The Crimson Blues

One Tuesday night this past spring, a group of angry students camped out in the courtyard of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In the still chilly air, they pitched tents and posted handmade signs. “We took on debt — they promised repayment — it's gone,” read one sign. “So much for public service,” stated another.

Rubbing their hands to keep warm, students Justin Tomczak and Paul Novosud explained that they were protesting changes in something called the Loan Repayment Assistance Program. If JFK School grads took a job paying less than $50,000 a year, the school would make their student loan payments. The plan was meant to encourage students, many of whom were taking lucrative jobs in consulting and investment banking, to go into public service. But faced with budget pressures, outgoing dean Joseph Nye had slashed the program just weeks before graduation. Now repayments would be made for only three years. The students felt betrayed.

“The administration's actions were unprofessional, dishonest, and unfair,” second-year student Andrew Simons wrote on the school's electronic bulletin board. Another second-year student, Jennifer Rikoski, added: “Broke, disorganized, and unambitious — three adjectives that should never describe the world's leading school for government service.”

As the Kennedy School completes its 25th year in its current home, these are probably not the adjectives Harvard and its media-hungry president, Lawrence Summers, would choose to describe it either. “The Kennedy School lies at the heart of Harvard's commitment to public service,” Summers has said, and he's made no secret of the fact that he'd like to see the school grow stronger, richer, and more powerful.

Accomplishing that won't be easy. The K-School, as it's known around campus, is an optimistic institution. U.S. News & World Report ranks it as second only to Syracuse's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs among the nation's public affairs graduate schools (though there's not a lot of other competition). “The reason people come here is they believe in something larger than themselves,” says David Ellwood, a labor economist who on June 30 succeeded Nye as dean. “It may sound simplistic, but it's true.”

But all the idealism in the world can't obscure the fact that the Kennedy School has big problems. It is intellectually lackluster. It is chronically strapped for money. It is so liberal it borders on irrelevance when a Republican administration is in the White House.

All of these problems stem from one common denominator: Americans' reluctance to believe that public service requires a graduate degree from Harvard — the question, in other words, of whether leadership is something that can be taught.

Although it owes its name to JFK, the Kennedy School far predates his presidency. Back in 1936, glove manufacturer Lucius Littauer gave Harvard $2 million to launch the Graduate School of Public Administration. It was housed in a gray stone building near the Cambridge Common. After Kennedy's death, Harvard president Nathan Marsh Pusey and JFK devotees including Bobby Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. drew up a plan to memorialize the slain president by transforming the school and naming it for him.

Money was always a problem. Derek Bok, who succeeded Pusey, labored to raise enough to build the school a campus of its own. “Donors were not convinced,” Bok said at an undergraduate tea last year. “Their feeling was, 'You want me to give money to create a school to make government bureaucrats smarter so that they can make my life more miserable?'” But he persisted, and in 1978 the school moved into its current quarters on JFK Street.

These days the K-School has some 900 students in nine degree programs. Its mission, Nye says, is “to train public leaders and do research that leads to solutions for public problems.” Yet the school has always suffered from a fundamental flaw: It wants to be taken seriously as an academic enterprise but can't quite convince itself that training bureaucrats — school officials prefer the term “leaders” — is a distinct and serious field of study. Nor can it convince anyone else. “The school has a reputation of being not that hard to get into and not that hard,” admits one of its lecturers.

Can leadership be taught? And if so, how? In the 1980s and '90s, the Kennedy School was riven by fierce internal debates about just these questions. One side felt the school should emphasize such hard-core academic disciplines as government (Harvard-speak for “political science”) and economics. Others argued that real-world training should be primary: Students should learn how to run organizations, conduct meetings, and organize political campaigns. “There was kind of a struggle for the soul [of the school],” says economics professor Jeffrey Frankel.

That debate was never resolved. Under Nye, who was dean for nine years, the school simply learned to live with its schizophrenia. Now, “there's much more support for the center,” Frankel says. “And for not agonizing over it all quite so much.” Ellwood, a leading thinker in the field of poverty and welfare, says the school strives for both “excellence” and “impact.” That means mixing scholars with Washington veterans such as David Gergen and Richard Clarke. The mix works best, though, when faculty members straddle both worlds. (Ellwood was an assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.)

But the real-world emphasis can also mean “practitioners,” as the school calls them, who hop the shuttle from DC, dish some war stories, and jump in a cab back to Logan. Predictably enough, the caliber of the teaching fluctuates. “I don't know that I've learned more at the Kennedy School than I would from reading Foreign Affairs,” says Stephanie Holden, who just finished a joint degree program with the business school. “The rigorous people [at Harvard] are at the law school, the med school, the business school.” At the Kennedy School, she says, “you get a lot of people who want to write memos and pass them on. And you don't have to have a degree for that.”

If the education is so spotty, why would anyone want to attend the Kennedy School? That sense of idealism, sure, but also the practical side. “This is an easy way for someone to get Harvard on their résumé,” Holden says. Other students point to the nexus of diverse peers, well-connected professors, and visiting VIPs as fertile ground for job-hunting. “Networking — that's what it's about,” says one student who asks not to be identified. “I'm getting a master's in schmoozing.”

Even if the Kennedy school re-solved all its internal conflicts, it would still have one massive challenge — overcoming American hostility toward government. It's an American tradition. We venerate our leaders in proportion to the amount of time they've spent outside government. We also appreciate their willingness to leave it.

The United States has no professional government bureaucracy, as Japan does and as this country does in the field of foreign service. Americans just don't think of government as a profession. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have to pass a test and get a license. If you hope to become CEO at IBM, you'll almost surely need an MBA. But if you aspire to work for the Department of Labor, just mail in your résumé. Or if you dream of becoming secretary of the Treasury, start writing checks to the Republican National Committee.

Nye ingeniously addressed that problem by making the Kennedy School less American. He boosted the proportion of foreign students to nearly 43 percent, the highest of any Harvard school. The United States may not care about training the people who run its government, but other countries do.

Even so, K-School students are constantly reminded that they labor against a tide of skepticism. After a speech by world-weary journalist Robert Novak, one student rose to ask if Novak wasn't “eroding trust in government.” Novak grinned and responded, “I certainly hope so.” The student looked stricken.

The problem isn't just psychological; it's economic. As doctors and lawyers can happily attest, the earning potential of any profession hinges on its ability to raise barriers to entry. To practice law or medicine, you need a license. Public service has no such roadblocks, which means K-School grads will never pull down the hefty salaries that alumni of Harvard's professional schools do. Still, they need the money to pay off their loans as badly as any other former students. After two years at the Kennedy School, the typical alum can amass around $100,000 in debt — no small amount when you're making $34,000 a year working for Planned Parenthood.

Because its alumni are relatively poor, they can't give much back, and so the Kennedy School is also poor. Its endowment hovers around $600 million, about 3 percent of Harvard's roughly $20 billion total. That still may sound like plenty, but the dean is allowed to spend only about 4 to 5 percent of the endowment annually, or around $25 million. At Harvard, that's chump change.

For an institution that considers itself at least as valuable to society as the business school, this is an embarrassing state of affairs. Ask a K-School student what he thinks of his B-School counterparts across the Charles and you'll likely get an unflattering answer coated with a patina of envy. Ask a business school student what he thinks of the Kennedy School, however, and he'll tell you that he rarely thinks about it.

To shore up the school's finances, Nye raised money diligently and by all accounts did well. But he spent a lot, too, hiring faculty and staff, taking professors on an annual retreat, and expanding the Loan Repayment Assistance Program, also known as LRAP. Those expenditures caught up with him two years ago, when the school ran a $5.9 million deficit.

It took some time, but Nye yanked his school back into the black. He cut 76 jobs and the faculty retreat and reduced LRAP (although, after the protests, he reverted to the original guarantees for students already enrolled). Still, signs of the school's cash crunch abound. Students complain about heavy fees for everything from course packets to gym membership. And to boost revenue, Nye increased enrollment from a recent low of 707 in 1998 to 897 last year. Many classes are so crowded, students have to sit in the aisles. “It's hard to talk when you have to grab a microphone to ask a question,” one says.

Now the funding problem falls into Ellwood's lap. “I will do my damnedest to raise money,” he vows. “I want to be in the position of raising money to do the exciting things we want to do and not just to keep the lights on.”

It's another Tuesday night in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, the school's central gathering place. Tonight's guest speaker is Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for George W. Bush. Mehlman, a Harvard Law grad, is introduced by a K-School student who worked for him in the White House. The student jokes that he asked Mehlman for career advice, and Mehlman told him to go to the law school. Only a few people chuckle. The joke hits a little too close to home.

As Mehlman strides to the podium, a young woman in a balcony on the second level unfurls a banner reading, “Billionaires for Bush.”

“How much do I hear for the government?” she yells. Other demonstrators pop up. “Pfizer bids $5 billion!” shouts one. Someone else bids ten. “Bechtel bids $20 billion!” shouts a young man, jumping up from his chair.

“Sold! To Bechtel, for $20 billion!” the auctioneer hollers, just as a Harvard cop moves to cut her off.

“I'm glad to see the divinity school stu- dents are here tonight,” Mehlman quips.

He's probably right. Most Kennedy School students are too polite to engage in such political theater, but Mehlman was unquestionably on hostile turf.

In fact, the K-School hosts more ex-Clintonites than a Renaissance Weekend reunion. You can't walk down a hallway without bumping into someone who did time in Washington during the 1990s.

Last year, as a prank, comedian Al Franken used Harvard stationery to write John Ashcroft, asking the attorney general to recount memories of times he almost lost his virginity. Ashcroft was displeased, but K-School officials didn't seem particularly upset.

Conservative students at the Kennedy School consider themselves a besieged minority. Certainly they lack faculty role models. Asked about conservative professors, Joe Nye mentions Roger Porter, an economist who served in three GOP administrations; J. Bonnie Newman, who worked for George H. W. Bush; and David Gergen, not exactly a flaming conservative. They're what you might call cappuccino Republicans.

The real conservatives are down in Washington, and, without intending to, the ideologues in the current administration have provided the best rationale for the Kennedy School by landing the country in a foreign policy bramble of immense complexity. “There's never been a more important time to bring reason and reflection to the debate,” says Ellwood. “The only way out of these times of uncertainty is to bring the power of intellect and reason to work across boundaries.”

Now there's a mission for the Kennedy School — addressing the seemingly intractable problems of terrorism and war. But the school can't play that role if John F. Kerry doesn't win in November. Back in 1960, John F. Kennedy lifted Harvard to unprecedented prominence. Today, the school that bears his name is depending on another JFK to do the same.