Let’s Get Started

HKS Magazine | Winter 2016 Let's Get Started

Let's Get Started

By Robert O’Neill

Photos by Martha Stewart

As Douglas Elmendorf, the new dean of Harvard Kennedy School, moved into his Littauer building office in January, a 125-foot crane was beginning to install the steel beams that will frame the school’s new buildings. The blueprints for the construction have been drawn. The structures are taking shape. But as Elmendorf sits down at his desk, at the center of a community of thousands of master’s, doctoral, and executive education students, tens of thousands of alumni and friends, and hundreds of faculty and staff, he has begun to think about other ways the school can build on its excellent foundation.

“The world is changing, and the demands the world is placing on the Kennedy School are changing; we need to make sure that we are keeping up with that,” Elmendorf says. “Because the school is a powerful force for good in this world, and the world is desperate for the sorts of people and ideas that come from the Kennedy School, we need to keep doing the best we possibly can.”

Elmendorf, who headed the Congressional Budget Office before being chosen as the school’s ninth dean, begins his tenure as the school prepares to enter a new phase of its existence. Under former dean David Ellwood, the school began to formulate a broad long-term vision in which it identified intellectual and public policy issues it wanted to invest in, focused on greater financial support for students and on new ways to teach them, and envisioned an enhanced physical plant capable of supporting those ambitions. It then launched a $500 million capital campaign in support of that plan. Four years into the seven-year campaign, it has already raised more than $470 million.

“I think the foundation that David Ellwood has laid is the perfect foundation for us to build on,” Elmendorf says, referring to his predecessor. “If the buildings weren’t coming up, if the school weren’t in good financial shape, if progress hadn’t been made in many academic areas, then we would need to work on those things. But because David and others did those things so well, now we can take the next steps.”

Since the announcement of his appointment, in June, Elmendorf has been thinking about what those next steps might be and how they might be taken. His first step has been to ask a lot of questions and to listen carefully.

“I’ve met with a large number of people inside the school and supporters of the school from the outside, but I think I’ve just scratched the surface,” he says. “The Kennedy School is a large and complicated place. I feel like I’m peeling an onion: I peel off a layer, and there are more layers, so I peel another layer and I just keep going. I have a long way to go, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount already.”

Loath to commit to a future course of action until the issues have been thoroughly studied, Elmendorf is nonetheless offering some sense of what his priorities will most likely be.

He wants the school to explore ways in which it can train students even more effectively, including providing more practical experience to students; using new technology more widely to improve both instruction and learning; and better integrating the different sorts of skills and approaches that students will need when they are public policy leaders.

Like his predecessor, Elmendorf also wants to provide students with more financial aid. “If we can lessen the financial burden on our graduates, then we will free them up to take jobs that have low pay but high rewards to them and to society in other ways,” he says.

Elmendorf sits at the center of a community, tens of thousands strong, of students, teachers, researchers, alumni, donors, friends, and staff. In the six months before taking the reins as dean, he met a lot of them.

He also believes the school should continue to be responsive to changing conditions in the world, focusing on new policy issues as they arise and incorporating them into research and teaching. Elmendorf noted that a number of faculty and students have talked with him, for example, about the role of technology in governance and the rising importance of Asia. Lots of good work has already been done in those areas, Elmendorf recognizes, but more is needed. And he wants to build on the school’s outstanding faculty (“the best collection of people that one could hope for”).

In all this is a recognition that what happens here at the school has real value and significance in the world. “Schools of public policy are more important than ever,” Elmendorf says.

With so much riding on the effectiveness of public policy, he argues, what’s needed is smart people with training in analytic techniques and in leadership. “That’s what the Kennedy School is providing,” he argues. “And I think there’s a huge reward for people who go into public policy with those sorts of skills, because they will have a chance to change the lives of their fellow citizens in very important ways.”

Elmendorf speaks from experience. After completing his PhD at Harvard, he taught for four years as an assistant economics professor in the economics department. But he had always been drawn to the significant consequences, for good or ill, of public policy, so he left academia for the world of Washington and a career in public service. (His dissertation committee in graduate school consisted of three macroeconomic heavyweights—Martin Feldstein, Greg Mankiw, and Lawrence Summers—all of whom were engaged both intellectually and practically in addressing economic problems.)

In Washington, he held a series of increasingly influential roles, working on economic policy at the Federal Reserve Board, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the U.S. Treasury Department. He also worked in the nonprofit world, directing the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, an economic policy forum, before being appointed in 2009 to head the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan agency tasked with providing economic and budget information to Congress. Managing the 235-person staff gave Elmendorf insight into a broad spectrum of public policy issues. And wading into debates on legislation such as the Affordable Care Act or a potential increase in the federal minimum wage, even if only to provide technical analysis, placed Elmendorf in the middle of intense political battles.

He hopes that experience will give him a unique and practical outlook in guiding the Kennedy School.

“I’ve come from the world of governance, I’ve come from one of the places where public policy is really made,” Elmendorf says. “And I hope that gives me perspective on the combination of skills, the combination of traits, that are needed to be effective in public leadership.”

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Elmendorf’s faculty title is Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy: Price served as the school’s third dean, from 1958 to 1977, after spending much of his career in public service. The school’s other deans have come from either the Kennedy School or the broader Harvard faculty.

But Elmendorf’s academic credentials, along with his previous professional and personal relationships with some of the faculty, will no doubt facilitate his integration into the academic setting—as will his management style, which he describes as collaborative, inclusive, and decisive.

“I can’t do anything on my own; I can only be effective to the extent that I can persuade a critical mass of other people at the school to march in the same direction I want to march,” he says. “To figure out the best way forward, I expect to have a lot of patience and a lot of persistence in asking hard questions. But once we’ve worked out a plan, I will be forceful and decisive in advancing that plan. I’m not going to act precipitously, but we are going to act.”

In the end, Elmendorf brings a sense of resolve. He seems driven by the understanding that the world’s biggest problems will not wait and that every successful organization is at great risk of becoming too satisfied—no matter how sound its foundations. “The Kennedy School and Harvard University are very successful places, and it’s appropriate to celebrate those successes, but we also need to be sure that we are not complacent and not afraid to try new things. We can’t afford to move slowly.”

On A Personal Note:

Elmendorf was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York. “I’m a product of the public schools.” He and his wife, Karen Dynan (above), met at Harvard, as economics graduate students, 25 years ago, and she is now assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury. “Yes, our kids do complain that we talk about economics over the dinner table.” Their twin daughters, Laura and Caroline, are juniors at Williams and Wesleyan. One wants to be a chemist; the other may be headed into the family business. “I’m sitting next to Leon Panetta, and my daughter is trying to Facetime me. She’s calling with a question about how interest rates affect money demand.” Elmendorf also has a 13-year-old black Lab named Hobie that he is fond of and likes to show pictures of. “My kids say, ‘No surprise Daddy has a photo of the dog instead of us on his phone.’” The family likes to travel together and has spent a lot of time visiting and hiking in national parks, especially in the West. “I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I basically have had hard jobs, and I have kids I spend a lot of time with.”

Additional photos by Tom Fitzsimmons, Hechler, and Stephanie Mitchell

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