A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

To the Harvard Kennedy School Community,

I am writing with the sad news of the passing of Shirley Williams, a retired member of our faculty. 

Shirley Williams was Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics at the Kennedy School from 1988 to 2000. She was one of our first professors of practice and taught a range of courses including “To Be a Politician” and “Women in Politics.” Former dean Graham Allison wrote me that “students fortunate enough to take her course learned that elective politics is an arduous but noble calling—one in which conflicts and compromises are inherent. It is the profession, she argued, most in need of good and sound men and women without whom democracies flounder.”

Shirley’s time at the Kennedy School was just one part of her trailblazing career. In the words of a long and thoughtful obituary in The Guardian, Shirley Williams was “one of the most influential figures in British social democracy in the latter half of the 20th century.” She was a member of the UK Parliament from 1964 to 1979, in the Labour Party, and from 1981 to 1983, in the Social Democratic Party—which she had cofounded in 1981 and led as its president from 1982 to 1988. From 1974 to 1979, she served in various positions in the British Cabinet, including as Secretary of State for Education and Science. 

I did not know Shirley well, but I have received moving words of tribute to her from others at the Kennedy School. Former dean Joe Nye said: “Shirley was passionate about policy issues, and always willing to listen and engage with other viewpoints. We were lucky to have her as a member of our community for so many years.” Former dean David Ellwood wrote: “She brought her nuanced wisdom, deep humanity, fierce independence, and intense belief in the power of politics to transform nations. She championed women, equality, dignity. When Shirley thought HKS was falling short, she would look you in the eye and offer a devastating critique, provide suggestions, and leave with a warm smile suggesting she was on your side and knew you would do better.” And Victoria Budson, former long-time executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program wrote: “She and I worked very closely as we founded together the women-focused policy work at HKS in 1996. She was a unique leader and change agent. She took me to the Parliament building, and we walked the halls and chambers all the while discussing women’s growing leadership in public life.”

Shirley Williams was married to Richard Neustadt, one of the founders of the modern Kennedy School, from 1987 until his death in 2003.

David Ellwood concluded: “Much of what is best at HKS today bears Shirley Williams’ imprint.”