News & Ideas

Connecting through Learning

Portrait of Rob Shapiro in Radcliffe Yard
Robert Shapiro. Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

For Robert N. Shapiro, giving to student programs is a way to bolster the independent learning that has always been integral to Radcliffe.

Robert N. Shapiro ’72, JD ’78 may have graduated more than five decades ago, but student engagement is still as important to him as when he began teaching as a senior in Eliot House all those years ago.

For Shapiro, teaching—and reaching out to students—was a way of giving back. “It would be great to do for some number of other people what my great teachers were doing for me,” he recalls thinking. Although he would go on to a successful legal career with Ropes & Gray, where he served as a partner in the international firm’s private client group from 1987 to 2016, Shapiro was at that point seriously considering a career in teaching. That possibility came up when he reconnected with his former advisor from Phillips Exeter Academy, Edward (Ted) Gleason ’55.

Gleason had become headmaster at Noble and Greenough School, in nearby Dedham, and recruited the young philosophy concentrator. “Before I had a college degree, I was on the faculty at Nobles as an English teacher,” says Shapiro. “Two afternoons a week, I taught a course that I created in philosophy and literature.” That first experience whetted Shapiro’s appetite for connection, and today, engagement is key to his generosity. Most recently, the longtime Cambridge resident made a substantial gift to establish the Robert N. Shapiro Fund for Student Engagement at Radcliffe. This follows the creation in 2016 of the Edna Newman Shapiro, Class of 1936, and Robert Newman Shapiro, Class of 1972, Graduate Student Support Fund. Shapiro has long been equally magnanimous with his time, having been a member of Radcliffe’s Dean’s Advisory Council since 2016. A true University citizen, Shapiro also has previously served as the vice chair of the Harvard Board of Overseers and the president of the Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Law School Association, along with helping to lead many other educational, cultural, and arts organizations, from the Peabody Essex Museum to Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society.

Preferring the word “advising” to “volunteering,” Shapiro notes that these commitments all involve “teaching and learning, listening and figuring out situational challenges” and “trying to be imaginative and creative and not hemmed in by convention.”

Photo by Kevin Grady/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

The through line for all these diverse experiences, explains Shapiro, is in the connections—both those that scholars and students can make with each other and those between Radcliffe and the larger University. “Connections with learning, connections with people who are learning: Harvard has never let me down,” Shapiro says. In his view, Radcliffe represents the epitome of such connections, serving as a gathering place where scholars who seek to both teach and learn can convene.

Although his personal history is with Harvard and Harvard Law, Shapiro—the recipient of a 2018 Harvard Medal, for extraordinary service to the University—sees Radcliffe and Harvard as intrinsically linked. “It’s essential to Radcliffe to have Harvard, and it’s also essential to Harvard to have Radcliffe,” he says.

“Rob understands the vital role the Institute plays in carrying forward Radcliffe College’s legacy of inclusion,” says Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a professor of history in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “He is not only a generous philanthropist; he is a tremendous ambassador for the interdisciplinary exploration that occurs here.”

In fact, Shapiro’s first major gift—the Edna Newman Shapiro, Class of 1936, and Robert Newman Shapiro, Class of 1972, Student Support Fund—came about largely to honor his mother’s experience as a Radcliffe alumna. Following his father’s death, when Shapiro was 11, his mother, Edna Newman Shapiro, had to support her young family, first finding work in an architectural preservation firm and ultimately getting licensed as a real estate broker in the 1960s. As an independent businesswoman in that era, “she was a role model,” he pointed out. Through it all, Radcliffe, he recalls, acted as her anchor.

“My mother loved her time at Radcliffe,” says Shapiro. In addition to the lifelong friends she made there, Radcliffe served as her gateway to lifelong learning. “She was bringing up a family, but she was always signing up for what were then called Radcliffe Seminars,” he says. “She would do landscape architecture. She’d do architectural design. She’d do historic houses.

“There was always a sense of independent learning at Radcliffe.”

Shapiro’s fellowship benefits graduate students in their last year of study, he explains, because “I thought that would be a place where it would be helpful.” In return, he enjoys interacting with these promising young scholars. “Every year since I did the funding, I have had a chance to attend the talk that the fellow gives, which I love doing,” he says. In addition to enjoying the back and forth of questions from other scholars, he often finds the time to get together with the recipient. “It’s really fun to sit down and ask, ‘How did you come to this? What are you doing?’

“There was always a sense of independent learning at Radcliffe.”

“In my mind, I’ve actually never ceased to be a teacher,” Shapiro says. “One reason you want to teach is seeing young people discover stuff.”

Such interactions underlie the Robert N. Shapiro Fund for Student Engagement at Radcliffe. The new fund will support the Radcliffe Institute in its efforts to create dynamic research and learning experiences for students. With this gift, Shapiro advocates for outreach to the full Radcliffe community, from older alumnae who recall an independent Radcliffe College to young scholars who connect through the Institute as well as the undergraduate participants in Radcliffe’s Emerging Leaders Program and the high school sophomores they mentor. “My interest is in ongoing teaching and learning at every single level,” says Shapiro.

Leveraging the approach he once deployed for his clients as an estate lawyer, Shapiro combined both bequest and current-use components in his gift, thus maximizing the impact of the contribution by providing near- and long-term funding for student engagement.

“It’s just part of the civic and philanthropic engagement, where people can manifest their interests in a material way while knowing they’re touching people’s lives in ways that matter to them,” he says. “So I figured out what would work well for me in order to combine current giving and planned giving, what would have impact currently as well as a perpetual presence over the long term.”

The resulting gift is “woven into the fabric of what I did professionally and what I did beyond the professional work and in my board positions and committee positions for a long time,” he explains.

Key to all of this is Shapiro’s commitment to engagement. “If people came to this campus and spent five minutes meeting these kids, they would be absolutely blown away—as I am, every time I meet someone who’s applied to a program I’m involved with or have a conversation sitting next to them at a House dinner or other campus event,” he says. “Radcliffe is one of the really important portals into this special world of student engagement, with graduate student fellows from all around the world, learning programs, and public programs. And it is at the heart—the very heart—of the University.”

Clea Simon ’83 is a novelist whose most recent title is Bad Boy Beat (Severn House, 2024).

Return to the spring 2024 Radcliffe Magazine home page.

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