“I VISIT THE KENNEDY SCHOOL because when I leave, I am energized and feel more optimistic,” says Jill Wagner MPA 1983. A member of the HKS Fund’s Executive Council since its founding, in 2014, Wagner was talking about a recent visit to the School. But she was also speaking more broadly about an association that goes back almost four decades and has been a major part of her journey as a lifelong learner.
Her personal dedication to learning extends to helping others achieve their educational goals. This is one reason she donates annually to the School as a member of the Littauer Society, which recognizes individuals who give $1,000 or more a year to the HKS Fund. It is also why she is on the HKS Fund’s Executive Council, where she puts her marketing skills to work as an advocate for alumni giving. “I think that we can remind people to tap into the passion they felt when they were at the Kennedy School—to tap into what their degree has provided the world at large because of their education, and to tap into how much more we have yet to do,” she says.
Donors to the HKS Fund provide crucial resources that give the School the flexibility to respond to emerging challenges and seize new opportunities. For instance, HKS was able to bolster digital HKS and additional emerging opportunities because of funding from alumni donors. “These funds helped start many initiatives at the School,” says Wagner. “And as we enter a new era of disruption, from quantum computing to artificial intelligence, what will this mean for education, for the classes being taught at HKS? How do we get our arms around cybersecurity and privacy?” By donating to the HKS Fund, she says, alumni can help the School address the thorniest issues confronting society today by working to educate the changemakers and leaders who will take prominent roles in shaping our collective future.
Wagner has been pondering public problems her whole life. A native of Denver who received her bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University, she spent her career as a marketing executive in the telecom industry at a time when it was dominated by men and when the field was disrupted first by the federally mandated dissolution of AT&T and then by the advent of mobile communications.
She says her time as an HKS student gave her the confidence and knowledge to discuss technology with experts. “The technology boys saw me as a marketing type who did only creative stuff,” she says. “But I could go toe-to-toe with them over the technology, since I knew it as well as they did. I understood the possible ramifications when it came to privacy. I knew how technology evolves, how it was not a static thing, and that there were plusses and minuses as it evolved—and this didn’t scare me. I learned this at HKS.”
A strong advocate for women (she was the first female president of the student body at Iowa State), Wagner has pushed the organizations with which she has been involved to diversify their workforces. Now that she has retired, she continues to mentor young women—not in the boardroom, but in the sorority house where she lives with 45 college-age women near the University of Minnesota. “I’m the adult in the room,” she says. “It’s a hoot and a half, and keeps me young.”
She focuses on education because, she says, “education solves problems; it doesn’t put a Band-Aid on them.” With all that’s going on the world today, Wagner says, it is important that she feed her optimism. “I know that at the Kennedy School, the best and brightest are working on the most intractable problems”—a feeling that was reinforced when, on the plane from her home in Minneapolis to Cambridge, she read a piece on the crisis in the democratic West by Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations. “As a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Burns can say things that not everyone else can say, and say them in a way that has a lot of legitimacy,” she says.
A voracious reader, Wagner often peruses books and articles by HKS faculty members, and she knows that her annual donations to the HKS Fund fuel their work. “Many of the funds the Kennedy School receives are donated for something particular—and the HKS Fund is the glue that puts all of these things together,” she says. This glue connects the pieces because even when dollars are earmarked for specific uses, gaps remain. “The HKS Fund is essential to enabling the School to maintain excellence in its mission,” Wagner says. This is why she is such a staunch supporter of Harvard Kennedy School.
Portrait by Raychel Casey