FRANK STANTON died on December 24 at age 98.
The Kennedy School, in particular, has scores of reasons to be thankful for the life of Frank. Without him CBS, where he served as president for 25 years, would not have defined the gold standard for television journalism, with Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and so many others.
In our world, without him, the Kennedy School would have no Forum. Full stop. We would also have lacked a credible champion among business leaders in the first phase of building the school. There would have been no scholarship fund, no spectacular celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary as part of Harvard’s 350th birthday in 1986,
no center for the press and politics — and so much more.
Frank had no relationship with Harvard until 1978, when Andrew Heiskel, CEO of Time, Inc., and a member of the Harvard Corporation, nominated Frank for the Board of Overseers. Frank liked to tell the story. Andy called him
and said, “Good news: You’ve become an overseer!” Frank expressed his gratitude, since from Heiskel’s tone of voice he could tell this must be a great honor. But when a series of indirect questions revealed that he had been selected an overseer of Harvard University, he said to Heiskel, “But I didn’t go to Harvard.” Never at a loss for words, Heiskel
shot back, “Serves them right.”
At the time, Stanton was an iconic business statesman.
He was widely recognized as the leading force in the emergence of CBS as the dominant network, having shaped a culture in which Murrow and colleagues defined the standards for highest quality television journalism and having stood down Nixon’s Justice Department and a contempt citation.
Frank succeeded Eliot Richardson as chairman of the Visiting Committee of the Kennedy School. At the time,
we were a fledgling gleam in several eyes — but certainly unproved and high-risk. The fact that Frank Stanton had cast his lot with this emerging venture gave us instant credibility, not only among business leaders, but also in government. He symbolized quality, integrity, courage, and tenacity. Individuals who would never seriously consider association with us agreed to join a visiting committee of which Frank Stanton was chair. I cannot recall a single case where his request that someone meet the two of us was refused.
By the time Frank was aboard, the first building for the new school was designed. Frank was so unfailingly polite and reserved that it took him several approaches before I understood his view that the building lacked a certain excitement. For those of us involved in the process, just getting a building built on the site that had been at the eye of a controversy that led the Kennedy Library to leave for Dorchester was more than we could manage. Yes, the building was Harvard brick, its cornice line just short of the houses across the street, and the combination of offices and classrooms pretty vanilla. But we had already designed more building than we had money to pay for. Just building a new home for the new school seemed excitement enough.
Frank challenged us to stretch
our imaginations. Even at this last moment, was there not some way to make this something special, to express our aspirations? That challenge stirred a dream I had discussed earlier with the assistant dean at the time, Ira Jackson. As an admirer of the Agora in Athens and the Forum in Rome, and having seen the Oxford Union, I wondered why Harvard had no major locus for debate of great issues. Closer to home, Ira and I visited classic New England town halls. With such visions stirring in our heads, we prevailed upon our architects to consider what they could do — if they pulled what they thought was the final design for the building apart at the intersection of what had been an “L.” Within two weeks we had a sketch, and a week after that, a suggestive model. Frank liked it and took it from there. He called Thornton Bradshaw, CEO of Atlantic Richfield, flew out to Los Angeles with the model, and came back with a check. As the architects moved from concept to drawings, Frank engaged, determined that we have both a space that worked for a unique function and a touch of elegance in the design. The result is a space that is perfectly balanced and that expresses uniquely Harvard’s aspirations for the school.
Of the telling of Stanton stories there is no end. When Jonathan Moore (then director of the Institute of Politics) and I were searching for ways to take account of the central role of the press in democratic governance, several influential people from that world sought to back us off. I recall vividly the reaction of the publisher of The Washington Post, Kay Graham. She dismissed the idea of
a Harvard-based center that might study whether the press was fulfilling responsibilities essential to a successful democracy as “dead on arrival.”
Frank insisted this was a worthy idea. He endowed the Ruth and Frank Stanton Professorship of the First Amendment as one of the first positions in the new center. Frank funded (or took the lead in raising funds for) a number of other chairs at Harvard, including the Jerry McCue Professorship at the Design School, on whose board he also served, the Elisabeth Allison Professorship of Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and a professorship named for me at the Kennedy School.
During the last decade, as Frank’s health began to fail, his presence at
the school became less frequent. Even then, he made sure to be in the Forum three years ago when all the major news anchors — Woodruff, Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, and Lehrer —
gathered on the dais to discuss the upcoming election and the current state of network journalism. It was just the kind of event that Frank had imagined a quarter of a century ago and, through his vision, influence,
and hard work, had made possible.
The Kennedy School has lost a wonderful friend in Frank Stanton, and he will be deeply missed.
Graham Allison was dean of the Kennedy School of Government from 1977 to 1989. He is currently director
of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.