Books: Extending

The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009; Michael Shinagel; Harvard University Extension Monograph, Puritan Press, Hollis, N.H., 2009; $14.95

Reviewed by Alan R. Earls, a Boston-area writer who earned a graduate certificate through Harvard Extension.


The old saying, attributed variously to John F. Kennedy and Count Ciano, that success has many fathers might well be applied to the origins of non-traditional college programs. Over the years, there have been innumerable pioneering programs in New England and elsewhere that collectively have helped to broaden access to college, providing educational choices today that would have been unimaginable in an earlier time. Which program was first, or best, or most influential may be moot. But when the program is Harvard—long the quintessential bastion of privilege and tradition—the story of “unbarring the gates,” as author Michael Shinagel phrases it, becomes of more than passing interest.

As someone whose professional life has been associated with Harvard and who led the Extension School itself, Shinagel is hardly dispassionate. But perhaps that is no vice in a book which claims as its mission merely to provide appropriate recognition for continuing education at Harvard: a subject almost completely absent from earlier histories of the university, according to Shinagel.

Harvard Extension, still the central program in Harvard’s continuing education realm, was launched by Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell as an elaboration of the public lecture program endowed by an earlier kinsman, John Lowell Jr. at his death in 1835.

In the spirit of the “five foot shelf of books” (or Harvard Classics), edited for the common man by his predecessor, Charles William Eliot, Lowell, who became president of Harvard in 1909, saw an unmet need to provide college classes for working people. Under his direction, the first of these classes—which immediately proved popular with the public and with many members of the faculty—got underway. At his behest, these programs were expanded through a consortium he established with other Boston area institutions. And almost immediately, the University Extension program, as the joint effort was called, initiated a degree program, an associate of arts intended to be substantially similar in content to the bachelor’s degree offered at Harvard College.

The individual courses and the degree program in particular proved especially popular with local teachers who sought to further their own education in evening hours. This happy state of affairs—with annual enrollment sometimes reaching 1,500—persisted until nearly mid-century, by which time most of the other participating institutions had either moved in different directions or had developed similar programs of their own.

Shinagel credits his predecessor, Dean Reginald H. Phelps, who was involved with the Extension School from 1949 to 1975, with expanding the course offerings and increasing enrollment dramatically. In particular, anticipating in some ways the rich distance-learning options of today, Phelps initiated the delivery of Extension School courses via radio broadcasts carried on WGBH FM in 1949 and over WGBH television a decade later. The success of these efforts so impressed the U.S. Navy that it hired Harvard to produce dozens of courses, which were offered remotely to servicemen and servicewomen through the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Nor did the Extension School miss a beat when new technologies evolved. Under Shinagel’s leadership, in the mid-1980s, the school linked students in a distance-learning calculus class through personal computers and dial-up modems, allowing faculty and students to communicate and share in real-time. Today, of course, the school has many distance-learning courses.

In the 1970s, the Extension School also established the first of several graduate degree or certificate programs.

Not every endeavor at the Extension School was marked with success. A case in point was the creation of the Indian Computer Academy (ICA) in Bangalore, India. By the late 1980s, the Extension School had established a successful and well-regarded graduate-level certificate program in computer science geared to the booming regional high-tech economy. A Boston-area business person with ties to India suggested, in essence, establishing a clone of the program in India. He offered to provide the funding if Harvard would become a partner. Eventually, with the participation of additional business people in India and grants from U.S. philanthropies, the ICA was launched with much fanfare. Unfortunately, its association with Harvard and the Extension School turned out to be short lived. For one thing, according to Shinagel, the ICA was being operated more or less as a for-profit enterprise, and the lack of acceptable accounting practices made it hard to determine where the money was going or to whom. Perhaps even more worrisome, the quality of the facility and of the programs was quickly allowed to deteriorate to an unacceptable level. These factors caused the university to withdraw from the project in 1993.

Meanwhile, however, Extension School continued to grow and prosper in Cambridge. Up through 1975, only about 1,000 degrees had been conferred by the school. Yet, 34 years later, that total exceeds 12,000. At present, the Extension School has a course enrollment of nearly 8,000 students with about half of those served entirely through distance education. Shinagel reckons that over its century of service to the community (including many international students), the Extension School has enrolled more than half-a-million students—an impressive feat by any measure, even using a Harvard-size yardstick.

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