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Extending Ivy League-Learning for a Century

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Annenberg Dining Hall Harvard University
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Harvard University has been extending Ivy League-learning to high-achieving individuals for a century. Read more about the histories of the Harvard Extension School, Harvard Professional & Executive Development Programs, Harvard Summer School, and Harvard Institute for Learning and Retirement.

History of Harvard Extension School

The origin of Harvard Extension School can be traced back to 1835, when American philanthropist and businessman John Lowell Jr. founded the Lowell Institute. 

In his will, Lowell Jr. funded an organization that provided Boston with free public lectures on a variety of subjects. The institute quickly gained an influential presence. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lecturer at the institute, remarked, “No nobler or more helpful institution exists in America than Boston’s Lowell Institute.”

In 1906–07, A. Lawrence Lowell, a trustee of the Lowell Institute and Harvard professor of government, revealed a plan to offer public courses in collaboration with Harvard University. In 1909, when Lowell became president of Harvard, he made that vision a reality. 

In 1910 Lowell founded the Commission on Extension Courses, hailed by the Boston Evening Transcript as “a new milestone” in education. He saw the commission as an experiment in “popular education.” The goal was to serve those in the community who had the ability and desire to attend college, but had other obligations that kept them from traditional schools.

We have held steadfast to Lowell’s vision for over a century. Today, more than 14,000 students join us in our classrooms and more than 800 degrees and 1,000 certificates are awarded each year.

History of Harvard Professional & Executive Development Programs

Harvard Professional & Executive Development Programs was established in 2011 to provide working professionals with short, noncredit programs. The offerings were designed for those who wanted to build job skills in just a few days, with the educational content of a conference but the small-group environment of a traditional course. 

Now a highly regarded business unit of DCE, Harvard P&ED features more than 120 programs across six topic areas, including leadership, business, innovation, marketing, negotiation, and communication. 

While programs moved fully online during the Covid-19 pandemic, Harvard P&ED has its own dedicated classrooms outfitted with the latest technology and furnishings conducive to learning and networking. 

The mission of Harvard Professional & Executive Development Programs is to meet the needs of professionals from the beginning to end of their careers. Our instructors and staff facilitate not just learning, but professional growth and the development of skills they need to meet their career goals. 

In the broader lifelong-learning mission of DCE, Harvard P&ED serves tactical, skills-based teaching for those looking to complement their education or professional experience in a short timeframe.

History of Harvard Summer School

Harvard Summer School was founded in 1871 when botany professor Asa Gray began teaching at the Harvard Botanic Garden Laboratory, establishing the Summer School of Botany. The next summer, schools in geology and chemistry were introduced, followed by French and English programs in 1888.

The summer school program design was based on the idea that “short-term study can be made most effective by concentration of a single subject,” read a 1919 announcement from administrators. That year, Harvard Summer included two academic sessions and served 1,729 students from 52 countries. 

During this time, it was also established that the Summer School’s curriculum would be modelled after that of Harvard College. This allowed Harvard undergrads to earn credit during the summer, while also giving students from around the world the chance to experience Cambridge firsthand. This principle remains today, as the Summer School welcomes both Harvard undergrads and high school and college students from all over the globe. 

Extracurricular activities including lectures, concerts, athletics, and historical excursions were also prominent parts of the Summer School programming, then as they are today. Students who attend Harvard Summer high school programs take part in activities for cultural, educational, and social enrichment when not in the classroom. 

Harvard Summer School serves adult, college, and high school students who want to spend the summer months furthering their academic and professional goals. Students may reside in a supportive residential environment, commute to campus, complete courses online, or participate in one of the faculty-led programs abroad. Many come to experience the extraordinary environment of Harvard College academics, resources, and residential life.

History of Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement

Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement was established in 1977 by Michael Shinagel, dean of Harvard Extension School from 1977 to 2013, as part of the school’s commitment to lifelong learning. 

In its inaugural semester, HILR had 92 peer learners and ran 13 courses. It has grown into a program serving 550 peer learners, typically producing about 80 courses each semester. A robust academic curriculum whose offerings are all developed and led by the members of the HILR community remains the core of its program model. Each year’s catalogue reflects a range of topics in the humanities, social sciences, and science and technology.   

Classes are normally held in-person at 34 Concord Ave. in Cambridge, an historic building in which HILR’s classrooms, common rooms, and staff offices are all situated. During the Covid-19 pandemic, programming has been moved online. HILR looks forward to the return to on-campus learning when conditions allow. 

The mission statement of HILR is “To promote active intellectual engagement and community in the post-professional stage of the 60-year curriculum through peer-to-peer liberal arts study.”