Five Harvard deans came together for a panel on why education matters. From left to right: Bridget Terry Long, Nitin Nohria, Claudine Gay, Douglas Elmendorf, Michelle Williams.
Photo: Jill Anderson
A crisp January afternoon in Cambridge was punctuated by an excited gathering of students, faculty, and community members on Appian Way to kick off HGSE’s Centennial year. After greeting friends and colleagues, unbundling from coats, and flipping through a special centennial edition of Ed., Askwith Hall buzzed with anticipation.
The lights dimmed and the packed auditorium was treated to a heartwarming video that included a montage of old photos of the campus, current professors in early days of their careers, special visitors like Arne Duncan, Sandra Boynton, and even Lady Gaga and Oprah Winfrey, as well as students hard at work in class and in the field.
Amid the ensuing excitement, Dean Bridget Terry Long took to the stage to extend a warm welcome to the attendees, reflect on the school’s past, explore current challenges and opportunities in education, and celebrate HGSE’s legacy and commitment to learning to change the world.
“While there is so much for us to be proud of at HGSE, our work is most certainly not done. We know the stakes are incredibly high and the focus on improving education could not be more important,” Long said. “I believe this is also a time of hope and possibility, and I believe that together, we are poised to bring about important change in education. Right here at HGSE, there have been advances in learning science and design and the discovery of promising interventions and approaches that match the strengths and needs of all learners.”
Dean Bridget Long greets Harvard President Lawrence Bacow at HGSE's Centennial kickoff
Closing out her speech with optimism and a reminder of the HGSE community’s dedication to making “the meaningful change so desperately needed by the world,” Long introduced Harvard President Lawrence Bacow. He, too, is a member of the HGSE community, having served as an advocate for higher education and the President in Residence with the Higher Education Program from 2011 to 2014.
Bacow echoed Dean Long’s praise for the work and mission of HGSE and reminisced fondly about his time spent in his old office on the fourth floor of Gutman Library. “This is a special place to so many people in this room because it has touched so many lives,” he said. He also spoke about the way in which HGSE allowed him to reflect on his own practice as an educator and university president.
“You are blessed with the only two things that matter in a great university, and here at the GSE you have them in abundance: great students and great faculty. This place gives them the opportunity to come together in so many rich ways — to learn from each other … but also do scholarship which will enable and enhance the learning process at every level of society, in every nation and across the country,” Bacow said.
Following Bacow’s remarks, Long introduced a panel discussion featuring four deans from around Harvard: Douglas Elmendorf of the Kennedy School, Claudine Gay of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School, and Michelle Williams of T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Though the deans all came from different schools, Long observed that partnerships across sectors were crucial to ensuring the success and impact of education.
“Education matters in its own right,” Long remarked. “But we don’t often think about how public health, government, business, and the humanities intersect with, and in many ways, rely on, education to make progress. These sectors are critical to the success of our world, and education, in turn, is critical to them. And it is often in partnership — drawing connections between education and other fields — that we identify new insights and ways of address the most important challenges we face.”
Though their backgrounds and areas of professional expertise differ, all panelists reaffirmed the value of education in guiding the work done in different fields. Nohria spoke about the way students at HBS are educated to be both competent leaders and ethical decision-makers, as well as the role of innovation in education. Gay addressed the way in which educational attainment influences civic participation and the role research plays in influencing education initiatives. Elmendorf highlighted the ways in which policymakers and public leaders are natural partners for educators. Williams also noted the partnerships between health and academic outcomes and the importance of tackling real-world problems collaboratively.
The deans agreed that education provides the critical foundation to shape the next generation and foster responsible leadership. "I keep thinking of the mission of our school as to educate leaders to make a difference in the world. I think you have to ask: What is it that makes someone a leader?" Nohria said. "They must have the competence to make wise, thoughtful decisions that other people will trust. But they must also have the character to comport themselves in ways that those decisions are seen to be for the betterment of others, rather than themselves."
The four also agreed that the field of education is a nexus at which their discrete fields come together. "Education is so clearly one of the red threads that links every school at Harvard and draws students and faculty from across all the campuses together," Gay said.
Later in the afternoon, the crowd disseminated across campus to attend breakout sessions with HGSE faculty on topics including global partnerships, policy, innovation and entrepreneurship, leadership, data, and teaching practice. The sessions foregrounded the experience, expertise, and impact of HGSE's research and practice leaders — in substantive conversations that celebrated accomplishments but looked unflinchingly at the work that still needs to be done at all levels of the education sector.
At the closing reception at Gutman Conference Center, Long highlighted the Centennial events still to come, including The Future of Education convenings, the inspirational 100 Stories of Impact, the Voices of Appian Way social media campaign, and the awarding of the Medal for Education Impact, to be selected for the first time through nominations of HGSE community members. She also announced that HGSE will host Homecoming on October 2, a community-wide centennial celebration for students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
Students in attendance expressed excitement at the chance to celebrate HGSE’s 100th year — and were looking forward to events to come. “My favorite part about today was just being able to hear a little bit about why this space is so special, how this space has become so special over time, and to hear about the initiatives in the future. It makes me feel like I’m part of this journey,” master's student Willord Simmons said.