Q&A with Dean Hunt Lambert

June 26, 2013

As the new dean of the Harvard Division of Continuing Education (DCE), Huntington Lambert has been making the rounds at Harvard and collaborating on plans to increase DCE’s—and the University’s—reach globally. Today he shares a little about himself and provides a few insights into the future of continuing education at Harvard.

Tell us a little about your background and interests.

I grew up in the country west of Boston, the third child of four. We were an adventure family, camping and hiking in Colorado, Montana, Canada, and Norway.

I love building and fixing things. I built a ham radio before I was 10 and made solar cells in my high school metal shop at age 14. I started scuba diving before I was 10 and have well over 500 dives logged.

As I grew up, my hobby of building and fixing turned into building and fixing companies and ultimately in doing so for higher education.

While I still scuba dive, most of my saltwater attention the past 15 years has been on my 175-gallon reef aquarium that taught me much about managing a sustainable ecosystem.

What excites you most about joining Harvard as dean of the Division of Continuing Education?

This is the most exciting time in higher education in the past 100 years, and I have been asked to help lead Harvard into the next 100 years of teaching and learning excellence.

Thanks to Harvard’s support and Dean Shinagel’s excellent operation, I can focus on building upon his legacy with an amazing team.

And Harvard is simply an exceptional place to learn, even as an employee.

What are your priorities as you take the helm?

Serve more students better. Serve more faculty better. Get even better every year.

How might DCE build on its 100-year legacy to meet the shifting needs of the adult student?

The adult learners of today have complex and sometimes competing responsibilities, and they’re on information overload.

DCE’s mission is to create learning opportunities that help adult students meet their goals amid today’s complexities. We work with faculty to package teaching and learning options that enable students to consume lessons with short- and long-term knowledge gains.

In turn, we educators can learn a lot from our students. By enabling more faculty to engage with adult learners, we can help them stay current in the issues faced by people in our high-speed, twenty-first-century knowledge world.

What impact might technology have on the Extension School’s liberal arts foundation?

Harvard is, and remains, completely committed to the liberal arts. That includes DCE and the Extension School.

We are very proficient at using technology-enhanced teaching and learning in professional fields, math, and science. We are less so in the humanities and social sciences.

My goal is to leverage Harvard’s exceptional humanities capabilities—like Gregory Nagy’s Heroes course and recent HeroesX edX course—to learn, implement, and replicate the best technology-enhanced learning across the breadth of the liberal arts.

More specifically, online tools lend themselves very well to fact and data learning. Our challenge is to figure out how to improve the tools available for developing critical thinking skills and to invent new ways to use technology-based tools to enhance learning related to moral reasoning.

Disruptive innovation has arrived in higher education. How do you think this disruption will play out over the next five to 10 years?

I have spent much of my life in the middle of rapidly changing technology, markets, and regulation. This is the space where Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory plays out most strikingly. This is where higher education is today.

The industry is going to restructure, and it is naïve to pretend we know how it will look long term. We know content will become free, access will become ubiquitous, packaging will change, and willingness to pay for exceptional teaching and learning environments will remain strong.

In the near future, we know that a few key elements need to be preserved: academic freedom; access for all kinds of learners; support for motivated learners; creation of new knowledge; and sharing of that knowledge globally. Harvard is well positioned in this regard and can be a model for other institutions.

Harvard Extension School has a long tradition of making education accessible to many. How does this resonate with your personal and professional experiences?

I came to Harvard to continue my commitment to access. By that I don’t mean only access to Harvard per the Extension School’s long history. I also aim to provide access models that work so the great public universities can more easily provide excellent online learning opportunities.

At Colorado State University I helped build a new online-only public university for adult learners that opened higher education to 10,000 students in its first four years. Our goal was to be much better than the University of Phoenix at a much lower cost. It worked. Students are completing their studies with much lower debt levels than if they enrolled at private for-profit institutions. 

In the spirit of President Lowell’s goal of offering affordable education to all, Harvard Extension School courses are priced even below CSU’s Global Campus.

That is great access to great quality. We will continue to increase quality, access, and the Harvard learning experience even as we keep our prices in the spirit of our mission.