Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Current Issue

Summer 2013

A Kathy Story

As our outgoing dean gets ready for a big move across the state, a look at using power for good, the nexus, and why everyone calls her by her first name.

Kathy McCartneyWhen Dean Kathleen McCartney leaves in June to take over as president of Smith College, she'll take many things. A Diego Rivera fresco print given to her by Professor Fernando Reimers. A picture with the Dalai Lama, taken during his "Educating the Heart" visit to Harvard in 2009. A pink ceramic heart made by her two daughters when they were little that says, "I heart you." There will, no doubt, be a beige Ed School baseball hat (or two) and a couple of takeout pizzas from the Commons to eat on the 90-minute drive west to Northampton. And, after 13 years at the Ed School, eight as dean, there will be lots of memories.

There are also many, many things that McCartney leaves behind. Asked to name a few, several people in the Ed School community talked about the academics — notably, the fact that she pushed through not just one but two new doctoral degree programs, and that she moved faculty and students to think about how their work will not only be admired by other academics, but will actually have an impact on real kids, real teachers, and real schools.

But without fail, every person interviewed for this story also talked about the personal, using words like approachable, empathetic, wonderful, friend, and family to describe a woman whom they have worked for, learned from, and strategized with. And without fail, every person had a "Kathy story" to tell. A time when she went above and beyond during a personal crisis, or when she made a phone call when a form letter would have been acceptable. When she stopped to chat about Mad Men or the Red Sox or ask about a new baby.

Staff in Kathy tshirtsOn Kathy's first day as dean, staff surprised her with McCartney t-shirts

Daphne Layton, Ed.M.'89, Ed.D.'92, saw this dovetailing of the personal and professional repeatedly over the years working with McCartney. Layton, the senior associate dean for academic affairs, says that when McCartney and a small team started brainstorming the grand ideas that would become the Ed.L.D. Program and the new Ph.D. Program, McCartney brought clear direction to the table and a real strategy for moving in those directions — actions you might expect (although not always get) from a dean. But she says McCartney brought other things that made these nearly Herculean tasks possible.

"She's intensely loyal and she valued our input," Layton says of the process. As a result, "there's an enduring commitment among the members of her team and many members of the faculty."

Included is Professor Bob Schwartz, C.A.S.'68, who was there at the genesis of the Ed.L.D. idea.

"A day or so after Kathy was appointed dean, I got a call from her assistant, who said Kathy wanted to meet," Schwartz says. "I was pretty sure she was going to say, would I chair a committee to lead the development of the [Ed.L.D.] program? I went to her office, sat down, and she said, 'I'd like you to be my academic dean.'" Surprised, Schwartz reminded her that he wasn't an academic. McCartney said she could handle that but needed someone from her office with his skills (and his Rolodex) to lead the project. He told her there had to be other people and mentioned one name in particular.

Schwartz says she looked at him and said, "I already tried that person and got a 'no.' It was classic Kathy transparency! The rest is history."

Schwartz accepted the offer and served as academic dean for five years while helping to get the fledgling Ed.L.D. off the ground. He says during that planning time, there were bumps in the road, especially when it came to getting buy-in from some faculty and raising huge amounts of money, but McCartney never backed off.

"There were lots of points when someone who was fainter of heart would have," he says. "But we are both glass-half-full people. We sailed around and didn't take no for an answer. I think [Harvard President] Drew [Faust] would say she was surprised at Kathy's persistence, too."

Schwartz says he has no doubt that at times McCartney had reservations about some of the things he was doing as academic dean.

Kathy with Dalai LamaMeeting the Dalai Lama in 2009

"But I never felt like I was ever in danger of being undercut," he says. "She was incredibly supportive. I never felt anything less than fully empowered. Once she rolled the dice, she stuck with it."

And she has stuck with her students, too, especially during troubled times when they needed more than just an advisor or an academic leader. In 2011, a little more than a year after starting the Ed.L.D. Program, Karen Maldonado, Ed.L.D.'13, found out she had stage 4 lymphoma. Despite the intensity of the program, she decided not to drop out — and McCartney fully supported her.

"She was there making sure I had all the resources I needed," Maldonado says, "but she still held me accountable." She also sent Maldonado a book, When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. "She left a note in the book that said this is a piece of literature she goes back to when there are challenges in her life. This is a woman who, I imagine, has major responsibilities as dean, yet she took the time to send me this, and it was heartfelt. I never thought I'd have that — a fearless leader who was an empathetic leader, as well."

More than anything, the message this sent to Maldonado was that McCartney epitomized community — a sentiment echoed by many.

"Her actions say, 'We're all together and we're really no different from one another,'" Maldonado says. "This theme of community that she continues to exemplify, that really resonates."

It also resonates with another student, Nancy Gutierrez, Ed.L.D.'13. She says she has felt this sense of community at the Ed School, fostered by McCartney, many times during her three years here, starting when she and the other

inaugural group of Ed.L.D. students arrived in 2010. McCartney started asking them for detailed feedback: How was the program working? What could the administration do differently? Better? She made it clear that the students' feedback was important. A year later, when Gutierrez became cochair of the annual Alumni of Color Conference, McCartney again asked questions and offered support and feedback.

Kathy at GutmanAt the opening of the new cafe

"My team and I were encouraged when we left Dean McCartney's office after our first meeting," she says. "She listened. She challenged our thinking, and then she said, 'Dream big. Create a plan. And I will do everything in my power to help you realize it. We're in this together.'"

That kind of personal connection, that sense that the Ed School is an "us," not just a "me" and a "you," is what McCartney's executive assistant, Beth Berg, found with her. During her 12 years at the school, she has worked under four deans, and says she instantly connected with McCartney.

"We're both from Medford, [Mass.,] both from similar families." she says. "I loved the other deans that I worked with, but right away, I felt such a friendship with Kathy. She's going to leave a handprint on everyone's hearts here. She's leaving friends. Everyone feels they can talk to her."

Layton says that's because McCartney is "real."

"What you see is what you get," she says, which extends to how she's addressed, insisting that everyone call her Kathy.

Erin O'Connor, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'05, now an assistant professor of early childhood education at New York University, saw McCartney as family, not just her adviser.

"Kathy has been like a mother to me," she says. "She came to visit me only days after [I had] my daughter and knit her a blanket that is a treasured keepsake of our family. My daughter carried it around with her for years." She also took both O'Connor and her

roommate in when, as students, their apartment burned down.

And the help didn't stop when O'Connor graduated. McCartney continues to help her as she advances in her own teaching career.

"Kathy is always a phone call away," O'Connor says. "For example, when I got difficult revision comments on an article after I graduated and started teaching, she spent two hours on the phone one night with me helping me respond to the critiques and reworking my paper. She wasn't even an author on it."

Kathy at HalloweenKathy reading to children at the school's annual Halloween party

Yet despite the emphasis on the personal and the familiar — the soft powers — Berg says it never lessened their respect for their boss.

"If we didn't truly respect Kathy the way we do, we'd never work as hard as we do," she says. "The long hours, the early mornings. We're a team."

McCartney is "no pushover," emphasizes Layton. "We always joke that she uses her powers for good."

This includes funding major renovations to the school's campus, most notably, turning the first floor of Gutman Library into a desperately needed cafe and student center hub that has truly brought the whole school together, and making sure that every classroom renovated during the past few years was done using green, sustainable materials.

McCartney also made it a priority to forge strong ties with the rest of Harvard in ways the school hadn't before. This included deep partnerships with the Kennedy School and the Business School for the Ed.L.D. and various PPE programs, as well as the new Ph.D. partnership with Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Larry Bacow, the former president of Tufts who recruited McCartney (a Tufts graduate) to serve on Tufts' board of directors, says these partnerships are more than symbolic. For students, they provide exposure to areas outside of education that are critical to understand — areas like policy, business, and law. These partnerships also helped the Ed School become a major player at Harvard.

"Kathy has worked collaboratively with other deans to identify resources that support the school's mission," he says. "In the process, HGSE has become an important player in Drew's One Harvard vision."

Kathy with childrenWith children in Israel

Says Faust, "Kathy McCartney has strengthened the Ed School in every possible dimension: The faculty and student body is energized; the academic vision is clear; the school is better integrated within the wider university community. The school is exceedingly well positioned for the future, thanks to her leadership."

Another area where McCartney has used her powers for good is financial aid: All Ed.L.D. and Ed.D. students receive guaranteed fellowships (three years for Ed.L.D., five years for Ed.D.) while aid for master's students has increased from $2.5 million per year to $6.2 million over the past eight years.

For Sky Marietta, Ed.M.'08, Ed.D.'12, the increase in financial aid spoke volumes about McCartney's commitment to good research. When she was accepted into the Ed.D. Program in 2005, the year McCartney was promoted from acting dean to full dean, funding was only for one year. McCartney changed that to three, later adding an option for two additional years if a student submitted a dissertation proposal by the end of the fourth year. In the fall of 2009, by the time

Marietta's husband, Geoff, started the program, he, along with everyone in his cohort, received five years of funding.

"Within the span of four years, the funding went from one year to a full five years," Marietta says. "That is an extraordinary change in support within a very short time period. Combined, Geoff and I have received nine years of funding and counting. I think the increase has gone a long way to creating a doctoral program where students can focus on their research, rather than on meeting financial obligations. This shows Kathy's

commitment to students and her hard work to recruit the most talented future researchers and support them in accomplishing their career goals."

Another important commitment that McCartney made after she became dean was to urban education, in part with the faculty she recruited, and in particular with the creation of the Urban Scholars Fellowship. The program provides full tuition in one of the school's 13 master's programs for about 14 educators each

year who are working in urban school systems. It's a "reward to people who have worked in urban public schools," McCartney said in 2006, after the first group of scholars arrived.

At Bruins celebrationCelebrating the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup win in 2011 with staff

Matt Welch, Ed.M.'07, a teacher in Boston and Chicago going back to 2002, was one of them. His wife was already a student at the Ed School when he applied, and he assumed getting in — and finding a way to fund a second tuition bill — was impossible.

And then there was a voice mail message from McCartney. Not her assistant, but from McCartney. And a phone number.

"I went home and told my wife, and she looked at me as if the president of the United States had called," Welch says. "I said it must be to say I got in, but she said they do that by email. So the next day, I called back and was put right through to the dean. She said, 'Are you sitting down?' I was at school, in an empty classroom, luckily. She told me not only did they want me to come, but come for free. I just about fell over."

That fellowship, he says, changed the whole trajectory of his career, which included a Ph.D. in education and today, a job with a nonprofit called City Connection, based at Boston College, which partners students in Boston with existing city services.

"The dean calls you and tells you that you're a teacher, an urban teacher, and we think that's important enough that we're going to make a significant investment in you; that's a really meaningful thing," Welch says. "Especially for someone working in a profession that doesn't really get respect. It's something I haven't forgotten."

McCartney's advice was also career-changing for current master's student Mary Tamer. Tamer had spent her entire career as a writer and had interviewed McCartney several times for Ed. magazine. During one of those interviews, during a time when she was thinking about going back to school and focusing on her passion, urban education, she asked McCartney if she thought she should apply to one of the master's programs at the Ed School. Without hesitating, McCartney said yes and told her the Education Policy and Management Program made the most sense. Tamer later looked at the program description and realized McCartney was spot on.

"What is so telling about this moment is that Kathy seemed to know exactly what direction I should pursue, and she was absolutely right," says Tamer, who later went on to become an elected member of the Boston School Committee. "When the time did come to apply in 2010, I asked for a letter of recommendation from Kathy, which she kindly provided for me. I will always be grateful for her insight, which was certainly better than my own." Now, having spent the last year at the school as a student, Tamer says she has really seen McCartney's commitment to urban education and "all that she's done to provide Boston's schools with critical research and human talent. She will be sorely missed."

It's this understanding that real students, teachers, and schools matter that has shifted — in a quiet, but significant way — the Ed School's vision during McCartney's time here. As Professor Howard Gardner says, that vision "helped all of us understand the unique role of a graduate school of education, situated at the nexus of practice, policy, and research." He adds that in her own work as a developmental psychologist, with a focus on early childhood development, and with the promotion of certain programs or the hiring of certain faculty, "Kathy has modeled for the school, for the university, and many educators, how to apply this triple perspective across the educational landscape."

The result is that "Kathy leaves behind a much more vibrant and energized HGSE than she inherited," says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, a former professor at the Ed School and the current dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. "Her immense talents, derived, inter alia, from being a scholar of child development, led the faculty into greater coherence and sense of purpose. The whole now is greater than the sum of its parts. That, I think, will be seen as her greatest achievement when the history of the school gets written a hundred years from now."

And she did it all, Gardner adds, without turmoil.

"With some leaders of accomplishments, there is blood on the ground, or at least several broken eggs," he says. "But in Kathy's case, she has secured these and other achievements while gaining the good will and respect of individuals across the campus and, indeed, in educational circles far and wide."

And then, in true academic style, Gardner offers an "interesting bit of data" to illustrate his point.

"For the first few years of Kathy's presidency, people from other parts of the Harvard campus would say to me, 'How is your new dean doing?' But in the last few years, the same people have said to me, 'I hear that you have a very good dean.' And they are right!"

So what does McCartney leave behind? All of this — the academic achievements, the personal connections, the "Kathy stories" remembered. The eggs unbroken. That is her legacy.