A Big Turn to Government on a Small Scale

The Kennedy School's Taubman Center

When Richmond, Virginia City Manager Robert Bogg came to the Kennedy School of Government for an executive training program in state and local government in 1980, he was a little disappointed in the program's emphasis.

"I felt that there were some good case studies of local government, but most of the focus was on state and federal issues," Bogg says. "I felt there should have been more of a focus on local concerns."

Until recently that sentiment was common among K-School students who wanted to work in state or local governments, according to several professors and former students. Since its inception more than 50 years ago, the Kennedy School has consistently emphasized national and international issues.

Although the K-School still boasts many of the big-name scholars in international relations, the focus of the school's programs has shifted to include the less-glamorous fields of state and local government policy. With the announcement of a $15 million grant for the creation of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, that shift has been firmly cemented into the Kennedy School's curriculum.

When the Graduate School of Public Administration was renamed in honor of President John F. Kennedy '40 more than 25 years ago, its mission was defined as producing a new cadre of elite, well-trained public servants. For most of the past two decades that mandate had been translated at the Kennedy School to an emphasis on training federal civil servants.

But by 1979, the school started to look into state and local issues, and then-defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis was called in to head the fledgling program. Professors say that the program was a step in the direction of making state and local issues an integral part of the school's curriculum, but that they remained less important than national policy questions.

Today, however, the Kennedy School's focus and its faculty--have changed. A number of K-School officials say that many of the best students are becoming interested in state and local government because there is more creativity in those areas. And many more faculty members are doing research into state and local policy questions.

"For a number of years, the Kennedy School has been doing more work in the area of state and local government," K-School Press Director Steven Singer says. "There's a feeling among students and the faculty that most of the creativity in government comes at this level."

To provide for the increase in student and faculty interest, philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman last month donated $15 million for the creation of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, which will serve as the focus for the school's state and local programs.

Professor of Urban Planning and Design Alan A. Altshuler was lured from his post as Dean of New York University's Graduate School of Public Administration to lead the new Taubman Center. The new director says that the center's creation indicates that the Kennedy School is committed to making the study of state and local government a full-fledged part of the school's overall program.

And his colleagues say that Altshuler--who is regarded by many as one of the top political scientists specializing in local areas--is a symbol of that commitment.

"It's a real coup for us and a great fit for the center," said Professor Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez '70, who chaired the search committee which brought Altshuler to Harvard. "We looked at an enormous number of people, but we didn't extend an offer to anyone but Professor Altshuler. It was one of those searches in which you comb the world."

Altshuler has published widely, focusing his work on urban planning and transportation issues, but also touching on industrial policy. In addition, he has experience in the public sector, Altshuler served as Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation from 1971 to 1975.

Colleagues say Altshuler's experience as a state official and as the chairman of MIT's Political Science Department will help the new center as it irons out organizational details.

"He's an articulate spokesperson for the mission of public service," said Dennis Smith, the NYU associate dean who helped bring Altshuler to New York. "We were seeking a dean at a time when bashing public servants was a popular sport."