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The Citizen

Q&A with Dean David Ellwood

By Citizen Staff

David Ellwood has served at the helm of the Kennedy School since 2004. In his tenure, he has doubled the school’s endowment, improved faculty diversity and worked to increase financial aid. A labor economist by training,

Ellwood joined the Harvard faculty in 1980 and is in his second term as dean. The Minnesota-native and Harvard College graduate has spent a large part of his career working in poverty relief and welfare. In 1993, he was tapped to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the United States Department of Health and Human Services. He has also authored numerous books, including “Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform”, co-authored with Mary Jo Bane.

He sat down with The Citizen in November to talk about the strengths of the Kennedy School, his vision for improving classroom learning and challenges for graduates to continue to impact policy.

Q: In the months or years to come, what sort of changes do you expect to see at the Kennedy School?

The community itself I actually believe is one of the most exciting and resilient places. We really are united by this notion that we can make the world a better place. I will say, at least for someone of my generation, I don’t remember a time when the world felt more uncertain; where there was more of a cascade of so many different kinds of problems.

Obviously, there are times of war and so forth. This is, obviously, still a time of war here…. I just don’t remember a time when there were so many different issues out there and where so many people were discouraged about our capacity to actually resolve those problems. It’s not that they think there are not answers. It’s just that the combination of leadership and maybe innovative ideas isn’t there. To me, the mission of this place has never been more important and that is what makes this place great.

Q: What are your goals for the next year?

I want to continue to be able to attract spectacular people and, if anything, even more spectacular people to the school. The single most powerful tool that I’ve got is lowering the cost of education … Fundamentally, this is a very expensive place and yet, even with the tuition and everything we charge, it doesn’t cover the full cost of the place. It is way too much money for people who want to go out and do public service. I really see my job is to reduce the burden of education by raising financial aid and I’ve done that during my deanship.

Endowment has gone from $11 to $22 or $23 … There’s no question that it is the single most powerful tool I’ve got to getting spectacular people here. Not only here, but giving you all, the students, the possibility of pursuing your dreams as opposed to having to pay off debt. Part of that also is to reach out across Harvard: The joint-degree programs we now have with the business school and the law school. We are talking about doing more with undergraduates and other schools as well. There really are superb people across this university who would like to make a difference …

Second thing has to do with transforming the nature of education over time so that we do even more active learning … The mayor of Somerville was a former student. He came to a new mayors program that was held here, an executive program. He heard about how performance-based budgeting can transform a city. … He said I want to do it. He said, ‘Let me come to a class to try to talk your students into coming and working for me for free.’ They did. Somerville, which had been called throughout most of the time that I have lived here, Slumerville, by lots of folks, last year ,was called the best-run city or town in Massachusetts. … That story is about taking the best ideas that we have about how to run governments better, putting them in a classroom, but then using the classroom as an experiential tool to go out and make a difference in the world.

By the way, those students learned so much more about budgeting in doing it then they would have ever just in the class alone. They brought those ideas back to the classroom, which made that class better. [The Somerville mayor] got here through an executive education program and he himself was so excited that he wanted to come to the Kennedy School and he was able to do that because of a financial aid program. That to me is just a microcosm of what this school is capable of.

Q: What goals do you have in the education realm?

Over-and-over again the classes I hear students say make a really big difference in their lives are often the ones where there is the most active learning, the most engagement, that get beyond a pure lecture format. So a second big focus for us is trying to think about ways to be more creative in the classroom, more engaged learning, more hands on; Whether that’s active learning, a lot of negotiations, or experiential learning where people actually go out and work (of course the PAE is an example of that, but even the PAE I think we can continue to improve), so more of that active learning …

Right now, for example, [economics professor] Pinar Doğan is teaching a class two different ways and she is doing it in a regular classroom and in Bell Hall with portable furniture that you can move around in different formations, to see whether a different classroom shape would really matter. [I believe] a lot of our classes aren’t very well situated for doing this active learning. The third set of issues is that there is a whole range of really, really big intellectual challenges that we face. I’d like for the school to be in the lead of it. I will give you three headlines: Making Democracy Work; Creating Shared and Sustainable Prosperity; Harnessing the Courses that are Reshaping Our World (Those are things like the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil, to a whole set of issues around national security.)

The truth is I don’t think we can do any of those things we just described if we don’t have some significant changes in our physical structure. It is not the quantity of the space (although that’s a major issue); it’s the nature of the space. If we really want to do active learning then we need some different kinds of classrooms. If we really want to engage in a much more intellectual, cross-disciplinary kind of work (the kind of questions I just described), then we are going to need physical space that brings us together in more and different ways.

Q: How has HKS done following the recession (or in a recession)?

Like everyone … we had to deal with those challenges. We had a huge advantage that we went [into the recession] in very good financial shape, unlike some other parts of the university. Also, it was one of the few times I was glad not to be too rich because only about a third of our income came from our endowment.

But, there too, I was basically told three things: One is, see this as a leadership opportunity. Think about what is really important and focus on that. Don’t try to take a little haircut off of everybody. Second, be as upfront and honest with everybody about finances as you [can]. Tell the truth all the time. Be out there in front, even if it is uncertain, so people trust you and will be with you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t believe the conspiracy story. And the third was to do it once. So we tried to all of those things and we are in good financial shape.

Q: If you could change one thing about the Kennedy School with the snap of your fingers, what would it be?

I guess if I could just snap my fingers, I would make it free for everybody. That would be an awfully good start. My entire career as dean here has been devoted overwhelming [to increasing financial aid]. That is where I put my money. It is clear what I believe in.

Q: A lot of institutional knowledge gets lost between classes, what are some of the common misconceptions that surface each year among students?

One of the challenges every year has to do with diversity. Throughout the time I have been dean, we have doubled the number of women on the faculty for example. … The difficulty is the complexity of it. It seems like it ought to be so easy, but when only a third of the people getting PhDs in economics programs are women; that makes it tougher. Our goal is always to get spectacular people. I think another misconception has to do with the job market.

I think people come with a hope and somehow a vision that it is going to be like the business school where hundreds of companies come at the beginning of the year and are there ready to give people jobs. Unfortunately, that’s just not how the public market works: Partly because governments don’t hire that way. Nonprofits tend to do just-in-time hiring. … I think that people think it’s going to be a lot easier; that all of a sudden the Harvard name will open a lot of doors. …

I think people sometimes start too late or don’t invest enough or don’t network the way they should because it’s a lot harder in this profession than in some of the others. [Current students] also don’t realize that in fact our students do extraordinarily well. It just takes a little longer to get there. By October, 90 percent of folks have jobs and 98 percent of them are very happy with those jobs. OK, that’s not having a job the October before you graduate, which is true at some business schools and maybe true at a law school. But it does mean that when people stick with it, they can do it. …

Fundamentally, understanding what is difficult and challenging about the job market is something that students have to learn. We are trying to move that up forward so people get those insights and those ideas and understand the things they can do to reduce their level of anxiety and depression.

Q: What is one thing that students would be surprised to know about you?

One of the things I sometimes talk about, but not everyone knows is that my first job out of college, I worked for a woman who is now my boss. (I married my boss.) I want to make clear, I only worked for her for three months and nothing happened while I was working for her, but we have been very happily married for almost 35 years. I often say that is because I didn’t have to learn who was boss.