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Thimba Outlines New Model For Public Service at Harvard College

Phillips Brooks House stands in the northwest corner of Harvard Yard and houses several College public service programs. Administrators are currently searching for a new Faculty Director to head the organization.
Phillips Brooks House stands in the northwest corner of Harvard Yard and houses several College public service programs. Administrators are currently searching for a new Faculty Director to head the organization. By Delano R. Franklin
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Delano R. Franklin, Crimson Staff Writers

As the College searches for a new assistant dean for public service, the Phillips Brooks House will pursue “a different model” of programming, College Dean for Administration Sheila C. Thimba said in an interview Tuesday.

Thimba said Phillips Brooks House will centralize and streamline public service opportunities at the College, apply to become an academic center, and develop programming focused on social entrepreneurship. She added that the College will also form a search committee — which she will chair alongside Institute of Politics Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 — to select the new dean.

Thimba — who has led Phillips Brooks House in an interim capacity since former public service dean Gene A. Corbin’s departure last May — said the changes to public service initiatives came out of a review she oversaw to assess the College’s current offerings. A 2017 $12 million dollar gift from Priscilla Chan ’07 and Mark Zuckerberg '06 spurred the review.

“We're also hearing from students who are saying it's really hard to navigate this landscape, there's a lot going on,” Thimba said. “Priscilla Chan remembered that from her experience, and she basically included in her gift some money for us to do some internal assessment to figure out how we can brand better and how we can better map the terrain for students.”

The review prompted the decision to create two positions — one assistant dean and one faculty director — to oversee public service. Thimba said Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana recommended that the Phillips Brooks House also apply for recognition as an “academic center,” meaning a faculty member would lead it.

“Think about the Safra Center or the Rockefeller Center — they organize the activities in such a way that they can be branded, right, they can have the kind of leadership and support that the work needs,” she said. “Somebody who's a senior faculty member with appropriate status and who can convene conversations around service at a broader level, who can engage other faculty in this work, who can get donors interested in supporting us, who can give strategic direction to the staff.”

Thimba added that she hopes the updated Phillips Brooks House will incentivize more undergraduates to engage in public service work. In particular, she said the updated programs will be aimed at attracting students who study the natural sciences to the northwest corner of Harvard Yard.

“We do have students who come out of the sciences and engineering, but not that many,” she said. “And so there are students who have not quite found a home here.”

She also said she thinks Phillips Brooks House could work with the Harvard Innovation Lab on fostering startups aimed at social change.

The new assistant dean will hold the title “Assistant Dean for Civic Engagement and Service” and will manage the Center for Public Interest Careers and the Public Service Network. The “faculty director” will directly oversee the Phillips Brooks House Association and the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship.

The College launched the dean search last month, nearly a year after Corbin stepped down after 15 years at Harvard. Thimba said the search will continue through the summer, when many students and faculty interested in public service remain on campus.

Gearan declined to comment on the timeline for the search, but wrote in an email he is “confident we will attract a pool of talented individuals who see the critical nature of this work for Harvard, higher education and for our nation.”

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.

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