Celebrating Public Service at the Harvard Kennedy School Forum

September 11, 2008
by Robert O'Neill

Tiziana Dearing MPP 2000, former executive director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, remembers the momentary internal struggle she felt when asked to become president of Catholic Charities. She hesitated, thinking of how difficult it would be with her two young children, but in the end she decided to accept.

“I’ve made every major career decision in my life based on a gut sense of calling,” Dearing said during a panel discussion on public service at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Wednesday night (September 10). “It’s that moment where the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and your stomach tells you - regardless of what you think, regardless of whether you’ve said yes or no, regardless of whether you can see how you’re going to make this work - are you going to ‘woman up’ or not?”

The panel was one of the inaugural events kicking off a new effort by Harvard Kennedy School this academic year to focus on public service. Other panelists included R. Nicholas Burns, who recently joined the Kennedy School faculty after a 27-year career as a diplomat; Michelle Rhee MPP 1997, chancellor of the public school system in Washington D.C.; and Anthony Williams MPP/JD 1987, the former mayor of D.C.

Panelists discussed their careers, focusing on the common thread of public service.

“I decided that if I was interested in government and governance, I wanted to be in the arena,” Burns said on his decision to join the Foreign Service. “You can practice idealism, you can make a difference, and you can be directly involved in the life of your country and the world. I can’t think of a better thing, on an existential basis, to do with your life.”

Williams addressed the importance of mentors. He described how, when still only a recent graduate, he was visited by a Harvard Law School student eager to talk about Williams’ career choices. Williams was struck by the student’s eagerness to learn from others, and urged students to follow that student’s example and actively seek mentors. (That law student was Barack Obama.)

Rhee discussed balancing work and family in a high-profile job.

“My two bits of advice are: One, you have to be great at compartmentalizing; [The] second is also to engage your family in what you are doing,” she said. “My kids are both really well aware of everything what I’m doing and why I’m doing it … and they think that what I’m doing is important and I think that’s an important part of them developing as good citizens as well.”

Panelists expressed hope that public service would be given more importance by the next occupant of the White House.

Panel moderator David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership, lauded a new effort to promote national service that is gaining ground in Washington. “We’ve got a real chance … to make national service something that’s more central in our culture,” he said.

Public service should also be seen broadly, not just as service in government or political office, Burns said.

“It’s the explosion of the NGOs,” he said. “There are thousands of opportunities in the non-profit sector that didn’t exist 30 years ago. There’s teaching. And there’s even community service or community organizing.”

Image of panelists David Gergen and R. Nicholas Burns

Panelists David Gergen (L) and R. Nicholas Burns (R). Photo credit Martha Stewart.

“You can practice idealism, you can make a difference, and you can be directly involved in the life of your country and the world. I can’t think of a better thing, on an existential basis, to do with your life," Professor R. Nicholas Burns told the audience.

Forum panelists Michelle Rhee and Anthony Williams

Panelists Michelle Rhee (L) and Anthony Williams (R). Photo credit Martha Stewart.


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page