Brent J. Bell, who has been the director of Harvard’s First-Year Outdoor Program (FOP) since 2000, will leave Harvard this summer to accept a tenure-track faculty appointment at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).
Bell, who has also worked for the Freshman Dean’s Office as a consultant to the Harvard Outing Club, the First-Year Urban Program, and the Prefect Program, will teach in UNH’s Outdoor Education Program. Bell was awarded a doctorate in Experiential Education by that program this weekend.
In an e-mail Friday, Bell wrote that, though he knew that in the long term he wanted to teach and do research, he had intended to stay at Harvard for two more years before leaving. But when UNH’s offer came unexpectedly, he said he decided to accept, not knowing whether such an offer would come again.
“I was not looking to leave, but UNH contacted me and I was honored to be considered,” he wrote. “I consider it one of the top positions in my field.”
FOP, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last fall, leads outdoor trips for incoming freshmen and transfer students each September. The program is organized by its full-time director and by a student Steering Committee. According to Bell, the 2005 Steering Committee is uniquely qualified to carry the program through its director’s unexpected departure.
“They are a tight group who has already been highly independent, covering for me when my son was born during FOP leader selection, one of the busiest times in the FOP calendar,” he wrote.
Joseph J. Platz ’06, a member of the Steering Committee, said committee members have a lot of experience that will help them in the upcoming transition period.
“We’re certainly going to need another director at some point...[but] we will overcome his loss,” Platz said. He called FOP “a strong program that I think will support itself even after [Bell] leaves.”
Though Bell will be available this summer to help prepare for September’s excursions, he said he hopes that a new director can be hired quickly so that he can help prepare his successor.
“I am going to help out as much as possible to make sure the transition leaves FOP in a good place, but my decision to leave and the opportunity were rather sudden, so we are in the early planning stages of managing this issue,” he wrote.
Bell added that past Steering Committee members and FOP leader alumni have already begun to come forward, offering to help with the transition.
Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth Studley Nathans wrote in an e-mail Friday that the new position will allow Bell to pursue his interests in research, teaching, and outdoor programming.
“While I very much regret his departure from FOP, this position represents a truly extraordinary opportunity for him, one I certainly expected (and encouraged) him to accept,” Nathans wrote.
Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who will replace Nathans this fall, wrote in an e-mail that he hopes a new FOP director will be chosen this summer, but the search may be prolonged if such an extension is necessary to ensure that the person selected is “a winner.”
“Brent will let colleagues know of the opening, and we’ll see those with the most compelling preparation and support,” Dingman wrote, adding that Steering Committee members and Harvard administrators will have a role in the selection.
As FOP director, Bell led the program through a successful national accreditation review by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). FOP is one of just 47 AEE-accredited programs in the United States.
In an e-mail sent to FOP leaders on Friday, Bell wrote, “The state of the FOP is good, the place is well suited for a new director to come in and be successful. For those leaders and trainees that will remain here next year, this provides a great opportunity for you to work with the transition of a new director, help redefine the program goals and influence an important Harvard organization.”
Platz said that Bell’s departure “will be a great loss for the program, but at the same time, this is really what he wants to do.”
According to Bell, what he will miss most from his time at Harvard is the FOP community.
“I loved getting to know the students. I will miss getting stopped in the yard and having students telling me about their FOP trip or their FOP leaders,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Crimson.
Bell met his wife through FOP, and their son is named after a FOP leader who passed away. According to Bell, FOP has also strongly impacted many undergraduates, some of whom have reported that it was one of the best times of their lives.
“I’m not sure if that is true, but suffice to say, the trips seem to be important experiences,” wrote Bell. “I feel honored and humble to be a part of an important experience for so many people.”
—Matthew S. Lebowitz contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Adam Goldenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.