Mark Gearan has worked for congressmen, governors, and presidents; he has managed presidential campaigns and White House communications; he has run the Peace Corps and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. And he credits his remarkable career in public service to an Institute of Politics summer stipend, which allowed him to go to Washington one summer, while an undergraduate at Harvard, and intern on Capitol Hill. He returned to the Institute of Politics, as director, last spring.
Q: You come to the IOP having worked at the highest levels of politics and education. As an undergraduate at Harvard, the IOP helped introduce you to politics and public service. How does someone with your unique perspective view the IOP and how do you see its future?
My attachment to the Institute of Politics dates back to my own undergraduate experience, when I enrolled in study groups with visiting fellows and received a stipend that allowed me to intern for my congressman in Washington.
The IOP stipend opened the door to a defining life experience. Without it—as a student dependent on financial aid—it would have been beyond my reach. My internship fostered my interest in public service and exposed me to a whole new world. Without it I would not have met the people or the gained the experiences needed to lead my career in public life. Students today are clamoring for ways to give back, engage in their communities and make a difference. It’s our responsibility at the IOP to show them that a life in politics and government is a way to do that.
In the history of the IOP there has never been a more important time to honor the mission and engage this generation of students in an inclusive way. While today’s Harvard students have a myriad of opportunities for civic engagement, there remains a critical role for the IOP to harness the vast resources of the Kennedy School, College, and entire University to effectuate the mission. The unique times in which we live demand a contemporized vision of the Institute that speaks to the current generation of students, global trends, technology, varied modes of communication, and concerning levels of civic agency. I am excited for the work ahead.
Q: The IOP’s youth voter poll finds young millennials politically engaged and excited to participate in the coming elections, and at the same time fearful for the future. What do you see as the thread that runs through this generation’s attitude toward politics and public service?
Students are more engaged in their communities and civic life than ever before, but they are also cynical about politics and fearful about their futures. Our Spring 2018 poll shows significant interest in civic matters and greater propensity to vote, but serious concerns about the direction we’re going as a country.
We recently hosted the National Campaign Conference at the IOP where we conducted a focus group of first-time midterm voters. What we found was an overwhelming interest in voting, not necessarily for a specific candidate or party but because of an issue or underrepresented group of people. That’s an encouraging sign for turnout, and a challenge to politicians who need to capture this generation’s imagination.
Like the rest of the country, only one in five Harvard students voted in the last midterm election. I am proud that our students are taking steps to change that through the Harvard Votes Challenge, an effort to engage the University in a serious effort to promote voter registration.
This is a generation with creative purpose to address the challenges they see. I have been enormously impressed with today’s Harvard students, who are engaged in new and important ways to make change. Our opportunity at the IOP is to ensure that our programs and events track students’ needs and interests.
Q: You have served in several leadership roles in the national service movement and currently serve as Vice Chair of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service. How do you see these roles and experiences informing your work at the IOP?
My experience as Peace Corps Director and college president as well as my current role as vice chair of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service leave me with great optimism for the current generation of students and their aspirations. This is a dynamic time in American civic life, but I take great inspiration from the activism and interests of our students. How we assist them in their exploration will best answer President Kennedy’s observation: “The future of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth.”