My take on the Harvard debacle isn’t about plagiarism or antisemitism. And it’s not about leadership, race or gender.
It’s about continuing education.
Hear me out. My take is rooted in a Twitter fracas between Harvard’s H. L. Jayne Professor of Government, Jennifer Hochschild, and Harvard antagonist Christopher Rufo. (For me it’s Twitter, not X, at least until the service no longer redirects to Twitter.com.) Specifically, Hochschild questioned Rufo’s attempts to pass himself off as a Harvard graduate despite the fact that his master’s degree is from Harvard’s Extension School.
First, some background on continuing education: for nearly 200 years, U.S. colleges and universities have provided occasional and part-time programs for the community. Harvard was a pioneer, delivering free public lectures in the 19th century and establishing its extension school in 1910. Today, most large universities have continuing education divisions offering courses, certificates and industry-recognized certifications. UPCEA—the association for professional, continuing and online education—has around 400 U.S. member institutions.
While the goal might once have been to expand access or to benefit the community, continuing education is now run as a profit center. In a recent survey jointly conducted by UPCEA and the online newsletter The EvoLLLution, revenue generation dwarfed other objectives like advancing professional opportunities, providing access to underserved populations and alumni engagement. The survey report quotes the dean of extension at the University of California, Los Angeles: “It can be a sensitive topic, but the reality is that most PCO [professional, continuing and online education] units are responsible for bringing revenue to the institution, increasingly at public universities and specifically where there’s been a decline in revenue from state or local governments.”
I once served on the advisory board of a flagship’s continuing education division. Each year division leaders were handed an annual contribution target—profit continuing education was expected to contribute back to the core.
To attract students to these (primarily) noncredit courses, continuing education divisions trade off the parent brand—70 percent of continuing education leaders say brand is their primary competitive tool—and go to great lengths to demonstrate they’re as much a part of the university as the history department. As usual, Harvard is an exemplar.
“We Are Harvard,” the Extension School website proclaims. “We are a fully accredited Harvard school. Our degrees and certificates are adorned with the Harvard University insignia. They carry the weight of that lineage. Our graduates walk at University Commencement and become members of the Harvard Alumni Association.”
While Harvard Extension School doth protest too much, the approach works; brands attract students. Just look at the rapid growth of coding boot camps that partnered with continuing education units to trade off university brands: Trilogy Education (acquired five years ago by 2U) and FullStack Academy (acquired in 2022 by Simplilearn). In establishing a “school”—like the better-known Business School, Law School and Kennedy School—Harvard may be in the top tier of tricky. (The fact that the Extension School is part of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education is in the fine print—the same continuing education division that uses the slogan “Yes, that Harvard.”)
What do faculty members really think of continuing education? Hochschild offered a clue on Jan. 3 when she took to Twitter to strike back at the conservative provocateur who helped take down her president.
How about also [sic] scrutinize websites and c.v.’s, e. g. Rufo’s? The Harvard extension school has wonderful students—I teach them—but it is, admirably, open admission. Not what people usually mean by “master’s degree from Harvard,” which Rufo has claimed. Hound him out of office??
And she kept at it in subsequent tweets.
On Rufo: what do integrity police say about his claim to have “master’s degree from Harvard,” which is actually from the open-enrollment Extension School? Those students are great—I teach them—but they are not the same as what we normally think of as Harvard graduate students.
Hochschild went on to accuse Rufo of using “weasel words to try to attach himself to Ivy status and prestige.”
Now, I’m no friend or fan of Chris Rufo. As far as I can tell, his one accomplishment is figuring out how to buy and use antiplagiarism software (albeit likely demonstrating more technical agility than most faculty members). But as he lit the plagiarism fuse back on Dec. 10, Rufo acknowledged, “I earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s night school—not nearly as prestigious as the graduate school—but, if I had committed these kinds of violations, I would have been expelled.”
As this became apparent and Twitterians lit into Hochschild, she tied herself in knots attempting to explain, likely setting a record for the most consecutive backhanded compliments of continuing education students.
Extension school students are mostly smart, ambitious, hard working, thoughtful, sometimes very accomplished—but mostly striving for upward mobility without background that would get them admitted to what is usually understood as Hvd. grad school
I admire and respect the students and I love talking with them … My gripe is with people who try to pass themselves off as something they are not.
I don’t get the point of all of this scolding of me. Rufo is the one being a snob, by obfuscating exactly which Harvard unit his master’s degree comes from. If he were proud of it, wouldn’t he say so explicitly?
Her comments roused the slumbering Harvard Extension Student Association, which last week told The Harvard Crimson it was “deeply concerned and disappointed by the recent comments.” In response, Hochschild managed to apologize without further insult, although disingenuously: “my point, which was clearly phrased badly in the original tweet, was that students should proudly state their HES degree.”
So here’s what we’ve learned. Hochschild teaches Extension School students. She loves Extension School students. Some of her best friends are Extension School students!
Hochschild is right in one respect: continuing education students are different. They’re almost always older. They’re also probably working. They almost certainly had fewer advantages than traditional Harvard students. Which means they probably worked harder and are less likely to be afflicted by a malady common to denizens of Harvard Yard: born on third base, they think they hit a triple.
But Hochschild’s comments—described by one interlocutor as “dripping with elitism” —are symptomatic of the bigger problem: universities view as inferior nondegree pathways, nontraditional students and apparently even nontraditional students in degree pathways. As long as they do, they’re highly unlikely to lead the way on providing more realistic, accessible and in-demand pathways to good jobs for millions of Americans. That’ll be the province of new providers and intermediaries and perhaps community colleges. But you can go ahead and rule out the four-year colleges and universities currently absorbing most students and public investment.
This explains why universities segregate continuing education, keeping it small and contained. Sixty percent of continuing education leaders say continuing education is “not well-integrated into institutional portfolio offerings.” Only about 40 percent say that students can earn credit for enrolling in their unit’s nondegree offerings, with institutional barriers cited as the main hurdle to doing so. And more than half of continuing education leaders say they don’t have the budget or staff to execute institutional goals.
Hochschild’s clumsy attack on Rufo is the perfect encapsulation of the higher education elitism Americans are fed up with. If universities continue to prioritize a narrow-minded, inside-baseball definition of prestige over their stated missions (Harvard College’s mission: “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society”), things will continue to go south. Expect more anti–higher ed action in Washington, like December’s shockingly bipartisan House committee vote eliminating federal student loans for Harvard and its elite brethren in order to provide more funding for … you guessed it: continuing education. If this bill ever becomes law, it’s going to hurt Harvard more than Chris Rufo, Claudine Gay or Jennifer Hochschild ever could.