Straight Up Conversation: New Harvard Ed School Dean Bridget Terry Long

Bridget Terry Long, a talented scholar and longtime friend, was recently named dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (HGSE). Harvard’s Saris Professor of Education and Economics, Bridget has previously chaired the National Board for Education Sciences and authored pioneering research on the economics of higher education. I recently had the chance to chat with Bridget about the transition and what she hopes to accomplish in her new role. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Bridget, congrats on the new role. What about it most appeals to you—and is there anything that you find intimidating?

Bridget Terry Long: Thank you, Rick! I am deeply humbled by and grateful for this opportunity to serve the HGSE community. What drew me to the deanship and what has kept me at the Ed School for nearly two decades are the same: the mission and the people. Nothing is more motivating and sustaining than working to improve the world through education. And there’s no better community to do this with than our dedicated faculty, students, and staff. I feel too energized by our work and the talent I have around me to feel intimidated. Though the work is serious and daunting, it’s a credit to the supportive culture we have at HGSE that I know we will press forward successfully.

RH: What do you see as the great strengths of HGSE today?

BTL: It’s one thing to have a strong mission, but it’s another to fulfill it—and I believe that our impact on the world has been and continues to be quite remarkable. We are a place that blends rigorous, impactful research with thoughtful leadership, practice, and policy. Education professionals all across the field look to HGSE for the most innovative and relevant education research and policy recommendations. And our alumni—as education practitioners and leaders—serve 15 million students around the world each year. I am proud that our community is united by the goal of advancing educational equity and opportunity, regardless of approach, discipline, or philosophy. And this focus applies to the entire education pipeline, from early childhood to higher education, both in the United States and around the world. But I think our greatest strength is our impatience and unwillingness to be complacent. We are continually striving to improve our work and our engagement with the field.

RH: Given all that, what do you see as one or two of the big opportunities to do better?

BTL: As the field evolves and the needs of students change, we always have to evaluate what work we’re producing and how we’re educating our students. And so I expect continued conversations about the kinds of foundational learning experiences and opportunities for specialized training that will best prepare new cohorts of students to positively impact the field. We also need to increase financial aid for our master’s students. We’ve made great strides under Jim Ryan’s leadership, but affordability is still a concern for our prospective and current students. Cost of attendance should not prohibit students from attending HGSE and contributing to improving education, so this will be a priority for me as dean.

RH: You’ve spent a lot of time as academic dean at HGSE. For those of us who don’t really understand these things, can you talk a bit about what the role of dean actually entails?

BTL: Great question. Being the dean of HGSE is a unique role, but it shares several commonalities with the work of the principals, superintendents, and other education leaders that we train here. My job, essentially, is to equip and empower every person at HGSE to do their best work. Core to this work is listening to and building collaborative relationships with the people who are invested in this community, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors. A day in the life of the dean can include working with senior staff to advance an important project, having lunch with students, facilitating a faculty meeting, calling a longstanding supporter, and giving remarks at an event on campus. Through each interaction and activity, I learn how I can better help the HGSE community fulfill our mission of improving the world through education, and I try to identify ways, big and small, to enable us to focus on key activities that will help us make progress towards our goals. I can’t imagine having a more invigorating or inspiring job.

RH: Being dean requires a lot of administrative work. Given how much you enjoy research, how’d you get talked into this job? What makes the trade-off worthwhile for you?

BTL: I became a scholar because I was motivated by issues of inequality in education, and the most satisfying aspects of my research have been to see the impact of my work on students’ lives through policy, practice, and teaching. Being the dean of HGSE enables me to promote the collective work of the Ed School and make an impact on an even greater scale. I remain focused on questions about how to improve student access to high-quality education and address gaps in achievement, but now I have the opportunity to do this work with a community of talented and committed colleagues who approach these questions using many different approaches and methodologies. This is all deeply rewarding to me, so I don’t see it as a trade-off.

RH: You’re obviously stepping into some big shoes, given that Jim Ryan’s tenure has been regarded as pretty successful. As you look over HGSE, what do you see as the couple key accomplishments of the past half-decade?

BTL: Jim did an exceptional job as dean, and he has poised HGSE for even greater success. Under his leadership, we successfully launched the interdisciplinary PhD in Education, expanded professional education offerings for practitioners in the field, developed the Harvard Teacher Fellows program, and completed a record-breaking fundraising campaign for HGSE. Importantly, we also strengthened our commitment to preparing our students to work in diverse educational contexts by developing more course offerings and opportunities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, like the Equity and Inclusion Fellows program, and significantly increasing the number of faculty of color. This was also a period of revitalizing the faculty, more generally, with many new hires and promotions across a variety of fields and disciplines, from education technology to teacher preparation.

RH: Your academic background is in higher-education research. Does that expertise offer much in the way of practical insight when thinking about the challenges of the deanship?

BTL: My research focuses on the impact of factors such as affordability and academic preparation on college student access and outcomes, and it has led to successful reforms of the college financial aid system and interventions that benefit high school and college students—especially those who are from low-income families. Because my scholarship has focused so much on inequality and the challenges facing our most disadvantaged students, I approach the deanship with our most vulnerable students constantly in mind. I think about what it takes for all students to be successful in education, and how we can leverage the talent, energy, and resources of HGSE, and the field more broadly, to support students of all ages. And as an economist, my teaching has long focused on the resource challenges colleges and universities face, so I am acutely aware of the ways in which finance pressures have pushed some institutions to make decisions that go against the social mission of higher education. With limited resources, we need to be strategic to make sure we stay committed to our mission, and my scholarly expertise gives me the knowledge and analytic tools to understand the economic challenges before us and the factors that should be considered in our decision-making.

RH: What are a couple areas where you’d like to see HGSE develop new lines of inquiry or engage in news kinds of research and collaboration?

BTL: I’m in the process of doing a listening tour during these initial months, and I am definitely looking for and contemplating burgeoning opportunities. But, that said, HGSE is already in the early stages of several new projects I look forward to supporting. With a gift from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, HGSE is partnering with MIT to launch Reach Every Reader, an initiative that will utilize the latest research on learning and neuroscience to help all children become successful readers. Additionally, the recently launched Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative is working to transform early childhood education through research, professional learning, and leadership cultivation. I’m excited about these projects and anticipate new research and collaborations in the years ahead.

RH: It was recently announced that HGSE will be partnering with Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences to launch a new secondary field in educational studies this fall. Can you talk a bit about where that came from and what it’ll mean in practice?

BTL: The Educational Studies Secondary Field gives interested Harvard College students the chance to formally study education as an undergraduate minor. It was developed to meet growing student interest in this field and to provide guidance and clear pathways for approaching the study of education, from historical exploration and human development to policy and the public sector. To earn this minor, students will be required to take five approved courses related to education, and up to eight credits can be taken at HGSE. I know that students will gain a great deal from the courses taught by our phenomenal faculty and the programmatic events that are being planned, such as hosting important speakers from the field. We hope that it will help more students understand a field so integral to human society and advancement.

RH: As you step into this job, are there particular mentors or colleagues whom you regard as pivotal in helping you get here? And are there particular bits of wisdom or advice that you’re trying to keep in mind?

BTL: There are so many I could name. From Richard Murnane, who was a constant support during my years as a junior faculty member, to many other colleagues who have always given me clear advice and encouragement. More recently, Jim Ryan has been a close friend and mentor. He demonstrates every day what it means to live the mission of the school while also caring deeply for the individuals who are part of our community. My husband continues to my most valued advisor, and I would not be here without the loving support of my parents and friends. One observation that I remember constantly is from Jack Jennings, our HGSE executive dean for administration. He has said that the worst day at HGSE is still better than the best day somewhere else. It’s true, and I always try to remember what a wonderful privilege it is to be part of this extraordinary community.

RH: Who are a couple young faculty members at HGSE that people haven’t heard of that they really should have?

BTL: I’m quite confident that you will be hearing much from Tony Jack soon. His research explores the experiences of low-income college students, which he divided into two groups: the “doubly disadvantaged”—students who enter college from public high schools—and the “privileged poor”—students who enter college from elite private schools. His scholarship illuminates the diverse experiences of these low-income students and dispels the myth that their experiences and the supports they need are monolithic. Karen Brennan is another one to keep an eye out for. Her research focuses on designing learning environments that enable students to become computational creators. Karen also leads ScratchEd, the 25,000-member online community of educators who share an interest in using the Scratch programming language in their classrooms.

RH: Last question: If you look back in five years, what would success look like?

BTL: It’s too early to talk about specific initiatives, but there is so much HGSE has to contribute, and the importance of the work only grows. I want to look back and know with confidence that we continued to improve the world through education research, policy, and practice, and that I did my best to support this transformational work.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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