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The Resource recently sat down with David T. Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) to hear about trends in public public service education.
Resource: How would you describe the Kennedy School of Government’s strategy and direction as an institution?
David T. Ellwood: Our basic mission is straightforward: It’s to make the world a better place. We do that in two primary ways: We’re training a remarkable group of people to be great public leaders, and we’re creating ideas that will lend real solutions to public problems.
With a mission that broad, one of the interesting challenges is to say, what are the big problems where we could really make a difference?
When you look at what we’re facing in the world, there’s a series of very big questions and issues, but they have several features in common. They tend to cross boundaries – they aren’t just issues about government or business or civil society. They’re all of those things.
For example, if you think about what’s going on in social policy right now, what is it that really fights poverty? It turns out that economic growth is far more important than almost anything else you can do. So how do you create economic growth? Some of the answer is going to involve education. Some of the answer is going to involve government activities. But a lot of it involves a set of conditions and supports and incentives so that business can thrive in different settings – and the answer is likely to differ from one country to another. That means the solutions are going to involve government, they’re going to involve business, and they’re going to involve civil society, all working together to solve those problems.
In terms of what we do at the school, these can be organized around five principal areas. One area incorporates international relations, security and science. Another includes issues of governance, particularly democratic institutions and politics. A third has to do with markets, business and government – a whole set of things around the economy. A fourth is social policy, where fundamentally, you’ve got to find a way to provide the support, ideas, insights and energy needed for people to advance. And finally, management and leadership, which is central to effecting positive change around the world.
Resource: How has KSG’s vision changed over the last 10 or 20 years?
Ellwood: The Kennedy School was originally founded on the notion of creating a “profession” of government as there is for business and law. But that approach proved to be too narrow. Because of the nature of the problems we now face – and the nature of the solutions – we need to work across the boundaries of government and business and civil society. And, as I said earlier, [we need to] work across not just boundaries between different sectors, but also boundaries across nations.
Today, the Kennedy School is much more broadly about public service and advancing the public interest. Some of that will be in government, but it will also involve people in business, in law, in science and many other professions. Our role is to provide people across a variety of sectors with the skills and expertise to really make a difference.
Resource: Where do your students come from? What are their backgrounds?
Ellwood: The Kennedy School is the most international school at Harvard. Forty-three percent of our degree program students come from some 80 different countries. We also have 2,000 participants annually in our executive programs, and they are highly international as well.
The Kennedy School offers two-year programs that attract students from diverse backgrounds, who have shown a commitment to advancing the public interest in some fashion, whether in school or professionally. We also have mid-career students who come for a one-year program, and typically go back to fairly high-level positions. Several of our alumni are heads of state – for example, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the new president of Liberia.
Resource: What do your graduates do with their degrees?
Ellwood: Some work in multinational organizations. Some run for office. In this last election cycle, more than 30 Kennedy School graduates were running for national office. Some work in business. Many go into government at different levels. When I was the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in Health and Human Services, many of my employees there were graduates of the Kennedy School. In every organization I dealt with, whether it was the National Governors Association, public sector unions, the Chamber of Commerce, I found myself dealing with Kennedy School graduates working on public policy issues.
Resource: There is a sense that politics in the United States has become divisive and acrimonious. How do you train public servants to work in this kind of environment?
Ellwood: Let me back up and reframe the issue. We’re in the early stages of creating a new initiative at the Kennedy School called “Acting in Time.” The notion is that there are big problems – disasters like Katrina, or the budget, or global climate change, or security – where, if we act sooner rather than later, we will have an easier time dealing with these problems.
Part of what prevents us from acting on those things is partisanship and, I would say, myopia. But it’s more than that. You’ve got to understand the nature of the problems. You’ve got to think deeply about the solutions. I think the classroom has got to be a place where we expose people to lots of different types of ideas, rigorous thinking, and the recognition of values and motivations across a wide, diverse group of people. And so to me, one of the antidotes to partisanship is respect. Another is finding people who are willing to take risks and work across traditional boundaries.
Resource: There has been a great deal of controversy over a paper written by the Kennedy School’s Stephen Walt. What is the school’s position on the paper?
Ellwood: As a matter of academic policy, the Kennedy School does not take a position on the research conclusions reached by individual faculty members. That includes the paper, titled “The Israel Lobby,” which was co-written by Steve Walt of the Kennedy School and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.
The paper has certainly generated significant press coverage and a vigorous discussion, and I have talked to many people who have expressed a range of views. I have underscored to each of them that one of the most fundamental tenets of all American universities is academic freedom. Scholars introduce ideas and evidence into the public arena where they can be energetically discussed and debated.
The work of scholars will rise or fall in the marketplace of ideas and the bright light of open dialogue. This principle must be at the core of all academic institutions, including the Kennedy School.
Resource: How would you describe the culture of the Kennedy School as a workplace for faculty and staff?
Ellwood: The Kennedy School is a very dynamic, entrepreneurial and highly energetic place that attracts people who believe in something larger than themselves. There is a shared commitment to making a real difference.
You can walk through the school on any day and discover an enormous amount going on. The Forum alone offers a series of compelling discussions that the Harvard community can tap into. In just the last few weeks, we had Alejandro Toledo, the president of Peru, we had deputy secretary of state, Bob Zoellick (a KSG alumni), talking about a range of public policy questions, and we hosted a debate between the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under the Bush administration and the former head of International Economic Council during the Clinton administration, moderated by President Summers.
Resource: You have written about the changing profile of the American family. How would you characterize the work/life issues that have come up at Harvard?
Ellwood: Let me start with my own research. I have found that the impact on wages among women who have children differs a lot based on skill level. Lower-skilled women typically do not have a steep wage trajectory; their wages aren’t going up fast as they age, so when they have children, there is not a dramatic change. By contrast, if you look at highly skilled women, you find that at the age they have children, their wage trajectory may be steep. When they have children, however, their wages flatten out dramatically. This means that there are high personal costs in terms of career and wages with having children for highly skilled women. It also probably explains why more highly skilled women are postponing childbearing or not having children at all.
I think this plays into a set of questions around academia, such as, how do you provide support and flexibility and opportunities for people in a time when there are multiple demands? These issues are starting to concern men as well as women. We’ve been working hard to have a flexible and progressive system for parental leave – but these are also societal issues, and we ought to be studying larger societal answers. No one institution is going to solve it.