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Illustration by Roland Sárkány
Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Between 2011 and 2036, Harvard’s river-spanning campus in Cambridge and Allston became a magnet for mature professionals. It offered a unique advantage not available online: access to idea exchange and connections across the whole University, including multigenerational dialogue and interdisciplinary, problem-solving education. Harvard was known as a pioneer in later-stage education.

On a typical day in 2036, undergraduates mingled with former CEOs, financiers, military generals, attorneys general, medical leaders, and all the others enrolled as fellows in the Advanced Leadership Institute. Prior to this innovation, lifelong learning had been much discussed but rarely implemented at Harvard. There were mid-career programs; short executive-education programs at many schools; and ad hoc opportunities for a few late-learners to enroll in degree programs. Most of these efforts were extensions of professional education. For people finishing their careers, Harvard offered some informal peer-learning activities with no particular focus. But no program offered access to the entire Harvard course catalog, or prepared those later in life to take their experience to a new realm and tackle the problems of society. The Advanced Leadership Initiative, which had started with its first cohort in 2009, was an effort to fill the void by drawing on collaborations among faculty from all of Harvard’s schools.

The fellows came to campus to create projects to ensure public goods such as sufficient global supplies of high-quality education, healthcare access, and economic opportunity. The undergraduates brought fresh ideas that combined with their elders’ wisdom-from-experience, with help from faculty experts.

Gaining credentials in advanced leadership had become an increasing obligation for those who reached the pinnacle of their professions. Starting in 2005, Harvard faculty across the professional schools had promoted the idea that accomplished leaders would define their legacies by the difference they made in the world after completing their main careers, through a bold project, in collaboration with faculty and students (some of whom might be their own grandchildren)—making the transition from good leader to advanced leader through one or two years of study. The fellows would come to Harvard as learners and mentors, ready to absorb and use the latest knowledge, sometimes returning to earlier interests they had abandoned while pursuing a professional degree and a tidy income. They would launch projects, sometimes through Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, and remain connected to a network that would multiply the projects’ impact.

This new stage of “even higher” education responded to a demographic revolution begun in the twentieth century, when life expectancy doubled. Harvard, among the institutions that helped create that revolution through science that improved health, was certainly the first to seize the opportunity created by longevity to invent a new kind of higher education and a new area of professional practice.

In fact, the numerous conferences and think tanks focused on applying leadership to world problems helped save the campus concept in the early years of the global information age, when the demand for higher education grew throughout the developing world, and the virtual university threatened to overtake the physical variety. By 2036, due to Harvard’s plunge into a new stage and new forms of higher education, the University had overtaken such 2011 mainstays as Davos and Aspen as a site for convening its own dispersed multigenerational learners and the world’s best thinkers and doers. Cambridge and Boston were like the mothership—a staging area for work around the world, a place to integrate diverse strands of knowledge from active projects. They were also the site of learning laboratories such as model pre-school through secondary schools and incubators for business and social ventures that spanned the globe.

From its 375th to its 400th anniversary, Harvard continued to attract the best scholars and researchers because its educational programs were directed at the biggest, most significant problems, tapped the creativity of every generation, and spanned the life cycle: liberal-arts education, professional preparation, mid-career refreshers, and the innovative plunge into late-stage transitioning to advanced leadership.

 

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is Arbuckle professor at Harvard Business School and chair and director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative.