Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) since January 2008, Mohsen Mostafavi announced on October 24 that he would step down at the end of the 2018–19 academic year. His tenure saw the strategic expansion of several degree programs, along with a roughly 50 percent increase in the GSD’s student body, according to The Harvard Gazette. His departure—just as new president Lawrence Bacow takes office—prompted questions about the motive. RECORD spoke to the dean on the telephone. Below is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
The timing of this announcement seemed rather abrupt, and came as a surprise even among some faculty.
All of these jobs have a certain duration. I’ve been working very closely with [former Harvard president] Drew Faust on the Grounded Visionaries fundraising campaign that was supposed to come to a conclusion this September. I had been thinking that when we complete the campaign— which we’ve done very successfully— is actually a good point to step down. The only thing is that Drew Faust herself stepped down earlier than, to be honest, I had expected. By January, it will be 11 years that I’m dean. Before that, I did three and a half years at Cornell, so it’s quite a long time doing this kind of work, which requires a lot of incredible efforts. I really am looking forward to having a sabbatical and also being able to do a little more of my own research and teaching. I think also for the institution, it’s a good thing to have people with new ideas, with fresh ideas. I really am proud of what we have done, but, at the same time, after the campaign, you really need someone who’s going to hang around for another five-plus years and do other kinds of projects.
No one would disagree that it’s become incredibly complex to lead a school. That’s why, in light of the #MeToo movement, which has touched the GSD, and the fact that a search committee to replace you was only named on November 8, your announcement, without a clear reason, did raise speculation.
The timing of it probably goes back to about two and a half years because I have been in conversation with Drew about our campaign. The fact is that you plan these things a long time in advance if things are going well. I've been in those kinds of conversations. I think the whole question of #MeToo and other issues is incredibly important. This is part of the current situation that we face. One of the key lessons for us is to fundamentally question the organization of design—of office structures, how we work within the academy, but also outside. At the GSD, we have been incredibly supportive of the students who participate in these discussions. Our students are also among the best and the brightest, and they’re the most vocal. I’ve been there with women in design, with our African-American student union, with the full student forum, constantly discussing ways in which we look at ourselves and the way we can really change the world.
Do you think it’s an inevitability that your successor will be a woman?
It would be a really positive thing, but I don’t think it should be a fait accompli. The most important thing is to find someone who can do the best job possible. But symbolism is also important, and so it may depend on who the candidates are and where the balance is between all of these things, while not undermining or underestimating the importance of symbolism.
Many credit you with helping to bring Rem Koolhaas to Cornell to design Milstein Hall, and Herzog & de Meuron with Beyer Blinder Belle to the GSD to revamp Gund Hall. Are those important parts of your legacy?
I really would love for people to focus on the kinds of intellectual projects that we have engaged with, the interactions that we’ve had with people around the world, the studio-abroad program, the people that I’ve hired or we’ve hired together, the kind of events that have gone on here, the lectures, the evenings, the conversations, the exhibitions, the publications, the kinds of models that we’ve built. What is really important is the everyday. Of course, for someone who doesn’t know the nuance and the details, they might say it’s those two building projects. And we do have a very extraordinary project by Herzog & de Meuron, which I hope will be realized soon. But those are just symbolic representations of a legacy.