Michael B. Alexander ’73 and Elsa M. Núñez were named 2023-24 presidents-in-residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education April 4, when the program was also renamed in honor of HGSE senior lecturer and program founder Judith Block McLaughlin.
Presidents-in-residence at HGSE assist the instruction of higher education courses and meet with and advise students in weekly office hours. Former presidents-in-residence include Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow and retired presidents from institutions including Bridgewater State University, Morehouse College, Northeastern University, and Wellesley College.
Alexander — who previously served as assistant dean of freshmen at Harvard College and who will step down from his current role as president of Lasell University on June 30 — said he hopes to impart lessons about the collaborative nature of a university presidency on HGSE students.
“You have to deal with everything, and raise money, and hire good people, and keep them motivated,” Alexander said. “You have to be willing to prepare and support the people you work with to be successful, to use their skills and experiences to the best of their ability, which means allowing them to make their own decisions.”
Núñez, who is the president of Eastern Connecticut State University, said she will bring to HGSE her experience working with a diverse faculty and student body.
“Harvard is giving voice to people from modest backgrounds with my appointment. In other words, they’re saying, ‘We want to hear from leaders who have led institutions where there is a large percentage of faculty of color, of students of color, and people from modest backgrounds,’” Núñez said.
She also said she hopes to share her candid experiences as a university administrator with HGSE students.
“People usually laugh when I say, ‘The best way you can learn is through my mistakes,’” Núñez said.
This reflection on mistakes is exactly the style of mentorship the presidents-in-residence program aims to provide, according to McLaughlin, who will retire from HGSE this year.
“In the end, the criteria for choosing someone was that they had been successful in their careers, but they would also be candid about the mistakes they made,” McLaughlin said of the presidents-in-residence selection process.
McLaughlin said she founded the program to provide former presidents with a transitional opportunity to share the knowledge they acquired throughout their careers.
“You have all this expertise that you’ve developed over time, but there’s no place in which to convey it. It’s not appropriate for you to be a personage on your former campus — that’s the role of the new president. And yet you really are an expert, and this expertise in some senses goes untapped,” she said.
McLaughlin added she believes the role of a university president is particularly challenging today because of the controversy surrounding higher education.
“The public criticism of higher education, particularly now, is intense,” she said. “Critical thinking, diversity, equity, inclusion, even truth and facts, sort of foundational values for higher education are under attack.”
McLaughlin also said she feels hopeful for future generations of higher education leadership.
“I’m heartened by the fact that, despite the difficulty of the job, there are people who choose to enter it and who really commit themselves to it in very, very important ways — give their energy, their hopes, their hearts to it,” McLaughlin added.