Were it not for a flyer posted on a crowded bulletin board that caught his eye on his way to class, Joseph Tompkins MPP 1975 would never have attended Harvard Kennedy School. The flyer advertised a discussion among Harvard Law School students who were spending their year at the Kennedy School as part of a new JD/MPP joint degree program. Tompkins attended, and was struck by his fellow law students’ enthusiasm for the public policy classes they were taking. He decided to apply and the following fall traded the law school’s Langdell Hall for the Kennedy School’s cramped quarters in the old Littauer Center.
In 1972, when Tompkins started, the entire Master of Public Policy class consisted of 24 students — eight of whom were joint law degree students — who met in the same classroom all year. They had almost unlimited access to the faculty, which included Richard Neustadt, Tom Schelling, Phil Heymann, Francis Bator, and other luminaries. In addition to appreciating the tremendous knowledge and experience these professors brought to the classroom, Tompkins was struck by how they used case studies of real public policy problems to help students learn to think about such issues.
“When I went to the Kennedy School, Graham Allison was in the process of getting his PHD and had just published Essence of Decision, his famous book about the Cuban missile crisis,” Tompkins remembers. “That book might be one of the greatest case studies ever written.”
Tompkins grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountain area near Roanoke. After his year at the Kennedy School, he looked for a summer job in government. Then-Governor Linwood Holton, a lawyer who had practiced in Roanoke before his election, was the brother-in-law of the managing partner at a firm where Tompkins had worked after his first year of law school. Tompkins called his lawyer friend, who encouraged him to apply for an internship in the governor’s office that summer. A month or so later, he was invited to spend the summer in Richmond working for Holton.
“I did some interesting projects,” says Tompkins. “And when I came back to the Kennedy School that fall, I told one of my professors about my work.” Virginia had just created a new agency — the Council on the Environment — to coordinate the various boards and commissions involved with the environ-ment, such as the Water Control Board and the Soil Conservation Board. Tompkins had made recommendations to the governor and his staff about coordinating the procedures and regulations of those boards to eliminate or consolidate duplicative permitting and similar processes so that the government and the regulated businesses could save time and resources and still protect the environment. “One of the professors at the Kennedy School told me that what I did during the summer would make a good case study, so I wrote it up,” Tompkins says. “I looked at what went wrong and what went right. Examining how issues were framed and how decisions were made, and putting that in a case study format, helped clarify my thinking.”
This experience, along with the process of writing several other cases while at HKS, was such a meaningful part of his education that, almost four decades later, Tompkins decided to support the expansion of the HKS case program. To ensure that future students will benefit from the unique learning experience that cases provide, Tompkins has donated $500,000 to the Kennedy School. His gift will, over the next three years, nearly double the output of the Kennedy School’s case writing program, with the addition of 15 to 20 new case studies a year. This expansion will help the Kennedy School maintain its position as the world’s largest producer of case studies for the nonprofit and government sectors. Kennedy School classes use case studies for both degree program and executive education sessions. They are extremely popular with students and faculty members alike; many professors use several cases per course, and some management instructors present a separate case in every class session.
Tompkins had long been interested in finding a way to support the case-writing program. During a meeting of the Dean’s Alumni Leadership Council in 2004, he asked then-Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr. how many new cases were produced each year — and, as Tompkins puts it, “Nye said that we didn’t have the resources to focus on it as much as he would have liked. He resolved to one day help the school ramp up its case production. Tompkins remembers receiving a telling report from HKS at the beginning of 2011. Two slides stood out. “The school did an alumni survey, and of the 4,763 responses,” he says “the case study program was at the top of the list by far in terms of what alumni thought was the most effective teaching method.” The second slide showed that in the 1980s, 82 cases were being produced each year but from 2006 to 2011, the annual production rate had dropped to 16 cases. “That got me to think about doing something serious,” he says.
The fact that his son Graves MPA 2008 was a joint MBA/MPA graduate helped him to make up his mind. He brought Graves to HKS for the first time in April 2004, when Graves was working for an investment firm in New York and considering applying to Harvard Business School. “It was the 25th anniversary of the public policy program,” Tompkins says, “and I went with Graves to the rededication of John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. We were both blown away by the ceremony and the 25th anniversary dinner afterward, and Graves told me that night that he wanted to come here. When I talked with him last year about the idea of making a gift to the HKS case program, he was very enthusiastic, pointing out that at HBS, cases were practically all they used. He agreed that it was a great teaching method.”
Forty years after his decision to attend the Kennedy School, Tompkins is now a senior partner in the Washington, DC, office of the international law firm Sidley Austin LLP, where he focuses on white-collar crime and complex commercial litigation. Tompkins has been with Sidley Austin for 35 years except for three years at the U.S. Department of Justice, which he joined in September 1979 thanks to Heymann, the James Barr Ames Professor of Law at HLS and a member of the HKS faculty, who had been appointed assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division in 1978. At the Justice Department, Tompkins worked on a government-wide study of all law enforcement and investigative agencies and how they decided which white-collar crime cases to pursue. That study resulted in a report of the attorney general titled “National Priorities for the Investigation and Prosecution of White-Collar Crime,” which was published in late 1980. Tompkins was then appointed deputy chief of the fraud section in the criminal division, where he served until returning to Sidley Austin in 1982. Tompkins vowed to create a white-collar crime practice at Sidley, and it is now one of the largest practice areas in Sidley’s Washington office.
When he’s not working, Tompkins is busy giving back, not just to the Kennedy School but also to his church and community. He sings in his church’s men’s choir and is dedicated to helping people through a church fund that assists local residents who are down on their luck. Public service runs in the family: His other son, Forbes, is a meteorologist working on a master’s degree in climate and environmental policy at Johns Hopkins. His daughter-in-law, Colleen Brooks Tompkins MPP 2007, who met Graves while at the Kennedy School, is serving as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Tompkins’ gift, he says, is a way of recognizing the special influence the school had on him and continues to have on countless others. “What the Kennedy School is doing is important, not just in the United States but in the world,” he says. “When I was there, it was relatively small and composed mostly of students from the United States. What impresses me now is the size and the international dimension of the school. To me, the case study program is even more important now in helping the school train today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.”