When Tom Harford, a dean at the School of Continuing Education, was at the University of Maryland, he was a “not very academically engaged student,” leaving college to perform off-Broadway throughout the ’80s. But a passion for studying directing rekindled his interest in higher education, and he wound up pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the City University of New York.
Soon, he became more interested in the “larger student life picture,” he said. “Who were the students in my class? What kind of support were they receiving to do well outside of this class?”
So it is thanks to a life in and out of the classroom that Harford finds it fitting that he is taking the helm as the School of General Studies Dean of Students on Sept. 15.
Harford said his 15 years of experience working with nontraditional students at Columbia and City College and his experience as a nontraditional student himself positions him uniquely to serve as dean of students.
“A through line I’ve seen in all of that is that having activities that create relationships between disparate peers groups is very important,” Harford said. “It’s very important that the veteran GS student be engaged in community with the full-time, younger, more quasi-traditional GS student.”
At his new job, Harford has set his top three goals at GS: improving academic advising, student life and community, and ties between GS alumni and current students.
In an interview Tuesday, Harford said that he would consider an internal assessment of the GS academic advisement office similar to the one completed last year by the Columbia College and the School for Engineering and Applied Science Center for Student Advising.
The outgoing associate dean of non-degree programs in Continuing Ed, Harford ran and worked in the advising center at the City College of New York before coming to Columbia in 2005.
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel just for the sake of doing it,” he said. “There’ll be a period of assessment. How accessible is advising to the GS student? How are we using technology to communicate to students?”
He said he would be interested in instituting virtual conversations with advisers through Skype, if staff from the advising office is on board.
Harford says he has not yet examined the work of his predecessors—former dean of students Scott Halvorson, who resigned in May, and the subsequent acting dean of students Leslie Limardo. He is not sure how or if his responsibilities will differ from theirs.
“I tend to go in with fresh eyes,” Harford said. “That way I don’t go in with preconceived ideas, but can do an assessment based on what I see happening on the ground that day, which is really what matters.”
Nick Hesselgrave, GS ’14, met Harford at a MilVets orientation. “I liked that he was anxious to hear about what I’m doing” with MilVets, he said.
For Harford, being appointed Dean of Students “seemed like coming full circle.”
“I started as a GS-type student,” Harford said. “And given my experience personally and professionally, in many ways, I view this position as the professional calling of a lifetime.”
Michelle Inaba Mocarski contributed reporting.