Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement

So you’re thinking about attending the Harvard Extension School, or you want to know more about the degree programs. A common question that prospective candidates have is whether students are taught by real Harvard faculty. Others are interested in whether Harvard Extension faculty are tenured professors at the University.

The short answer: It depends on the concentration and the classes being taken.

Instructors with appointments at Harvard Widener Library
Harvard Widener Library

Looking at the Harvard Extension Faculty Directory, the first page of results contains numerous associate and assistant professors, lecturers, and preceptors from FAS, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, Widener Library, and other units. The page also lists faculty from other area universities (Boston College, Suffolk, Northeastern, UMass, etc). There are many non-academic-affiliated instructors, too, who teach in the Extension School’s professional programs.

Generally speaking, the liberal arts and science classes are more likely to have Harvard faculty, including tenured professors. The Extension School has a “Harvard Instructor” requirement for the liberal arts masters degrees, requiring 7 out of 9 courses to be “a faculty member with a teaching appointment” at Harvard.

Harvard Extension faculty and Harvard Summer School classes

However, the school bends the rules for Summer School classes. All Harvard Summer School instructors are regarded as Harvard Instructors, even if they don’t have a teaching appointment. That’s not just for Extension School students taking Summer School classes; the rules are bent for Harvard College students attending the same classes — most on-campus Summer School coursework counts for credit for attending Harvard College students, with some conditions. Online classes offered by the Summer School cannot be taken for credit by Harvard College students, though.

I was a history concentrator in the Extension School’s Master of Liberal Arts program from 2003-2008, taking all of my classes on campus. Here’s the Harvard/non-Harvard faculty breakdown:

  • 2 classes taught by tenured Harvard faculty members
  • Thesis project directed by a tenured Harvard faculty member
  • 1 class taught by a non-tenured Harvard lecturer
  • 2 classes taught by Harvard post-docs/research affiliates
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Boston College
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Northwestern
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Western Michigan University
  • 1 class taught by Museum of Fine Arts research affiliate

The 3 or 4 courses I took during the summer generally had non-Harvard instructors, but counted toward the Harvard Instructor requirement based on the Summer School exception described above. The Northwestern and Western Michigan lecturers had received AB/JD and PhD degrees from Harvard and had visiting scholar affiliations at Harvard, while the late Professor Thomas H. O’Connor of Boston College was considered the leading scholar in his field.

For other liberal arts concentrations, it’s possible to choose classes so most or even all instructors are tenured Harvard faculty or tenure-track professors. I know students who have done this, or even applied for (and received) Special Student status to take GSAS/College classes taught by Harvard faculty.

As for the professional programs (Finance, Digital media arts, etc.) there are no longer any Harvard Instructor requirements. This is not surprising, considering many of the topics being taught have no equivalent in Harvard College or any of the professional schools. Practically speaking, this means it’s possible to receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty. It’s ridiculous, and reflects very poorly on the Extension School, as I noted in another post several years ago:

… The professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

I advise students considering these programs to make every effort to take actual classes with real Harvard faculty. For some fields, it’s impossible because there are no Harvard instructors available or willing to teach in these areas. But for others, there may be course offerings from time to time.

For online courses, there is an additional dimension to Harvard Extension faculty participation: Whether the classes are “live” with a participating professor, or whether they are prerecorded lectures with no opportunity to interact with faculty. In such classes, online discussion and assignments are handled by non-faculty TAs. Many students don’t know this before they sign up, and are disappointed by the experience, as one student discovered:

… Most of my distance classes were recorded lectures of College classes from the current semester. I had problems in both of my prerecorded classes that were related to the fact they were prerecorded and the professors were not involved. In one class, I had an outstanding TF and she made a huge difference; in the other things went badly and students complained. The professor was not accessible and this was not explained prior to the start of the class. …

In summary: If you are looking for a real Harvard experience, take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can.

RIP: Professor Thomas H. O’Connor

Professor Thomas O'Connor. Photo: Boston Globe
Professor Thomas O’Connor. Photo: Boston Globe

I was saddened to learn of the death of Professor Thomas O’Connor, one of the great historians of Boston’s modern history. I took a class with Prof. O’Connor at the Harvard Extension School in 2005 — his last, as it turned out. On the final day of classes Dean Shinagel came into the lecture hall with a small marching band to present an award.

Professor O’Connor absolutely deserved it. He was a marvelous instructor who had an innate grasp of the life of the city from Colonial times to the present, and really explained the commercial/political/social forces that shaped the modern city. He was a great storyteller, and brought Boston politics from the early 20th century to life with interesting anecdotes and asides.

Professor O’Connor was also a witness to many of the historical trends he discussed. He grew up in South Boston, and saw urban renewal, the bussing crisis, and the terms of many important mayors, including Mayor White and I believe Mayor Curley.

Worth sharing is this quote in the preface of The Hub:

“By eventually adapting to change and accommodating itself to modern ways — although at times grudgingly, often angrily, and almost always slowly — Boston has continued to be a live, functioning urban community that has not given into the nostalgic impulses that can so often turn a once-famous city into a lifeless historical shrine. …

The most serious challenge Boston faces in the future, however, is not longer confined to the construction of high-rise buildings, multilane highways, or extravagant commercial developments. The current challenge is the extent to which Boston will be able to retain its own distinctive identity as a city whose moral standards, civic virtues, and intellectual accomplishments once inspired a nation.”

(2001)

Professor O’Connor had a way of making his large classes feel personal. For instance, I remember him talking about the jazz clubs he used to frequent as a young man, or what Scollay Square used to be like before successive Boston mayors (Curley, White, Flynn) changed the face of the city with various urban renewal projects.

He will be missed.