David Ellwood to Step Down

The Harvard Kennedy School’s leader will conclude his service at the end of the academic year.

David Ellwood

David T. Ellwood ’75, Ph.D. ’81, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School since his appointment by President Lawrence H. Summers in mid 2004, announced today that he would step down next June 30. Ellwood is the longest-serving among the current decanal cohort: he is, in fact, the only school leader whose appointment preceded Drew Faust’s presidency. He is also a long-time Harvardian: graduate of the College, Ph.D., and member of the HKS faculty continuously since 1980, save for a two-year tour of duty in Washington, D.C., where he served in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the administration of President Bill Clinton, from 1993 to 1995.

Ellwood has, of late, steered his school well into an ambitious capital campaign: its $500-million goal was unveiled last spring (“more than 70 percent” of that goal has been given or pledged, the dean said in a conversation on October 8, and the school is “well positioned to easily reach our target”). One of the most tangible fruits of that campaign will be an expanded, reconceived, more integrated campus, plans for which underwent initial review by the Cambridge Planning Board on October 7; if all goes well with regulators and the remaining fundraising, construction may begin next spring. (Note to faculty and staff members and students who will benefit from the remade campus, but endure the inconveniences of its construction: direct complaints to Dean Ellwood’s successor.)

When he became dean, Ellwood’s agenda included financial aid; faculty renewal; management of the growing faculty; and curricular modernization to reflect globalization and the spread of pedagogical (and governmental) information technology. A decade later, the school’s priorities—shaped in part by its highly international student body and the continuing pressure on public-sector and nonprofit salaries—include (as articulated in the capital campaign):

  • “reaching the very best leaders,” by developing the financial-aid resources to keep the cost of education manageable;
  • “transforming the educational experience,” in part through multidisciplinary and experiential learning, flexible classrooms, and teaching and learning technologies;
  • “generating powerful ideas,” a rubric focused on three areas: “making democracy work; creating shared, sustainable prosperity; harnessing the forces reshaping our world”; and
  • “creating a campus that amplifies our mission.”

The school is pursuing those aims in an era when, as Ellwood put it last spring, disillusionment with government and the public sector is epidemic: “The American people have never been enamored with government, but what’s unique about this moment is that we face a series of quite troubling public challenges,” he said, citing middle-class stagnation, climate change, and even threats to democracy itself. Ellwood stressed that HKS students are “people who’ve really been in the world of practice. If we don’t focus on big questions like making democracy work, how will we harness the forces that are really shaping our world?” Many of those same challenges, of course, resonate around the world.

“In Rural India and Rural Indiana”

Reflecting on his tenure as dean during the conversation, Ellwood stressed the centrality of the Kennedy School’s mission, broadly defined—making the world a better place, and training leaders—and called it “compelling and exciting,” both personally and for the faculty and staff members and students within the HKS community. During his travels, he said, he has encountered alumni who range from heads of state to graduates engaged in economic development in rural Southeast Asia—a presence, as he vividly put it, “in rural India and rural Indiana.”

Given the breadth of the school’s reach, and the scope and depth of the challenges its faculty and students attempt to address, Ellwood stressed several elements of its work during his tenure. First, he noted, it has become increasingly cross- and interdisciplinary, both “within our existing programs and across schools.” For example, there is now a joint Kennedy School-Harvard Business School degree program, not just the option for concurrent degrees; the first students were admitted in the fall of 2008. (There is also a joint Kennedy School master in public policy or master in public administration degree-Law School J.D. degree program).

Second, he said, “We really have got to be in a position to help our students make things happen” in the world, and so active, experiential learning has suffused the curriculum, and the executive-education program has expanded (it now serves nearly 3,000 participants annually, from nearly 150 countries).

A third change involved the organization of the faculty itself. HKS does not operate through formal, academic departments. But as the faculty grew larger—it has about 70 tenured and ladder-track professors now, and large cohorts of public-service faculty members, professors of practice, lecturers, and adjuncts—some sort of organization was warranted. The result is an “area” structure, with each faculty member and each course assigned to an area, defined by topic or skill (for example, economic development; markets, business, and government; leadership; decision sciences). There is flexibility, by design: people move from area to area, and teach in multiple areas. (Hiring authority remains at the school level.)

In pursuit of the school’s mission, he continued, his highest priority as dean has been “lowering the cost of education.” Financial aid has risen from $11 million to $23 million during the past decade, he noted—and aid remains at the top of the current campaign’s aspirations. Given that “This is a time in general where higher education is on kind of shaky financial ground,” Ellwood said, HKS is in sound condition. It has not run a deficit during the past decade, he said, and the school was able to avoid tapping budgetary reserves during the financial crisis and recession. Keeping the books balanced (in part by financing the $100-million-plus campus-reconstruction program entirely through philanthropic support) has been a focus of decanal and administrative attention, in support of the education and research program and the essential financial-aid investments.

Consistent with those aims, Ellwood no doubt took particular pleasure in the October 8 announcement of the $11-million Kistefos African Public Service Graduate Fellowship Program: a new source of support—covering tuition, fees, and living expenses—for degree-program and executive-education participants from African nations. The first eligible students will enroll next academic year. Each will commit to at least three years of public-service work following their HKS studies.

(For fiscal year 2013, HKS reported expenses of about $149 million. According to Harvard’s financial report, its share of the endowment then was just over $1 billion—about 3 percent of the University total. Endowment distributions to the school, and its tuition and fees income, each accounted for 28 percent of revenues that year—and current-use gifts another 21 percent, a very high share relative to all the other schools.)

In a statement in the news announcement, Ellwood summarized his work as dean this way:

We have made great progress on many fronts over the past decade, but I am most proud of increasing student financial aid, improving our overall financial footing, expanding the faculty, and laying the groundwork for a significant campus development project that will transform our teaching and scholarship and strengthen our community.

Of that community, he said, “It is an incredible honor to work with such amazing people so committed to a better future.”

President Faust called him "a dean among deans" and lauded Ellwood in these terms:

As a scholar and teacher with decades of devotion to Harvard and to public service, he has modeled a commitment to academic work that vigorously engages with policy and practice. As a citizen of the University, he has sought out ways to link people and programs across conventional bounds, seeing the benefits not only for his School but for Harvard as a whole. And, as a colleague and friend, he has been an enduring source of valued counsel, incisive questions, and constructive ideas. 

A Culture of Collaboration

With a “terrific faculty, deeply committed to working on the most important problems in the world,” Ellwood said, there is a strong spirit of collaboration abroad in the school, focused on bringing diverse perspectives and disciplines to bear on common pursuits. He said the school’s research centers have maintained their distinctive strengths, but are also collaborating more. He emphasized that the plans for remaking the campus grew from this commitment to joining strengths to address major challenges. Hence, the shift from classrooms organized for lectures to more open, flexible spaces for active, engagement-focused teaching. Elsewhere on the campus, he said, “The day of long, thin corridors with faculty members’ doors closed” is past. The reconfigured buildings will deliberately maximize spaces where faculty members and students mix, mingle, and exchange ideas.

At the University level, as the dean of the deans, so to speak, Ellwood said he saw the same kind of collaboration among his fellow leaders of Harvard’s schools. “I have truly enjoyed working with all the other deans,” he added; some have become “very close friends.” In a way that he called unique in Harvard history, the current deans still very much perceive their responsibility as making their schools the best institutions of their kind; but to an unprecedented degree, they are also cognizant that they are working together in the world’s interest and in Harvard’s interest—and that doing so is very much in their individual schools’ interests, too. Hence the joint-degree programs; an HKS-Harvard School of Public Health executive-education program; and such relatively new developments as a talk he had just given, earlier that day, at one of the President’s Challenge grant programs at the Harvard Innovation Lab. “There are so many opportunities for collaboration,” he said, “and so much benefit.”

Next Steps

Following what he intends will be an energetic conclusion to his deanship, Ellwood will take a year of leave. Given the timing of his announcement, Faust’s search for a successor may very well result in the appointment, and perhaps even installation, of a new dean by the time the new academic year begins.

Ellwood said he looks forward to spending more time with his family, and to “getting back to what brought me to the Kennedy School in the first place—teaching and research.” (His scholarship concerns poverty, inequality, social poverty, welfare, families, and the labor force—many of them, as he said, “issues that have gotten worse, not better” since he was last engaged in research; read about some of his work here.) He is particularly excited about putting the last decade’s gains in understanding of active, engaged learning to work in his own classrooms.

Even though he has been away from all that, he said of his service as dean, “This has been such an incredible honor and an enormous pleasure. I am just so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a leader at this institution at this time.”

Read the Kennedy School announcement here. A Q & A with the departing dean appears in the Harvard Gazette. 

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