Campus & Community

Steering students into public service

6 min read
Joseph Nye (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.

President John F. Kennedy SB ’40, LLD ’56 spoke these words almost 40 years ago but the spirit of his message is the driving force behind development of the new Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston taking root at the school named in the former President’s honor – the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

The Institute, funded by the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Charitable Foundation, will coordinate an array of academic and scholarly functions with the aim of improving governance of the Greater Boston area. Graduate-level students from several local colleges and universities (including Suffolk University Law School where the Rappaport Honors Program in Law and Public Service will be based) will participate through internships, fellowships, lectures, discussions, and training sessions.

“The Kennedy School’s mission is to train leaders for public service and to contribute to the solution of public problems,” said KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. during a news conference last week. “The new Rappaport Institute is perfectly aligned with this mission, allowing the School to focus particularly on issues of concern to our immediate neighborhood of Greater Boston.”

“We are a great University, which has tended to focus on national and international affairs, often paying insufficient attention to our own backyard.” says Alan A. Altshuler, Stanton Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at KSG and the Graduate School of Design (GSD), and the new Institute’s faculty director. “That backyard, incidentally, must be viewed today as including both the immediate localities in which Harvard is located – Cambridge and Boston – and the Greater Boston region as a whole.

“It’s most exciting that we now have core funding to support graduate students in acquiring rich experiences of public service at the state and local level in Greater Boston, to contribute to public deliberations about the great issues facing the region, and to provide trusted forums for discussion of these issues,” he continues.

‘What we want to do is to enable new thinking and new ideas to be injected into local problems by providing talented young students and professionals with the ability to afford a job in the public sector, even in the face of student loans.’

Phyllis Rappaport, foundation chairman

With a colorful cast of characters that includes former mayors John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and James Curley, Boston has long been known as a hotbed for political dynamism. In recent years, however, City Hall and other regional institutions have faced increasing internal and external pressures, creating a paralysis of sorts on many fronts – frustrating politicians and residents alike.

“One of the reasons that we’re so [politically, culturally, and ethnically] fragmented in Boston … is we don’t have a deep understanding of ourselves as a region,” says Institute Executive Director Charles Euchner, who previously served as associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. “When we talk about the Boston region, we often talk about different things so we don’t have a common vocabulary for understanding the region.”

Developing this “common vocabulary” will complement the Institute’s intent to provide “nonbiased usable research” for local government officials throughout the region. “It must be something that is immediately a tool that can make a difference in public policy,” Euchner says. One example is the “Heart of the City” project – a thorough site and conditions analysis of the green spaces and communities connected with the Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, Boston Nature Center, and other nearby areas.

“What we can do is provide a kind of neutral place where people can go for reliable, trustworthy information; where they can go for a good, open, honest conversation; where they can go for bright, creative young talent; and where they can go to understand how the pieces fit together,” Euchner explains.

A longtime political activist, attorney, and developer in the city with a tremendous interest in civic affairs, Jerome Rappaport holds three degrees from Harvard, including an MPA from the Kennedy School. His five-year gift establishing the Rappaport Institute is valued at $2.75 million.

“What we want to do,” says Phyllis Rappaport, who chairs the foundation, “is to enable new thinking and new ideas to be injected into local problems by providing talented young students and professionals with the ability to afford a job in the public sector, even in the face of student loans.”

The Institute will finance internships for 10 graduate-level students each summer from Harvard, Boston University, and Suffolk University. They will be chosen from a range of disciplines, including business administration, economics, public policy, and urban policy and planning. The fellowships, for immediate past alumni of graduate and professional programs, are open to all recent graduates of Boston-area colleges and universities. Six will be awarded each year.

Euchner plans a series of forums, panels, and “brown-bag luncheons” where people can “gather to talk through issues…without fear of being knocked down by someone who has a vested interest in the current ways of doing things.”

“A great benefit of the Rappaport grant is that it will encourage faculty and students to interact frequently with government and civic leaders, learning from them as well as contributing to their own deliberations,” Altshuler remarks.

The Institute will also hold training sessions and seminars for local political leaders. “Local governments tend to be overwhelmed with day-to-day demands,” Euchner says. “We want to provide a place where they can come and learn about things that will help them tackle issues that they know they want to tackle – everything from management to new policy approaches to development to creative new ways to thinking about housing, transportation, or parks, zoning, or whatever the case may be.”

Development of a comprehensive local issue-oriented Web site is also well under way now at the Institute. The site is expected to be launched by January.

“We are in a fast-changing world,” Euchner says. “Our region has been dramatically transformed demographically, economically, socially, and culturally in the last generation and we don’t have a way of finding common ground.

“I don’t think the Rappaport Institute will provide the common ground for everything, but it can provide a place that people trust, and information that people trust, and talent people can use, and a way of understanding some connections. Ultimately all we can do is be good helpers and that’s what I’m hoping we do with it.”

President Kennedy would approve.