Campus & Community

Q&A with departing Dean Ellwood

long read

He relates how Kennedy School changed during his tenure, and where it’s going now

David T. Ellwood, the eighth dean of Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), will step down on June 30, the School announced today. Ellwood ’75, Ph.D. ’81, was appointed dean in 2004 by President Lawrence H. Summers, succeeding political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr.

During his 11-year tenure, Ellwood more than doubled the financial aid for prospective students, from $11 million to $23 million per year, to help free those drawn to public service from student loan debt after graduation, a priority of his deanship. He also shepherded HKS through the recent recession, strengthening its financial stability and endowment. Thus far, the School has raised more than 70 percent of its $500 million campaign goal. His departure comes as HKS prepares to embark on a dramatic campus expansion next spring, pending regulatory approval.

A leading scholar on poverty, welfare, and family, Ellwood, 61, the Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy, joined the HKS faculty in 1980 and twice served as academic dean. From 1993 to 1995, he took a leave to serve as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton, playing a major role in national welfare reform, a top priority of the Clinton administration.

Ellwood spoke with the Gazette about his time as dean and what’s next for the School and for him.

GAZETTE: Why have you decided to step down now?

ELLWOOD: When I became dean, I promised myself and my family that I’d serve for eight to 10 years; it’s now been 11. I believe that institutions need and benefit from change, new ideas, and new leadership. The future’s looking very bright for the School. I think we’re in good shape. I still love this job, but I’m looking forward to some new challenges — getting back in the classroom, which I badly miss, and taking on some of the important issues around social policy and inequality that have been so much a part of my life. For all those reasons, I think it’s the right time to step down.

GAZETTE: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

ELLWOOD: Honestly, I am most proud of our mission to educate exceptional public leaders and to provide the ideas to solve the most important public problems. I meet extraordinary alumni around the world who lead nations and social enterprises. I see the impact of ideas nurtured here. And I meet with our deeply committed, inspirational donors, who feel like their investments have really paid off. It’s a great honor to be dean.

Certainly, my top priority throughout my time as dean has been to attract the best possible people into the School and to public service by lowering the cost of education through increasing financial aid. We’ve more than doubled the financial aid we provide to our students, going from $11 million to $23 million a year. The reason that’s so important is that the people who are attracted to the Kennedy School most often have other opportunities for a graduate education. Some consider other public policy schools, but some think about other professional schools such as law or business, so strong financial aid makes it much easier for people to come to HKS. But even more importantly, if they do come and they have a lot of debt, then that’s going to affect their job choices after they graduate. I’m thrilled if people want to go into jobs in business or government or civil society, but I want them to go where their highest and best uses are, where they believe they can make the world a better place and have the greatest impact, not where they’re simply going to have the easiest time paying off their debt.

The Kennedy School is now strong financially. In spite of the 2008 recession, we’re in excellent condition. I’m very proud of the faculty we’ve been able to recruit. We have a very exciting group of people, including a significant number of women. And now we’re embarking on an exciting development project, which I think will transform the campus. I’m committed to making sure we pay for it all with philanthropy so that my successor can help lead this School to a brighter future.

GAZETTE: What are some of the major challenges that the new campus project will address?

ELLWOOD: For most of my time as dean, I had been skeptical about developing new buildings, because I’ve seen too often how the process of building one can become so expensive and complicated. But in the end I concluded that for us to move forward academically and strategically as a school, there were three things that were essential. One, we had to change the nature of how we teach, with far fewer lectures and far more active learning. Unfortunately, we have a set of classrooms that are designed for lectures. We need a different, more flexible set of spaces.

A second feature that seemed absolutely critical has to do with our ideas. When you look and see what organizations around the world are doing when they want to create really innovative, novel solutions to hard problems, they ensure that their physical space supports collaboration. They have smaller offices around more common spaces. We currently have a classic office arrangement, with long, thin corridors of faculty on every side, and often closed doors. It seems to me that if we’re going to take on the really exciting and important public challenges, we need to have a physical space that helps people work across boundaries. That is essential.

And finally, our space should build community and provide opportunities for students, faculty, and visitors to interact, formally and informally. Honestly, our public spaces are so constrained right now that it’s becoming impossible even to find a room. So our new campus plan will provide much more useful common spaces. One element that’s the most exciting of all is what’s going to happen to our courtyard. The plan is to raise it up a whole story so it’s level with the street and our buildings, making it much more pedestrian and bicycle friendly and, just as School’s Forum does today, providing an ideal place to connect and engage. The transformed campus will also be much more open to the community, providing a more welcoming space to Cambridge and beyond.

GAZETTE: What was the School like when you started here 34 years ago, and what is it like today?

ELLWOOD: A bunch of things have changed. One is just our sheer size. We are vastly larger in every way. But even more importantly, our mission has grown. When we first started as a School, we thought our mission was to train people for government in the way that the Business School trained people for business. We have a much more comprehensive view of our mission now. We are about making the world a better place, about training public leaders, leaders who care about something larger than themselves or even their own organizations, who care about the public interest. Those public leaders can be in government, but also in civil society, nonprofit NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and in business. The goal here is to get spectacular public leaders out and into the world.

We are so much more international than we once were; now our student body is almost 50 percent international. We have students in our degree programs from 90 countries and in our executive programs from 140 countries. Because of our scale, we have had the chance to influence the world in many settings, whether it’s reducing the threat of nuclear war or helping to launch community policing, welfare reform, and dozens of other policy solutions. Ideas that were born or nurtured at the Kennedy School have made a huge difference. So all this together makes it an institution of significance and weight.

GAZETTE: The scope of work at HKS is quite broad, and the School is perhaps more decentralized than most at Harvard. What has it been like to helm such a diverse institution that has a tangible, global reach?

ELLWOOD: What holds this place together — the “secret sauce” — is this passion for making the world a better place. Everyone here believes deeply that it’s his or her opportunity and responsibility to make the world better. Many people regard it as a very naive notion — in which case I say I’m thrilled to be leader of one of the largest groups of incredibly smart, successful, naive people in the world [laughs]. We really are united by that. It also means that you have to walk the walk. It’s easy to talk about making the world better, but if you’re really going to lead, you have to be seen as a place that makes its decisions based on mission. And that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do throughout the time I’ve been fortunate enough to be dean.

To me, it’s setting a clear agenda, setting a clear set of missions, having an operational and organizational structure that is, I hope, as strong as anybody’s at the University, while at the same time being flexible to allow the kind of entrepreneurship and passion that motivates the faculty and the students and staff here.

When I first came here, we were so worried as a faculty about never creating artificial boundaries that might limit our capacity to solve problems that we actually had no departments, no structure, nothing! So part of what we did was to put together an internal structure, whereby each faculty member is in one of six substantive areas (for example, International and Global Affairs, or Social and Urban Policy). Each course is in an area, and each research center is connected to one. But these are not regular departments; many faculty teach courses in multiple areas. And the areas do not have hiring authority. The overall faculty hiring strategy remains at the School level. So we have the best of both worlds. We work across boundaries, we do work in different domains, but we’re not so scattered that we’re nothing.

GAZETTE: We’re in a time of tremendous global conflict. How does HKS further its public service mission amid very real obstacles — political, religious, ethnic, financial — to that effort?

ELLWOOD: It does require some innovation; it does require new ways to think about public service. So as part of our academic planning and now our capital campaign, we’ve tried to focus on some really big, hard problems that require us to work more creatively, things like making democracy work, creating shared, sustainable prosperity, and harnessing the forces reshaping our world. The reason it’s so important that we build the new buildings and have new leadership is to figure out how to bring together the skills of the institution — our convening capacity, our students, our alumni, our remarkable set of donors and supporters — to really try and focus and answer some of those problems.

In the end, our graduates will always be our most powerful tool. As dean, one of the great joys is to go around the world and see what our alumni are doing. Among our alums are the secretary-general of the United Nations, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning president of Liberia, and the presidents of Singapore and Colombia. Our alumni serve as ministers and very senior government officials. We also have alumni who are social entrepreneurs, who are finding ways to help farmers or create strategies to deliver vaccines more effectively, or dozens of similar things. We have alumni who are working on job programs in rural India and rural Indiana, and others work in consulting firms, in NGOs, the World Bank, and other settings far and wide. What is so striking is how much they continue to be motivated by their passions to make a difference in the world five, 10, or even 20 years after they’ve graduated. I watch all that they’ve done and the impact they’ve made. And they feed their ideas, their insights back to the School and help us think about where we’re headed.

GAZETTE: In an era of rising institutional distrust, attributable in part to governmental dysfunction and political polarization, what role can HKS play to reverse this trend? And does the School need to rethink how it approaches the teaching of government and politics given this environment?

ELLWOOD: We do need to teach and think differently. There’s no question about it. We need to train our students to solve real-world problems. When I talk about our big themes, one is to train our students to make real-world change happen. The example I love to tell involves Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. He came to the Kennedy School for an executive program for new mayors that is hosted by the Institute of Politics. He met one of our faculty members, Linda Bilmes, who was doing a class session on performance-based budgeting. Now, it doesn’t sound like a very exciting thing, but he got excited. He convinced a group of our students from her classes to come to Somerville to help him reshape Somerville. And now, Somerville, you can just see, it’s taking off. The excitement of that is, one, you can turn around a city, you can make government work. Second, the students who participated — and they worked very hard — a large number of them learned more about how to make real-world change happen using budgeting and other tools than they ever could have in a classroom alone, yet the tools of the classroom were essential. So that kind of interactive, active/engaged learning — whether it’s in Somerville or in Somalia, or California or Calcutta — those are the kinds of things that have such enormous potential. It’s why we need to think about our physical structure. It’s also why we need to think about how we teach and where we focus.

There are really fundamental challenges to self-governance. Throughout history, at some level, some people have always been attracted to authoritarian modes because those institutions seem to be able to get things done. And right now we seem to be in a bad spot, particularly at the national level, where the problems are large and complicated. And our political systems are mired often in partisanship and, frankly, symbolic rather than substantive answers. The Kennedy School has been and really needs to be a place where scholars, practitioners, and leaders from various sectors work together and think about better alternatives and workable solutions; I’m absolutely confident that the School will do that.

GAZETTE: How will you feel when you finally pass the baton, and what’s next for you?

ELLWOOD: I’m sure I’ll feel decidedly mixed. Being dean has just been such an enormous honor and such a great pleasure. I will miss two things more than anything. I cannot tell you how compelling it feels to me to work in a place whose mission is to solve all these hard problems, where it really is about making the world a better place. Even more than that, I will miss the collaborative nature of being dean, and the people I work closely with. Being a scholar is, by its nature, a fairly solitary pursuit. As dean, I work with a group of people who do everything they can to make students as successful as they can be, to change the world. I am going to miss that camaraderie, that shared sense of purpose. After a sabbatical, my current plan is to stay at the School, to get back to teaching and research, and to focus on poverty, inequality, and the many other issues I care about.

One last thought: It is in the nature of academia that you have to announce your planned departure long before the end of your time, but there is no way I’m going to be a lame-duck dean. This year is as important and maybe more important than all the rest. I want to make sure the new campus development project is in great shape. I want to continue to put pressure on us to think hard about enhancing our teaching. I want to make sure we work effectively on bringing together people and building community around the School. So I have a lot of work to do, I have a great group of people to work with, and I’m going to enjoy and work hard every minute, until I hand off the keys to the next dean.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.