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Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Harvard’s largest public service organization, announced the appointment of Gene A. Corbin as its new executive director Wednesday.
Corbin—a senior research associate at the Kennedy School of Government who was selected by PBHA’s board of trustees last month—said in an interview yesterday that he hopes to increase PBHA’s visibility on campus and bridge the gap between service and academic work.
“There is a lack of recognition, even at Harvard, and especially in the larger community, about the nature of PBHA and all it’s doing,” he said.
As executive director, Corbin will work closely with the student leaders of the more than 70 PBHA programs, supervise its paid staff members, help manage its finances and work as an “ambassador” to Harvard and the communities served by PBHA.
The executive director position is particularly important in an organization with rapid student-leadership turnover, according to PBHA President Ayirini M. Fonseca-Sabune ’04, who chaired the committee charged with finding someone to fill the post.
Corbin’s selection comes at the end of a four-month search which attracted nearly 250 applicants from across the nation.
His breadth of experience in both community service and executive-level management experience made him a exceptionally strong candidate, Fonseca-Sabune said.
Currently studying civic engagement in public school reform, Corbin will come to PBHA with extensive experience working with organizations to promote social changes.
Corbin has led organizations with programs similar to those at PBHA in the past—including a large, community-based agency in Mississippi which provides services for homeless and low-income residents. In addition to working closely with members of the community, as the executive director there, he also managed staff and finances.
Despite his experience, Corbin said that when he begins his new job on June 2, he will not have a rigid formula for change.
Corbin said a major part of his job will be to make community connections and increase financial support for PBHA without diminishing the role of students in fundraising.
“I greatly value the student-led nature of this organization. I think its what makes PBHA unique,” he said. “There is so much incredible energy here because it is a place where students feel real pride and ownership in what they are doing.”
Corbin pointed to PBHA’s numerous after-school programs as ideal examples of student service.
“It’s not a thin notion of volunteerism where students bless the world with their spare time,” he said. “It’s about a deep respect for people and building relationships that empower people and increase the capacities of neighborhoods.”
Fonseca-Sabune noted that Corbin’s job would require “a tremendous amount of energy and dedication” beyond the nine-to-five hours of a daily job.
Corbin said he was ready for this high level of commitment and eager to work with students to tackle the challenges ahead.
“I already find myself being stirred up by their dedication to making a difference in the world,” he said. “I like to be part of things that really get under my skin and make me want to give a much of myself as possible to them.”
In addition to helping fundraising efforts and promoting PBHA within the University, Corbin said he hopes to bridge the gap between the organization’s service and advocacy roles.
“PBHA students are thinking hard about ways to add more advocacy and organizing efforts to their service projects to promote structural change,” he said.
His work organizing the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in Austin, Texas from 1998 to 2000 shows he understands the important relationship between service and advocating structural changes within communities, Fonseca-Sabune said.
“I think he is going to work really well with students,” said Emily P. Schmitt ’04, the organization’s advocacy programming group officer. “His background as an organizer is a unique thing that he brings to PBHA.”
In 2001, Corbin left Texas to pursue a master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School.
Since arriving at Harvard, he has worked with students as a teaching fellow in Government 20, “Introduction to Comparative Politics” and other College government courses, receiving the Derek Bok Award for Teaching Excellence. This semester, he is the head TF for Noam Chomsky’s “Politics, Justice, and Social Change,” a course offered jointly between the Kennedy School and MIT.
Though he will likely leave the classroom when he becomes PBHA’s executive director, Corbin said he hopes to connect the service of PBHA to course work.
“Across the nation, people are recognizing that service experiences add real depth to classroom learning,” he said.
PBHA provides the perfect combination of being in an academic environment and working to help the world, he said, adding that he hopes to help Harvard acknowledge and then address this phenomenon.
According to former PBHA vice president Timothy R. Schneider, addressing and defining PBHA’s relationship to the University will be one of the biggest challenges Corbin will have to tackle.
A Long Search
Applicants for the executive director post came from all across Massachusetts and as far away as California—including employees at other Ivy League schools and PBHA’s own alums—Fonseca-Sabune said.
The PBHA Board of Trustees, a 20-member group of students, community members, Harvard administrators and alums, officially approved Corbin's selection. A subset of this committee— made up of the current and past PBHA student president and vice presidents, Dean of Public Service Judith Kidd and Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the KSG and PBHA trustee Mary Jo Bane—narrowed the candidates down and made their final decision on April 29.
Their search for an executive director focused on finding a candidate that would carry out PBHA’s mission, develop fundraising and work equally well with all PBHA “stakeholder groups,” Fonseca-Sabune said, including community members, students and administrators.
In the end, she said, Corbin was an ideal choice.
A native Texan, Corbin received an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Stephen F. Austin in 1984 and holds a Master of Divinity from Southern Seminary.
Maria J. Dominguez has been acting as the interim executive director since Paul A. McDonald, left the post last October to become director of development at The Cotting School in Lexington, Mass.
The position of PBHA executive director was created in 1997 as part of an agreement between PBHA and Harvard College to provide better accountability for the group. As executive director, McDonald bridged the gap between students and staff at PBHA, a student-run organization that is professionally supported.
Though he does not start until the summer, Corbin has already been a ubiquitous presence at PBHA, regularly attending meetings and interacting with students, said Fonseca-Sabune.
—Staff writer Faryl W. Ury can be reached at email@example.com.
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