Anne M. Sweeney: From the Ed School to Children's Television

Ask Anne M. Sweeney about being nominated for the Board of Overseers, and she responds with the classic Hollywood line: "It's an honor to be nominated, it really is."

Maybe Sweeney ought to be in movies, but she's actually in television. Currently living in Los Angeles, Calif. she is the president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks and the Disney Channel.

She credits her time at the Graduate School of Education with launching her career. After attending the all-women's College of New Rochelle in New York as an undergraduate, she was drawn to GSE because of its prominence in children's media.

At the time, she remembers, the school was well known for its involvement in the development of the popular children's television shows, Sesame Street and Electric Company.

"It heightened the awareness of children and made people think differently about the education of children," she says. "The Ed school is really responsible for launching my career."

"I think what the Ed school taught me was the importance of being a leader and looking at every industry with fresh eyes," she adds. "The Ed school was fearless."

After graduating from GSE in 1980 and working briefly at a production house, she took a job at Nickelodeon in 1991. She stayed for 12 years.

When she did the deal to launch Nickelodeon in the United Kingdom, she caught the eye of Fox television mogul Rupert Murdoch, who hired her to start to cable networks FX and FXM.

In 1996, she was offered the presidency of the Disney Channel.

"I spent a couple of weeks doing nothing but watching it," she says. "I wanted to do television for families. I didn't think it had been done before."

Sweeney's management philosophy seems to fit with Harvard's famously decentralized structure.

"The team sets the goals. Then I give people a lot of autonomy. I believe they should run their departments the way they would run their own businesses," she says.

Retired GSE Professor Gerald S. Lesser worked with Sweeney while she was at Harvard.

"She took three of her eight courses with me and she was an ideal student," he said. "In her own quiet determined way she has taken a really leading position in the field of media directed toward children... I don't think we've had that much representation of children on the Board of Overseers."

Sweeney views learning as a life-long task.

"What role does the university play for those life-long learners?" she asks. "I know that Harvard, just like every institution, needs to evolve."

In keeping with that theme, Disney has begun Zoog Disney--interactive television. Sweeney describes watching her own daughter multi-task while watching television with a discernible sense of awe.

"[She was] chatting with friends about what she was watching while she was also pulling up a website," she says. "She was multi-tasking but it was seamless."

Disney's goal, she says, is to "get up to speed with what kids were doing."

"The central theme is staying connected to families," she says. "Maybe that's what I could also bring to the Board of Overseers--staying connected between the learners and the University."

Sweeney has been on the GSE's visiting committee for the past two years.

She is married to attorney Phillip Miller, whom she met at GSE.

"Another great benefit," she jokes. They have a son, 14, and a daughter, 9.