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 has different 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; a similar set of rules apply to 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. In the ALM Management program, as of 2020 it is possible to select some courses taught by tenured faculty, including faculty from the Harvard Business School:

V.G. Narayanan is the Thomas D. Casserly, Jr., Professor of Business Administration and has been teaching accounting at Harvard Business School

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.


4 thoughts on “Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement

  1. I am a degree candidate for ALM in Literature and Creative Writing. My degree requirements permit that no more than 2 out of my 9 courses be with non-Harvard instructors. I’ve taken 1 course with a prof at Wentworth, and 1 course with Bill Holinger, who is listed in the Faculty Directory for the Extension School, but who is not a “Harvard Instructor.” OK, so what is the problem? I have just 2 more courses to take, both in Creative Writing. I am permitted to repeat CREA courses, but only once, so I have taken Short Story twice. Guess what’s available for Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 that is with a “Harvard Instructor?” Yep, only Short Story. So, Harvard, in its wisdom, is blocking me from completing my coursework for an entire year. For no good reason. Harvard Extension, please increase the permissible number of courses with non-Harvard instructors, OR, knight any instructor in any Harvard entity as a “Harvard Instructor.” You can start with Christina Thompson, who is the Editor of the Harvard Review, for crying out loud.

    • Amy, thanks for sharing your experience. I think your situation is not uncommon. I have heard of people having trouble finding thesis directors in niche areas, or an important class being available for a few years and then disappearing with no replacement. I had not heard of the Extension School’s policy to let people take the same class twice for credit.

      It’s terrible on so many levels. You are trying to fill your end of the bargain, but the Extension School is failing you. It must be boring and repetitive for you and other students who want to expand their knowledge and study different topics. But it also points to very poor planning on the part of the Extension School. It should have a pipeline of faculty and courses to fill out specific degree requirements.

      This makes me wonder: If the Harvard Extension School can’t develop a proper curriculum or HI course pipeline for certain fields, why are these concentrations even being offered as options to students? Did these concentrations used to have more Harvard Instructor-led courses, but they dropped away for some reason? Or were the degree concentrations launched without really understanding the needs of students or the availability of faculty to teach them?

      I think for underserved concentrations like yours, I agree with your proposal to bend the rules (which it does already for Summer School classes taken by Extension and Harvard College students). Another idea: Allow independent study under the guidance of a willing faculty member. Maybe other people have ideas? Feel free to comment below.

      Ian ALM ’08

  2. Greetings; I realize I am coming in late to reply. I am just entering HES this January and I had similar concerns with class availability and the Harvard instructor requirement. I began to poke around the Extension site and I don’t know if this is something new (I accessed in 2017), but under “Academic Opportunities” there are some interesting and possible work-arounds particularly if one’s concentration is lacking attention at Extension.

    One option: seek out the application for ‘Special Student Status’ – earn 64 credits (32 at Harvard) and have a cum. GPA of 3.5 or higher and this potentially grants access to Harvard College classes and other graduate schools. Yes, the classes are more expensive, but there are tuition waivers one can compete for that will cover tuition for 1-2 classes to defray some costs.

    Beyond that, the Academic Opportunities page has a few other pieces to augment the experience: the Faculty Aide program can bring you closer in touch with a professor if contact is lacking in other areas and building that important connection with faculty is proving difficult. Also, the Undergraduate Independent Reading and Research course is available and an advisor can assist with professor luring if your concentration is particularly “niche.”

    Hope this helps OP or anyone else with similar concerns. We absolutely must offer constructive feedback to HES to ensure we are getting the education worthy of our time, money and frankly, Harvard’s good name. They should absolutely want their Extension students to have access to a variety of quality curriculum and we should demand it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Christina. I absolutely agree that constructive feedback is critical. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t seem that the Harvard Extension School administration is listening, or the administration doesn’t want to hear public criticism.

      – Ian

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