On a cold, rainy Friday in December 2009, University President Drew G. Faust left Harvard Yard for an important meeting about Harvard’s Allston development plans. While the subject of the meeting was not unique, the meeting’s location was. Faust headed to 102 Chesterfield Street, a humble, 1,700 square foot home in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, to meet Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino not at City Hall or Parkman House, the city’s official mayorial residence, but in his private home.
The house call—hardly the standard for University-city relations—was emblematic of a relationship that, despite rocky beginnings in the early 1990s, has become more positive and productive under the leadership of Faust and former University President Lawrence H. Summers.
In January 2014 Menino will step down from the Boston mayorship, a post he has held since 1993. The city’s longest-serving mayor, Menino has collaborated with Harvard through four serving presidents, land purchases in Allston, and the rise of online education. The relationship is an important one for both parties: for Harvard in its development aspirations, and for Boston in enhancing the City’s educational programming, both in public schools and online.
When Menino was elected mayor from his prior post of City Councillor in 1993, Harvard was discreetly preparing to make a major expansion across the Charles River. In a program launched by past University President Derek C. Bok in 1988, Harvard was stealthily buying up parcels of the Allston-Brighton neighborhood near Harvard Business School and the University’s athletic facilities. To avoid restrictions on large sales of land, the University worked through a Boston real estate firm, conducting the purchases in 14 separate installments. The last transaction came in 1994, only a few months after Menino was elected.
After concealing the purchases for years, Harvard announced in June 1997 that the University had successfully acquired 52.6 acres of land in Allston and was looking to begin the process of developing those holdings. That month, at an emotionally charged meeting in Allston, residents took Harvard to task for the land grab. One Allston resident asked if Harvard had a conscience, while another accused the University of operating secretly and then doing “ex post facto damage control.”
“I think everybody [knew] that Harvard’s first priority [was] Harvard,” said Warren E. Tolman, a state senator who represented Allston in 1997. “People in the neighborhood had their own long-term plans for their little plot of land, and they wanted to know what was going to happen...There were a lot of people who were upset.”
The fervor spread quickly. Menino remembers being emphatic during a press tour, claiming that Harvard should have worked with the city instead of buying the land covertly.
“I did a press event in front of an auto-body shop [in Allston],” Menino recalled in an interview with The Crimson. “I said, ‘Harvard will not take our property without being involved with the city.’”
In a letter to then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine, who had replaced Bok in 1991, Menino took an even sharper tone, writing that Harvard’s actions represented “the highest level of arrogance seen in our city in many years.”
The partnership between the mayor and the University had been compromised.
REPAIRING A DAMAGED RELATIONSHIP
Harvard’s expansion efforts came at the expense of the mayor’s trust.
Soon after the secret purchases were announced in June 1997, Rudenstine launched a damage-control operation. But despite a gift of land for the construction of the Allston-Brighton Library, and a $10 million pledge to help fund low-cost housing loans in Boston and Cambridge, the bad feelings lingered. When Rudenstine left the Harvard presidency in 2001, the relationship was destroyed.
“There was no relationship at that time,” said Menino of the final years of Rudenstine’s tenure. “Harvard thought that they were it, that they didn’t have to worry about anybody else but themselves, but then they ran into all kinds of issues.”
Reached through an assistant, Rudenstine declined to comment for this article.
Chief among the issues complicating Harvard’s relationship with the Mayor was the reality that, without his blessing, Harvard’s ability to develop meaningfully in Allston was severely, if not completely, compromised. Specifically, Harvard could not proceed with any building plans without first obtaining occupancy permits from the city, a process heavily influenced by the Mayor.
The stalled relationship underwent a healthy reboot in 2001 when Summers replaced Rudenstine in Massachusetts Hall. While Rudenstine had spent his entire career in the academy, Summers had been involved in politics, serving as President Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary prior to assuming the Harvard presidency. Within a day of his appointment, Summers visited Menino, bringing a more cooperative tone to discussions between Boston and Harvard.
“Because the property he was buying was in the city of Boston, [Larry Summers] had to be sure there was a relationship,” said Menino. “He started right off on the right foot by meeting with us, talking about his plans and how we wanted to work together.”
After their first conference, a friendship quickly developed. Summers and Menino agreed that Harvard and Boston held a number of mutual interests, including a desire for an open dialogue about Allston and improved educational innovation and access. They also pledged to communicate frequently and transparently.
“The Mayor and I kind of agreed that we weren’t going to surprise each other, that if something interesting was going to be in the Boston Globe, we’d let each other know beforehand,” said Summers.
Menino said he believes openness was critical to the relationship’s success. “The thing is, if you communicate with each other, those problems will not be as big a problem as people assume,” he said.
Conversations between Summers and the city, especially regarding Allston, were not without conflict: Harvard returned to the real estate market in 2003, winning a public auction for 91 more acres in Allston. According to Menino, he was not consulted along the way. Still, the dynamic had improved. In 2003, Summers—after consulting with Menino throughout the process—announced the University’s plans for Allston, including a massive new science facility and the relocation of Harvard’s schools of Education and of Public Health.
“You have a new president who inherits the situation, but it allowed everybody to sort of start again,” said David Luberoff, senior project advisor to the Radcliffe Institute’s Boston Area Research Initiative. “That turned out to be a really important turning point in the relationship.”
While Summers is known for his grand vision for Allston, he also set in motion another natural partnership between Harvard and the city in the realm of education—an area that Menino has prioritized throughout his mayorship. In 2002, Harvard and Boston joined forces to revamp after-school programs in Boston’s neighborhoods by awarding $400,000 in grants through the Harvard After School Initiative, an early step in a growing collaboration between Harvard and Boston on education.
UNDER FAUST, GOOD FEELINGS
As the University searched for a leader to replace Summers, Menino was left uncertain.
“When there is a transition of administrations, you never know what the new administrator is going to do,” he said. “We didn’t know how it was going to end up.”
He was reassured in February of 2006 when he met Faust, Harvard’s new president-elect, for breakfast at Parkman House in Boston. Taking a cue from Summers, Faust made an immediate effort to build Harvard’s relationship with Boston at the onset of her presidency.
“I think one of the important parts of having a strong relationship with the city is making sure you build it, and so it was very important for me when I was named President to get to know the Mayor and to build a base of trust,” Faust said.
Throughout Faust’s tenure, the educational partnership between Harvard and the city of Boston has remained strong. In 2008, the Harvard Allston Education Portal opened in Allston to provide mentors—often Harvard undergraduates—and after-school programming to any neighborhood resident who signs up for a free membership.
Both Faust and Menino have underscored the success of the Ed Portal.
“Let me just tell you, the portal is very important because it educates the children of Boston, it gives them a good start, good after school programs,” Menino said. “If you track those kids, they do much better in school than other kids have.”
More recently, the Mayor announced the creation of BostonX, a program which will bring a modified version of Harvard and MIT’s edX platform to Boston community centers.
END OF AN ERA
When Menino leaves office in early 2014, the departure will mark the end of an era, not only for Boston, but for Harvard. As Harvard prepares to restart major construction in Allston, it will need to rely on a strong relationship with City Hall to ensure efficiency and approval of its plans.
Similarly, a strong relationship will enable the city to benefit from continued collaboration with Harvard in the areas of online education and afterschool programming. This is an area of interest Harvard will likely share with the new mayor, as the large majority of candidates looking to replace Menino are emphasizing education in their platforms.
Still, there are elements of uncertainty. Menino has encouraged the development of colleges, universities, and hospitals in the Boston area, commonly referred to as “meds and eds.” But observers say that his successor may not be of the same mind.
“If I were a senior administrator at Harvard, I would be rooting for an alumnus,” said M. Marty Linsky, a Massachusetts political veteran. Linsky, a Kennedy School lecturer, added that Harvard should be worried about a candidate whose policies might be hostile to major institutions.
Whoever emerges as the next mayor, Menino hopes said his replacement takes the importance of higher education into account.
“The brain power they give us is so important,” Menino said of Harvard and the colleges and universities in the greater Boston area. “The next mayor, whoever he or she may be, has to understand that. You can’t be in...conflict with the colleges. You have to work with them.”
Faust said she agrees that maintaining a strong partnership between the University and the city will be pivotal for both entities in the years ahead. She cited Allston development, activities in Longwood, and engagement in the Boston Public Schools as a few examples of sites of future collaboration.
“The city is so important to us, and we hope we’re so important to the city,” she said in April, shortly after Menino announced he would step down.
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.
—Staff writer Ginny C. Fahs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GinnyFahs.