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Rakesh Khurana Appointed Harvard College Dean


Rakesh and Stephanie Khurana at Cabot House

Rakesh and Stephanie Khurana at Cabot House

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Rakesh Khurana, Bower professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School (HBS) and master of Cabot House since 2010, will become dean of Harvard College effective July 1. Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith announced the news in an e-mail message to the community this afternoon. The appointment concludes a somewhat difficult decanal transition, from Evelynn M. Hammonds’s departure at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year (following the College’s academic-misconduct investigation and the revelation of investigations of resident deans’ e-mail accounts under the auspices of the Administrative Board, which she chaired) and Donald Pfister’s service as interim dean this year.

As a House master, Khurana is deeply involved with undergraduates’ daily lives outside the classroom, an important aspect of the College dean’s responsibilities. In “Learning, and Life, in the Houses” (Harvard Magazine, November-December 2013), he and Stephanie Ralston Khurana, his wife and co-master, talked at length about the virtues and values of twenty-first-century residential life on campus; Rakesh Khurana said:

Each spring, Stephanie and I talk to seniors before they graduate, and we ask them, “What were the things that really affected you here?” They talk about conversations with friends about important subjects or face-to-face experiences with their faculty. They talk about extracurricular experiences: putting on a show, working in a lab. They don’t often talk about just wrestling with a book. What we used to call extracurricular is increasingly curricular for our students.

Apparently, their mastership has succeeded in building a thriving community: at the end of last academic year, House residents presented the Khuranas with an amusing video depicting how dismayed they would have been had Rakesh and Stephanie not become Cabot’s leaders. According to the news announcement, they will continue to serve as master and co-master; they have three children.

In the announcement, Dean Smith said of Khurana:

He brings to the deanship an intimate understanding of the Harvard College experience, a profound commitment to the values of a liberal-arts education, and a warm and compassionate personality that accompanies his belief in the importance of community and an inclusive approach to decision-making. 

The latter qualities were on view at a significant moment toward the end of the 2012-2013 academic year, in Khurana's capacity as an FAS member since his appointment as master (he now holds a dual appointment as professor of sociology). Last May, during contentious faculty debate over governance, consultation, and communications (prompted by issues including the e-mail investigations, relocation of part of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to Allston, the launch and oversight of the edX online learning initiative, and restructuring of the library system), he won wide support for remarks at the close of the tense meeting. As reported then:

The last speaker, Rakesh Khurana…said that he studied organizations and organizational culture. Returning to [the] introductory presentations, he said the issue for FAS was “How do we create an engaged community” that feels genuinely consulted? Specific issues had been raised—the growth in administrative ranks, the Faculty Council’s composition, and, more broadly, the norms and culture of the place: what it feels like to be within the community. These issues, he added, arose in an uncertain era for higher education—conditions that made engagement more important than ever before.

The faculty needed to act to “create a psychologically safe environment” for engagement, Khurana said, where silence was not interpreted as agreement, where there was no pressure to behave simply so as to create unanimity, and where people were not judged for raising ideas before they were fully formed. He suggested some steps to bring such conditions about: creating discussions to raise questions—and actively encouraging participants to do so—while deferring the presentation of solutions; and soliciting written feedback after meetings. His remarks elicited applause.

Perhaps because of his ability to frame issues in that way, President Drew Faust appointed him to the task force she chartered to develop policies and recommendations for the privacy of electronic communications within the community. (Although that task force was scheduled to report to the Corporation by the end of last year, its findings and any Corporation action have not yet been released.)

Smith noted that as a "distinguished scholar," "award-winning teacher," and "dynamic" House master, Khurana is 

an ardent proponent of the values of a liberal-arts education. I am confident that he will advance undergraduate education with both a respect for enduring values and the ability to embrace change. He understands the interplay of academic, extracurricular, and residential life at Harvard and is an eloquent spokesperson for the transformative nature of the Harvard undergraduate experience.

At Cabot House, Smith said, Rakesh and Stephanie Khurana have supported student-led initiatives that have enhanced social spaces and the making of arts in the residential setting. Khurana has also served on committees addressing academic integrity and issues associated with alcohol and drug services and the College's alcohol policy.

Khurana’s interdisciplinary and University-wide connections extend beyond his HBS and FAS roles, and even his service on the current task force. He is a founder, co-chair, and faculty leader of the Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI)—a multischool collaboration that trains experienced leaders to pursue new challenges in fields such as education, global health, environmental quality, or poverty by creating social enterprises. (See the forthcoming feature on ALI in the March-April issue of Harvard Magazine, available online in mid February; it notes that Khurana provided housing at Cabot for some of the ALI fellows during their year at Harvard, enabling them to interact with and mentor undergraduate members of the community.)

Understanding Leadership

Khurana, like an increasing number of HBS faculty members, has an academic background that embraces arts and sciences disciplines. After he earned his undergraduate degree in industrial and labor relations at Cornell, he completed advanced degrees at Harvard: an A.M. in sociology in 1997, and his Ph.D., in organizational behavior (a joint FAS-HBS program), the following year. After a stint at MIT, he joined the business school in 2000 and is a member of HBS’s organizational-behavior unit, where he has often collaborated with Nitin Nohria, now HBS dean. The organizational-behavior faculty members focus particularly on personal and institutional effectiveness—a discipline distinct from such other fields as strategy, finance, marketing, or entrepreneurial management.

Khurana’s research has focused on how leaders are selected and developed, and on topics in corporate governance (see “The Pay Problem: Time for a new paradigm for executive compensation,” written by Khurana and HBS colleague Jay Lorsch). His work reflects a broader concern about management as a profession and the incomplete project of developing a successful model for management and business education. The latter issue is the subject of his book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession.

Some of these interests and approaches to organizational effectiveness were echoed in his remarks at the faculty meeting last spring. They arose in faculty members’ discussions about candidates whom Dean Smith might consider for the College’s leader from the inception of his formal search—discussions in which Rakesh Khurana’s name spontaneously arose early on.

In his own statement accompanying the announcement, Khurana said, “I’m honored to have this opportunity to serve the College and work with the faculty, students, and staff to create a transformative educational experience for our students.  I am convinced that, working together, we will have a significant and positive impact on the College.”

The Dean-Designate's Remarks

In a telephone conversation from Davos (begun at 2:00 p.m. Cambridge time), where he moderated a World Economic Forum panel on human learning earlier today with Carnegie Mellon University president Subra Suresh and faculty members from that institution, Khurana reiterated how “really honored and excited” he was to become the College dean and to “serve an institution that I care so deeply about.”

He noted that he and Stephanie Khurana had insisted on maintaining their role in Cabot House (he will relinquish his HBS teaching responsibilities). Among their reasons, he cited their sheer enjoyment of being master and co-master; the critical part leading a House plays in shaping their view of the College and the issues with which the dean must engage; and the opportunity to continue working, directly with students. Khurana said he was eager to continue having “a strong sense of student needs and connect[ing] that strongly to the policies the College operates under.”

Khurana said it is premature to speculate on any specific initiative or policies he might want to initiate. He noted that a strength of the House system is the distinctive character of each residence and each master’s approach to her or his leadership. He repeatedly emphasized his desire to consult thoroughly with fellow masters, and with faculty, students, and staff in understanding issues and setting directions for the College under his deanship.

Asked about the relationship between a proposed student academic honor code, which is under consideration in FAS (Khurana is a member of the committee that has worked on the issue), and student life generally, he said, “There is a strong thirst among students, faculty, and staff to discuss these issues and create space for these discussions to happen. That is a really important part of the College education. It goes back to the roots of the liberal arts,” as students shape their “moral identities” and determine “the people they hope to become.” That work goes on not only in the classroom but also in the Houses, he said. “It’s hard to have those conversations without considering the whole person,” and he expressed hope that the opportunities for such exchanges and reflections could be strengthened—part of his desire, as dean of Harvard College, to “work in ways that create a transformative experience for our students.”

Read the announcement here.

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