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John Harvard's Journal

A Planner for GSD

May-June 2005

Had life gone according to his plan, Alan A. Altshuler would have spent one of the snowiest Cambridge winters on record in Singapore. Instead, he became dean of the Graduate School of Design (GSD). He was appointed in February, but had served as acting dean since July, succeeding Peter G. Rowe, who stepped down after 12 years to return to teaching and research.

“I was not an obvious choice to head a design school,” says Altshuler. He is a planner, not a design person. The Stanton professor of urban policy and planning, with a joint appointment at the GSD and the Kennedy School of Government, teaches “Urban Politics and Land Use Planning.” His most recent book, with David Lubero, is Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment, winner of the American Political Science Association’s best-book-of-the-year award in 2003. Yet he has been on the GSD faculty since 1988, in the Department of Urban Planning and Design, and feels “very much a member of the family.”

“An effective dean must be driven by a passion for the school’s mission and its people,” said Altshuler in remarks to the GSD community on February 2. “I certainly have this passion.”

“I am a political scientist who at the beginning of his career happened into studying the politics of the built environment,” Altshuler explained in a later interview. He did his undergraduate work at Cornell and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. His first book was a study of the politics of urban planning. Then he was drawn into studies of transportation and went on to serve five years in government, most of them as Massachusetts’s first secretary of transportation. He wrote a book on urban transportation and another on the automobile industry worldwide and how the automobile fits into the fabric of life in different societies. He followed that with a five-year stint as dean of New York University’s Graduate School of Public Administration. At Harvard, he founded the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government and served as academic dean of the Kennedy School.

At the top of his to-do list in his new job is raising money to increase financial aid to students. “By the standards of design schools, we’re a rich school,” says Altshuler. “By the standards of Harvard, we’re a poor school. Our students go out into low-paying professions. I don’t feel comfortable sending them out with great debt burdens. And we lose students because we can’t give them enough financial aid to make it feasible for them to come to Harvard or for us to be competitive with other institutions. If it costs a student $50,000 a year to be here, and our grants average $11,000 a year, that leaves them with a lot to make up.” The school has an endowment of about $280 million. “That’s a lot of money,” says Altshuler, “but it’s about 1.3 percent of Harvard’s endowment, and we have 3 percent of its student body.” (The school is large by the standards of design schools, with about 525 students and more than 100 teachers, 41 of them full-time faculty, the rest part-timers who maintain private practices.)

The largest monetary gifts to the GSD in the past have come from non-alumni of the school, Altshuler observes, and the school will have to appeal now not only to those of its alumni who are affluent, but to non-alumni who care deeply about the built environment. “We will need the help of the president and of the Development Office,” says the dean, “to put us together with those people.”

Altshuler served on the committee of 10 faculty members who advised President Lawrence H. Summers in the search for a new dean. “We focused entirely on designers for about the first 10 months,” says Altshuler, “but found no candidate the advisory committee cohered around. There were a couple of candidates the president and I would have been willing to see appointed, but in the face of faculty resistance, he pulled back. One of the things that was striking to me in this process is that Larry asks questions, listens very hard, and when people make good arguments that he should not go forward, he does not go forward.”

Altshuler has seen that presidential characteristic at work in another matter that Summers, says Altshuler, has described as the most complicated problem he has ever encountered—planning for the expansion of Harvard into Allston.

 Altshuler is one of three members—with vice president for administration Sally Zeckhauser and former Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Jeremy Knowles—of the Allston Client Group, which acts on the president’s behalf as the day-to-day client for Allston’s planners. “We’re in the middle of the ongoing conversation between the planners and the president and Corporation,” Altshuler explains. “It’s an extraordinary analytic process in the sense that people are trying very hard to understand what the possibilities are and what the consequences of any particular choice would be and how the various possible choices fit together.” He calculates that he spends about a third of his work life immersed in Allston.

What did he miss out on in Singapore? “The Kennedy School has a program with the National University of Singapore. I planned to teach and advise the dean of the new school of public policy.”