Thursday, September 24, 2009

Review: The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009

It took 100 years, but someone has finally written a book about the Harvard Extension School. The author of The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910 - 2009The Gates Unbarred, is none other than Dean Michael Shinagel, who has led Harvard's Division of Continuing Education since 1975. It's a very informative book that will mainly be of interest to people who want to better understand the development of the Extension School in the context of Harvard's own history. However, prospective students or people currently in the Extension School's degree programs will find little practical information concerning their studies or specific HES programs (if you are interested in how to overcome the various challenges related to earning an Extension School degree, I suggest reading my own blog about Harvard Extension, or visiting the discussion forum).

My review of the book is contained in the blog post below and in a separate post that covers Shinagel's descriptions of distance education at the Extension School. I would like to note at the outset that while I have many criticisms of the book and the Shinagel's views on distance education, I have also gained newfound respect for the Extension School and its expansion under the dean. Some of the programs he was directly responsible for establishing -- including the ALM/liberal arts degree and Harvard's Tuition Assistance Plan -- directly benefited thousands of students, including myself. I am extremely grateful for his efforts, and think the Extension School is a wonderful institution, but at the same time feel compelled to give an honest appraisal of the areas that I think deserve criticism or need improvement.

I'll start with the author's approach and biases. While Shinagel is extremely knowledgeable about the history of the Extension School (particularly the decades-long period he has served as dean) his insider status made it difficult for him to directly criticize the institution he inherited and helped grow. The chapters covering the last 15 years often read like marketing copy, describing in soaring tones the creation of various programs and how well they complement its community mission.

Some of his accomplishments certainly do deserve praise. For instance, the biotechnology ALM not only serves the University's expanded science focus, but was also developed with input from Boston's huge biotechnology industry. But to portray the ALM in Journalism program -- launched in 2005 for students "interested in pursuing careers in print journalism" -- as a sensible area of expansion for the Extension School seems questionable, considering the abundance of graduate journalism options in the Boston area (including the established programs operated by Boston University and Emerson), the Internet-driven death throes of the newspaper and magazine businesses, and the longstanding glut of journalism graduates. The Extension School's expansion into Internet-based distance education is also treated with kid gloves, despite low-key references to various challenges relating to the recruitment of Harvard faculty and the reliance on asynchronous modes of communication (more on this in part II of my review).

Furthermore, the book suffers from a top-down view of the school's history. Since the start of University Extension in 1909, something like half-a-million people have taken classes at the Extension School, and more than 10,000 have received degrees, yet we rarely hear from any of them. Rather, the voices mainly belong to a dozen or so men who have led the school as dean or were associated with its founding or funding (i.e., the Lowell family). In this sense, The Gates Unbarred follows the format commonly found in other Harvard histories such as Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University in the Twentieth Century, in which history is seen through the lens of successive leaders' tenures. The views of students, alumni, professors, staff, and others hardly warrant a mention.

Nevertheless, The Gates Unbarred contains many interesting facts, stories, and personalities that will hold the reader's attention. I've written extensively about the Extension School (from 2005 to 2008 I published hundreds of blog posts about Harvard Extension on Harvard Extended), yet I was delighted to learn new things about current and past programs that are not described in the Extension School catalogues or even known to the staff and faculty at 51 Brattle St. Who knew the Extension School was involved in an educational partnership with the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, or that the first computer-based distance education classes predate the establishment of the World Wide Web by nearly 10 years? The history of these and other programs is described in a very engaging manner, and I could hardly put down the book.

I am not going to spoil the rest of The Gates Unbarred with a play-by-play review, but I will point to a few elements which I believe deserve more discussion:

A cooperative venture: One thing that's been overlooked in the Extension School's centennial is the fact that it was founded as a cooperative venture ("The Commission on Extension Courses") with other Boston-area teaching institutions, including MIT, Tufts, Simmons, Wellesley, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston College and Boston University. The idea was to attract people who were interested in college-level instruction or earning a degree (mostly teachers in the early days), and letting them gather credit from courses taught by the various member schools, initially at a very low price. Until the 1960s, the tuition was just $5 per course (The Lowell Institute provided additional support). For those few who were able to take enough courses, it was possible to earn an Associate in Arts degree from one of the member institutions. The Gates Unbarred was a little murky on the specifics of the arrangement with the other schools, and it was not clear how this cooperative venture was supposed to be maintained. At one point in the mid-1930s, only Harvard and Tufts continued to offer the degree, but in another section Shinagel writes that as late as the 1960s other member institutions were still providing faculty to teach courses. In any case, the commission's arrangement faded over time. Besides Harvard, Boston University (my undergraduate alma mater) appeared to be one of the major participants in the venture, while it was still active.

An emphasis on excellence: This will not be a shock to anyone who has completed the undergraduate liberal arts ALB or graduate ALM/liberal arts degrees, but Harvard has placed an emphasis on excellence at the Extension School from day one. I've read accounts from other recent graduates who have studied under luminaries such as Lawrence Lessig, but Shinagel's exploration of the early years of the Extension School reveal the names of well-known scholars from eras past. John Kenneth Galbraith (economics) and Oscar Handlin (history) caught my attention, but people with expertise in other fields will surely recognize names who taught at the Extension School 50, 75, or even 100 years ago. In most cases, writes Shinagel, the motivation for these eminent faculty to teach classes at night was not money, but rather a love of teaching and a chance to interact with students from varied backgrounds who had an earnest desire to learn.

Another point which proves the early emphasis on excellence was a survey which polled the first 150 Harvard AA recipients in 1938. Of the 91 people who responded, 64% had done graduate work (a figure which Shinagel notes was higher than that of Harvard College at the time) and 60 graduate degrees (mostly masters of arts or education, but also six PhDs and an MD) had been awarded. Fourteen others said they were pursuing a graduate degree at the time they answered the questionnaire.

History of the TAP program: I've long been aware of the benefits of Harvard's Tuition Assistance Plan (it's how I funded my HES studies for more than two years) but I didn't realize the role that Dean Shinagel played in getting it established. Since the late 1970s, it's been a boon to Harvard's employees, allowing them to take classes at the Extension School and several of Harvard's other professional schools for a fraction of the full tuition (I paid about $50 per class when I worked at Harvard, but had to pay about $2,000 per course after I left my Harvard job). If you work at Harvard and have not taken any classes using the TAP, you are missing out on one of the best benefits the University has to offer.

History of the graduate ALM/liberal arts degree: On pages 126-127, Shinagel describes the issues that led to the creation of the master's program in 1980. What I found most interesting was the ready support from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the University administration, with the exception of President Bok's concern over the impact on the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the time, it was suffering from a "severely" constricted applicant pool. Bok wanted to delay the ALM from opening up to candidates, as he felt that the GSE "had to be protected from internal competition." Shinagel describes how he was able to work out a compromise that allowed the ALM to launch to ALB graduates and Harvard staff to make the program operational, and one year later it opened to everyone else who was qualified. However, I felt that his account failed to discuss how the ALM/liberal arts has evolved since 1980, in terms of new concentrations and improvements to the thesis process. The program has also graduated more masters' recipients than any of the professional ALM programs, yet The Gates Unbarred devotes far more attention to the latter, including most of chapters XII through XIV.

Extension School Health Careers program: I had heard good things about the Health Careers program before, but The Gates Unbarred really quantifies how successful it is at helping sponsored graduates -- many of whom come from non-science related backgrounds -- achieve their goals of getting into medical school. Shinagel writes that from its establishment around 1980 to the year 2000, 582 out of 615 sponsored students who passed the program requirements gained admittance to medical school -- a success rate that approaches 95%. Some are even accepted to Harvard Medical School.

Expansion of professional degree programs: It is apparent from the title of chapter XIV, "Harvard University in the 21st Century: New Professional Degree Programs", that Shinagel sees the future of the Extension School lying not in the liberal arts which has served as the foundation of University Extension for 100 years, but rather in disciplines which better reflect the needs of industry:
"Many segments of the labor market are now demanding professional degrees of their employees; the ALM is undergoing a natural evolution as it adapts to changes in demography and to new pressures of the labor market."
If there is any doubt that this is where the dean's interests and intentions lie, note that he has proposed (in a speech at the June 2009 alumni banquet) for the Extension School to be renamed "The Harvard School of Continuing and Professional Studies." This name reflects the Extension School's casual and professional constituencies very well, but in my opinion it turns its back on the liberal arts ALM and ALB students and the Extension School's long liberal arts history.

I also dispute several of Shinagel's assessments relating to the "new pressures of the labor market" quote:

  • The demand for graduates of professional degree programs in certain fields is hardly new. Business degrees trace their origins to the Industrial Revolution, and the Harvard Business School was started in 1908. The Boston area has been a hub of computer innovation since the 1950s, and local universities have been teaching and training CS and IT professionals for the entire time.
  • The demand for graduates in the various fields covered by the professional ALM programs is uneven. IT professionals and software engineers with masters degrees can certainly find work, but, as mentioned before, there is little demand for graduates of masters-level journalism programs, especially in print media (note that Shinagel says that the "popularity of the journalism concentration", when it was offered as a certificate program, prompted the Extension School to offer a master's degree in journalism.) And while there may be legitimate demand for graduates of the ALM/Mathematics for Teaching and ALM/Environmental Management degrees, the number of matriculated degree candidates in these fields remains low. Only a handful of people graduate from the ALM/Mathematics for Teaching program each year.
  • An overwhelming majority of professional ALM students are associated with the information technology and management degrees. More than 200 people graduated with ALM/Management degrees in 2009, double the number of 2008 ALMM graduates.
  • The ALM Management and ALM in IT degrees have a disproportionate number of students originating from outside of New England.
Based on these facts, I would therefore argue that the impetus for expanding the biggest professional graduate programs at the Extension School -- the ALM in Management and the ALM in IT -- has more to do with the explosion of distance education courses and the strong demand from distance students (many enamored with the Harvard name), as opposed to a sudden surge in industry demand.

Regardless, The Gates Unbarred is a good source for the history of the various professional ALM programs. The most interesting entry concerns the wildly popular ALM/Management degree. Shinagel describes the successful efforts to recruit emeritus faculty members from the Harvard Business School and how it recently hired Margaret Andrews, a former director of the MIT Sloan School of Management. But this section carefully avoids comparing the ALMM degree to a masters of business administration -- the acronym "MBA" doesn't even come up. Clearly, there is sensitivity over branding. My guess is this relates to the Division of Continuing Education wanting to tread very carefully in territory dominated by an extremely powerful University entity -- the Harvard Business School.

Unusual partnerships: I mentioned the Navy program before, which involved prerecorded lectures being shown on Navy ships to interested officers and crew in the 1960s. That effort grew out of the Extension School's use of broadcasting to distribute lectures to a wider audience in the Boston area (lectures delivered by radio started in 1949 and television in the 1950s, thanks to a partnership with WGBH). Unfortunately, the book does not really address why the broadcasting initiative tapered off, although any mass media approach will be limited by the one-way nature of the delivery system and the lack of interactivity and discussion.

But the most interesting partnership described by Shinagel involved an IT training institute in Bangalore that the Extension School helped get off the ground in the early 1990s. The school had good intentions, but the Indian Computer Academy rapidly turned into a failure. Shinagel readily acknowledges this, but he doesn't go far enough in describing the scope of the disaster. Simply put, the Extension School team neglected to conduct adequate due diligence, and somehow failed to understand that one of its main Indian partners viewed the academy as a for-profit venture. The problems of for-profit education is known in this country, thanks in large part to negative publicity surrounding the Apollo Group's University of Phoenix, but the snafus that sank the Indian IT institute included misappropriation of funds and fraud. If it happened here, there would almost certainly be a criminal investigation. As it were, the Extension School was able to cut the cords quickly, and with only a minimum of negative publicity.

The rest of my review of The Gates Unbarred continues in a separate blog post about Shinagel's appraisals of distance education at the Extension School.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments will be reviewed before being published. Spam, off-topic or hateful comments will be removed.