Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s intellectual interests and pursuits are varied, connected, and run deep. So leading an institution devoted to interdisciplinary work and research seems the perfect fit for the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Brown-Nagin said her years growing up in South Carolina after the passage of the Civil Rights Act inspired her interest in law, and her exposure to “the life of the mind” in college drove her love of history. The joy in exploring both, she said, “explains why I am here.” A historian, lawyer, and authority on constitutional law, she is the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and a history professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Brown-Nagin, who was a Radcliffe fellow in 2016‒2017, recently spoke with the Gazette about her vision for the institute and the concept of Radcliffe Engaged, her new strategic initiative to connect with Harvard and the community beyond Harvard’s gates.
GAZETTE: You’ve been on a listening tour during your first year as Radcliffe dean. What have you learned?
Brown-nagin: I would say a couple of things came across most prominently. One is the depth of the passion for the idea of interdisciplinary research. It’s not always intuitive why that’s valuable, particularly for those who are not on campus. And yet, the goal of bringing together scholars from across the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, the sciences to create an interdisciplinary community is a mission that many people understood to be a unique contribution in the Harvard landscape. I heard repeatedly how critical Radcliffe’s mission is, and that it’s indispensable at Harvard. Another point that came across clearly from my interactions, with some of our past fellows in particular, is the transformative impact that Radcliffe has on academic careers. In part that’s because of the protected time we offer scholars to conduct research. The impact also is due to the level of exposure Harvard offers that virtually no other university can; fellows are able to make connections with important scholars here on campus and build community within their fellowship class. I enjoyed that unparalleled experience during my own fellowship in 2016-17. I found it was just a marvelous time to get away from my normal duties at the law school and FAS (which I enjoy) and have the opportunity to slow down and meet even scholars here on Harvard’s campus whom I knew about but hadn’t really had the time to interact with.
GAZETTE: Can you outline your new strategic plan, Radcliffe Engaged?
Brown-nagin: In anticipation of Radcliffe’s 20th anniversary next year and as the institute’s fourth dean, I thought it was a great moment to assess where we have been, to reflect on what we’ve built over time, and to think about how we could grow to be even better. I came into the strategic plan understanding that the prior deans have built an incredibly strong foundation and that each had moved the institute onto a new plane. Drew Faust played a pivotal role as founding dean. Barbara Grosz expanded the sciences and public programming. Liz Cohen put the institute on the map as a center for arts. Through the strategic planning process, I wanted to learn where there were growing edges at the institute, even as I understood that it’s a fabulous place for all the reasons I’ve articulated. I also thought that the process of engaging in a strategic plan would be a way to build community internally.
GAZETTE: Can you talk about particular areas that Radcliffe Engaged will focus on moving forward?
Brown-nagin: The plan lists six strategic goals, and I will emphasize just two of them here. The first point I want to make, however, is about Radcliffe’s enduring identity. The institute is a laboratory of ideas that brings together scholars, artists, writers, and professionals from many fields to create a diverse community to pursue projects on the leading edges of disciplines. One of our strategic goals is to ensure that the community of Radcliffe researchers includes scholars who are interested in responding to pressing issues of the day — to concerns about the nature and health of our democracy, the rule of law, inequality, the environment, access to education, among other issues. We want to model how institutions of higher education can grapple with and inform discussions of such pressing issues and contribute to the world outside the campus gates. One way to achieve that goal is to promote engaged scholarship, ideas that seek to be impactful in terms of policy or law, for example. Engaged scholarship is consistent, I think, with some of the goals [Harvard] President [Larry] Bacow has discussed related to making sure Harvard is seen not just as serving the people on campus, but also as offering something to the broader community. I would also emphasize a second strategic goal of expanding our engagement with students. In the coming years we need to ensure that Harvard students appreciate the unique contributions that Radcliffe can make and already is making to their educational experiences.