerPoint, and that’s absolutely fine. The most frequent comments I hear are “I’ve never been in this building before” and “I’ve never spoken to a dean.” Meeting with and getting to know our students has been absolutely delightful.
We also host a tea once a term, like the office hours, which have no agenda. They are British-themed and beautifully hosted by the GSAS Student Center in Lehman Hall. The conversations I have had with students have been amazing. These are very relaxed occasions, and a really nice opportunity to catch up and make connections. Sometimes we sit on the floor, or take selfies. It’s been really, really fun.
I’ve also focused on managing the transition from Dudley House to the GSAS Student Center. We used to share Dudley House with the College, but last year Dudley split to form the Dudley Community for undergraduates and the GSAS Student Center for GSAS students. This has been a wonderful opportunity to take a fresh look at the specific needs of graduate students, this atomized body that really is crying out for a center. We are in the process of appointing an executive director and thinking afresh about the programming and building use. We’ve had impactful conversations with the student leaders who have been involved in the process and the interviews for the executive director.
Finally, we’ve done an incredible amount of alumni outreach. I visited 12 cities this academic year, mostly in North America, but I also traveled to Athens, Rome, London, and Zurich. I wanted to hear from our alumni about their experiences as GSAS students and share what we are accomplishing at GSAS. We also discussed how we could engage them and connect them with current students. For example, we held a Flash Mentoring Week in collaboration with the Office of Career Services, where alumni who wanted to mentor current students could link up. The idea of expanding that is very exciting.