Sheila Burke's 8 rules to live by
Long Live the Queen
by Julia Hannah
When former Kennedy School Executive Dean Sheila Burke MPA 1982 returned to Washington, DC, in June to accept a high-ranking post at the Smithsonian Institution, she took her crown along. One of several royal gifts, the crown accompanies a plaque that reads, "It's Not Easy Being Queen" and a purple velvet pillow embroidered with this commanding pronouncement: "The Queen Is Not Accepting an Audience Today."
"It's a running joke that I'm a monarchy," Burke laughs, emphasizing, of course, that it's far from true. "The plaque was a gift from Cathy McLaughlin, the deputy director of the Institute of Politics. She gave it to me after a particularly difficult week."
No doubt there have been many challenging periods during Burke's four-year tenure at the Kennedy School. But on this calm, sunny morning in late May, the lilacs in bloom outside her office window, it seems most fitting to reflect on the beneficial results of all those long days.
Burke, however, steadfastly resists taking full credit for the changes implemented at the school since her arrival in November 1996, fresh from Senator Bob Dole's presidential campaign.
"This job is really about convening people around issues and helping to solve problems," she says firmly. "The best legacy I can leave is having helped to identify and hire some very smart people to support the extraordinary individuals who were already here. I hope I helped establish a clearer organizational structure," Burke says. "I do feel good about initiatives to reenergize the staff and provide them with support and a positive work environment."
Burke MPA also enjoyed her interaction with students. "Perhaps I can be a kind of role model, as a graduate of the school who has been involved in public service," says Burke, who will continue her relationship with the school as adjunct lecturer in public policy.
Her own career path has taken several surprising turns. After receiving a nursing degree from the University of San Francisco, she practiced at a hospital in Berkeley before moving to New York to serve as program director of the National Student Nurses Association. Then, in May 1977, she came to Washington to work on Dole's personal staff tracking health issues, fully expecting her stay on Capitol Hill to be temporary. Instead she embarked upon the second phase of her career as a Senate staffer, an intense roller coaster of a ride that lasted nearly 20 years.
Burke, who eventually rose to become Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's chief of staff, earned the praise of Republicans and Democrats alike for her mastery of detail, her steely grasp of the matter at hand, and her tireless dedication to working through issues from every possible angle. Unfortunately, this expertise was not appreciated by more conservative Republicans, who feared Burke's socially moderate, pro-choice stance was having an insidious influence on Dole. During the steamy summer months of 1995, a thundercloud of controversy surrounded the woman often referred to as "the 101st senator."
"To get Bob Dole to do the right thing, we have to climb over the body of Sheila Burke," wrote political columnist Paul Weyrich, calling her "a feminist who has mastered the art of manipulating the senate majority leader." Phyllis Schlafly infamously dubbed Burke "Hillary Lite," and a Time magazine article appeared beneath the headline "Bring Me the Head of Sheila Burke."
Many columns of newsprint later, the tempest died down, but not before senators from both sides of the aisle jumped to the chief of staff's defense. In a New York Times Magazine profile of Burke, Arizona Senator John McCain said, "I don't know whether Sheila Burke is liberal, conservative, libertarian or vegetarian. I know she is honest, decent, and hard working." At the height of the conflict, Dole was under increasing pressure to replace his chief of staff, but he appears to have paid little notice to such suggestions, or to Burke's own offer to resign.
Now that she's returning to Washington, and in an election year no less, it's tempting to ask Burke if she'll feel any twinges when she passes Capitol Hill on her way to the Smithsonian.
"No, absolutely not," she says firmly. "I look back with some happy memories and the satisfaction of a job well done, but not with a longing to return." Although she admits that she will follow the presidential race (and plans to support Governor Bush), her vantage point will be considerably more distanced than it was when she went on the road with Dole in 1996. "It was an interesting experience," she remarks, "but not one that I have any desire to repeat.
"The results of the election will have an impact on my job and the Smithsonian; we hope that whoever is elected will be supportive of our mission, but Washington is a city where you learn to support and live with the results of a decision," says Burke.
Topping the list of key issues for both candidates, she believes, will be Social Security, health care, and education. "I have three young children and am very much aware of the challenges that confront parents in respect to the quality of schools," she says.
Health care will resurface as a topic of debate, Burke maintains, despite the public's on-again, off-again interest in developing a workable plan for the millions of Americans who, despite the booming economy, remain uninsured.
"What occurred in 1994, poisoned the well for a very long time," she says, referring to the unresolved political battle that was the Clinton health care debate. "Issues surrounding managed care, quality, safety, and financing are still very present. The public as a general rule has been schizophrenic on this issue: there's concern, but also enormous confusion as to what the role of government should be and what people are prepared to support," says Burke. "The dialogue you're hearing today is a result of what happened in 1994. The solutions are more incremental and far less sweeping in terms of their impact on the near term."
Burke's own involvement with the issue will continue through her administration of a grant from the Commonwealth Foundation. The grant, co-managed with Joseph Newhouse and Julie Wilson, both of the Kennedy School, will fund a three-day meeting in Florida on health care issues for leaders in the House and Senate. And she will return to the school this fall to teach the entitlement sections of the school's survey course on health care.
Burke's presence in Cambridge will also continue through her association with the Executive Education Program, the Institute of Politics, the Women in Public Policy Program, and the Women's Leadership Institute. As one of the earliest female senate staffers on a male-dominated Capitol Hill, Burke was a firsthand witness to the gradual shift in gender representation that took place throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Today she believes that "enormous progress has been made," but emphasizes that obstacles remain.
"People need to be willing to provide the mentoring opportunities that will enable others to move up through the system," Burke says. "Women who run for office continue to confront barriers in terms of fundraising. It's still somewhat difficult to find people who will put their money where their mouths are when it comes to supporting women candidates. At the school, David King has researched gender-related topics, such as what people consider women capable of when it comes to 'boy' issues like economics and defense. There's no question that there's still resistance there," she says. "But you have to look for your targets of opportunity and seek people who hire and support women."
If each of her own career turns was somewhat unpredictable, Burke's position at the Smithsonian was no exception. "It's not a place that I ever expected to be, although I drove past it every day for 20 years," she says, while noting that her new post will parallel some of the same concerns she had as executive dean.
"My job touches on many issues that were important to me at the Kennedy School and during my time in Washington. That is, creating a connection with the public and helping people understand the historical legacy that has led us to what we are today. The Smithsonian is not unlike a university in that it's engaged in scholarly research as well as programmed activities."
Burke's bailiwick as under secretary for American Museums and National programs includes a list of 10 of the Smithsonian's most popular museums and programs, from the National Air and Space Museum to the National Museum of American History to the Center for Folklife programs.
"The new secretary, Lawrence Small, is determined to move outside Washington to reach new constituencies and make a much broader geographic connection with the public. The development of a national program is one important aspect of what he wants to do and will be part of my responsibilities as under secretary," says Burke.
The challenges Burke will face are also similar to those she wrestled with as executive dean. "We'll be undertaking a new mission, while reinforcing and expanding our prior goals. Funding, space, and building issues will be prominent too," she explains. And with a bevy of culturally rich organizations to sustain and develop, determining how to allocate support will be a constant source of debate. "It's the classic tension of limited resources and multiple priorities," notes Burke.
Regardless of her future balancing act at the Smithsonian, one resource that will become more abundant for Burke personally is time. While working at the Kennedy School, her home remained in Washington with husband David Chew and children Daniel, Katie, and Sarah, necessitating a round-trip commute of at least six hours.
"I'm looking forward to the flexibility," she says. "Spending more time with my family will be a wonderful change. And I can't wait to take full advantage of the Smithsonian's assets. I never had the time when I worked in the Senate, so it will be fun to experience the cultural side of Washington that I've never really seen."
Burke is clearly excited by the prospect of entering a completely new world of professional demands and satisfactions, whether it encompasses overseeing the annual Folklife Festival, meeting the Dalai Lama, or attending a gallery opening. But she speaks with equal enthusiasm of having a morning routine with her children and juggling the familiar demands of birthday parties and school picnics more easily.
And as much as Burke looks forward to such simple pleasures, she leaves her position at the Kennedy School with an uncharacteristic ambivalence. "I can't imagine being anyplace I would have loved more than this. I was quite tearful when I told Joe [Nye] that I was in a position to leave. I'm leaving with a lot of regrets, which I guess is exactly how you ought to leave."
Julia Hanna is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA.