His Brilliant Career

by Sarah Abrams

Originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin.

Warren Cikins MPA 1954 remembers how his decision to attend the Kennedy School — then the Littauer School — was met with skepticism by peers and mentors alike. His closest friends from his undergraduate days at Harvard were going into medicine, business, and law. His father had dreamed of his becoming an engineer, and one of his government professors wondered aloud; “Why go here? Make a lot of money, then go into public service.”

But he never doubted his career choice. His ambition, he says, began as a boy, living in Dorchester, Massachusetts, listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio talk to the American people.

“It was always my intent to serve the public; I was committed to making a difference,” says Cikins, 78, who grew up in a devout Orthodox Jewish household. Nothing, it seemed to him, could be more important than the work of the public servant.

Looking back, Cikins says he has no regrets. His career, spanning more than 50 years and including work with all three branches of government, overlapped with many of the country’s pivotal events.

In his first full-time job after the Kennedy School, he served as legislative assistant to Arkansas Congressman Brooks Hays when Hays intervened in Governor Orval Faubus’s attempt to block the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School — an effort that would later cost Hays his seat.

Cikins served with Hays in the Kennedy White House after first serving as Hays’ assistant when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations. At the Commission on Civil Rights in 1964 Cikins helped bring about the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He followed with stints at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he sought to attract highly qualified minorities, and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

A self-described moderate liberal, Cikins fought throughout his career for those who had no voice. And he did it, he says, by looking for the similarities he shared with his colleagues rather than the differences. In his 2005 memoir, In Search of Middle Ground, Cikins writes, “My style was always one of outreach. I believed in bipartisanship, bridge-building, compromise, and civility.

Confrontational approaches were an anathema to me.”

He put this advice to great use and success as a two-term elected member of the Fairfax County (VA) Board of Supervisors, on which he served from 1975 to 1980. Local politician Gerry Hyland, who worked with Cikins, noted in a profile in the local newspaper: “Warren is viewed as a person who cares and who works toward consensus. The will of the group is going to prevail above his own point of view.”

It is in the compromises, he says, that the work gets done, repeating often a truism he attributes to Hays, his former boss and mentor:

“Half of something is better than all of nothing.”

As a senior administrator at the Brookings Institution, where he spent more than 15 years, Cikins continued to promote outreach and conciliation by establishing, among many programs he created there, a highly successful annual seminar on the administration of justice, which sought to resolve differences between the three branches of government, and the Newly Elected Members of Congress seminar, an effort that helped bring new members of Congress up to speed. Towards the end of his career at Brookings, he devoted much of his energy to bringing greater attention to improving criminal rehabilitation.

In his 2001 class report marking the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Harvard, Cikins wrote that he considered his work in improving the criminal justice system, in cooperation with Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, one of his greatest accomplishments. Quoting Dostoyevsky, Cikins noted in his memoir, “Civilization will be judged by how it treats its wrongdoers.”

Cikins’s personal life reflects these same values. He remains close to his friends from high school at Boston Latin, many of whom went on with him to Harvard. Recently with his wife of 44 years, Sylvia, Cikins celebrated the 80th birthday of his longtime Kennedy School friend, Mark Cannon MPP 1953, a Mormon and political conservative. And Cikins regarded Hays, whose Baptist faith ran as deep as Cikins’s did in Judaism, as one of the most influential and inspirational people in his life. They remained close until Hays’s death in 1981.

Of the many accolades recognizing his contributions to public service that he’s received over the years, from prominent figures that include Supreme Court Justices Burger and William Rehnquist, a letter he recently received from former New York Congressman and Harvard alumnus Amo Houghton, a Republican, says it most succinctly:

“You were the role model; you’re the person who constantly tried to bring us back toward the center, and I thank you for it…you’re a great example.”

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“It was always my intent to serve the public; I was committed to making a difference.”