Should College Deans Live with Students?
New Harvard dean's model is worth emulating.
Posted Feb 03, 2014
Harvard University has named Rakesh Khurana dean of Harvard College. Khurana is a professor of sociology in the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the “Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development” in the Harvard Business School. A scholar of organizational behavior best known for his studies of leadership, corporate governance, and the effective functioning of institutions, Khurana authored Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOsin 2002, and From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Professionin 2007. Khurana also has written articles in journals and blogs. These hint that he is no fan of dysfunctional institutions and he strives to do things right. He notes influential scholars’ deaths and legacies, a tip-off that in his tenure as Dean, he’ll try to leave a mark on the university.
As Harvard College Dean, Khurana will oversee all aspects of undergraduate life at the university, including the curriculum, admissions, and housing. Since 2010 he has lived in one of the College’s residential houses with his wife, three children, and 375 undergraduates. He will continue in this role of co-master of Cabot House after he assumes the job of Dean. At Harvard, freshman students reside in dormitories in Harvard Yard, the storied academic quadrangle in the heart of the university. But after that first year, they join one of twelve residential “houses” to live for the remainder of their undergraduate years. The idea of the house system is to create a smaller college experience within a huge, potentially impersonal university. Students make friends, dine together, receive advice from tutors, and get to know a senior faculty member or two who serve as master or co-masters. Because masters eat meals with students in the dining hall, host gatherings, encourage student-planned events, and generally lead the house’s intellectual, cultural, and recreational life, they play an integral role in the community.
In the Harvard Gazette, Khurana describes why serving as head of an undergraduate residence prepared him for the weightier job ahead:
I believe that the perspective and the experience we bring by having the privilege of living with our undergraduate students and tutors at Cabot House gives me a window into our students’ day-to-day experiences and the questions they are trying to answer. As masters, we have a sense of the pressures students feel in making choices about concentrations, navigating Harvard’s social scene, negotiating parental expectations, and exploring who they are and who they are trying to become.
In addition, serving as co-master has helped me realize how important it is for students to see themselves as leaders who can shape our House community. When we asked students to find ways to create more vibrant social spaces or to bring arts into House life, our students responded with solutions that we could not have imagined. They created the Cabot Café, a late-night undergraduate coffee house, the Cabot House Theater Company that now organizes eight student productions a year, and the Third Space, an arts studio where students can explore their creative and artistic interests.
Professor Khurana’s strategy of staying close to the customer is sound business practice, as he and scores of other leadership scholars have shown. At time when students worry about large classes, instruction from TAs and adjuncts, as well as repaying loans and finding gainful employment upon graduation, Khurana makes a statement—by remaining in his housemaster role—that undergraduates’ education, development, and concerns are paramount. If they have drifted from the core mission of a research university, they deserve to be guided home, prioritized, and honored. Perhaps there’s no surprise that an organizational sociologist chooses to remain living with the members of his “society,” as a participant, an observer, and its leader. But it is laudable nonetheless and sets an example worth following.