King Of the K-School

It is a dog day of Cambridge's sweltering summer, the day after Teddy Kennedy with-drew from the presidential sweepstakes. But the pleasantly air-conditioned Kenned School of Government is abuzz with activity as on most other days, figures rushing through snakelike corridors, stopping briefly to salute one another, filling the Forum with its recognizable murmur. To a detached observer, these people exude a slightly self-important air--but they also give the impression that they have places to go.

Four years ago, Graham T. Allison Jr. '62, dean of the Kennedy School, thought he too had a place to go: Washington. But, he explains now, President Bok's persuasion prevailed over other forces, and he turned down a post in the Carter administration to take the helm of the Kennedy School. Since then, he has presided over a period of vigorous expansion and sometimes vigorous controversy at the school that some have labeled the pet project of Bok's presidency.

As the K-School grows, Allison necessarily has lost the ability to remain in close touch with everyone who walks through the polished glass doors on Boylston Street, something he seemed able to do in the program's more intimate days. Somewhere along the line, he has acquired a reputation among some as a distant but diligent manager. The K-School has come quite a ways since the summer of 1969, when a small group of "concerned faculty" patiently ironed out the details of a proposal for a public policy program. In that relatively short (in terms of Harvard) timespan, Allison too has come a long way--maybe too long. "Graham Allison?" one K-School source asks rhetorically. "He's the consummate bureaucrat."

At first blush, the image seems hard to erase. Allison apologizes excessively for being 20 minutes late for an appointment. He speaks in steady, measured tones--in a sonorous voice oddly reminiscent of Dan Rather--weighing each word heavily. He likes to order things in sets of three. He uses words like "prioritize" and mouths sentences like, "There's no model--so we're trying to define operationally a strategy for achieving that objective."

His coffee table is stacked with books, his desk is cluttered with papers. You can almost picture Allison slaving away efficiently in a dimly-lit office 90 hours a week, deriving enjoyment from pushing papers and organizing files. There is a touch of the politician in him, as he smoothly introduces strangers and smiles expansively. But when he says he admires "those who run for elective positions, who are out there slugging it out, putting their own skin on the line," the implication is unmistakeable: Graham Allison would never be one of them.


Last week, Allison embarked for the Soviet Union. He had been invited by Russian officials. In the wake of the Olympic boycott and the cooling of the cold war, however, Allison was not about to be injudicious; he called up the State Department to see if his trip was appropriate.

Among K-School administrators, his managerial prowess is almost revered. As Thomas Schelling, professor of Public Policy and a friend of Allison's, says, "He's always working on the hard immediate problems. He spends an awful lot of time doing things most of us wouldn't like to do." Others, like Ira A. Jackson '71, assistant dean of the Kennedy School, bring up his tenacious application to fundraising--one of the less appealing responsibilities of a dean--during the school's high growth stage. And since he assumed the K-School's leadership, he has plunged himself into the sea of administrative nitty gritty that has steadily deepened as programs have mushroomed.

Even the system of governance he has constructed as dean resembles a paragon of bureaucracy. "The school is ruled like the island of Timor," Allison says. "Everyone sits around a big fire. Up comes an issue. Those most interested in that issue gather in the center of the circle. Those in the inner circle study the matter, and bring it back to the outer circle for approval." He compares faculty members to "partners in a law firm."

Allison concedes that this mechanism, aimed at decentralizing the decision-making process, will prove harder to sustain as the faculty grows larger. In many ways, then, the signals he emits are those of the prototypical bureaucrat, a functional organizer and manager extraordinaire.

But a current of tension runs through Graham Allison's gut, a tension paralleled in the graduate school he heads. While Jackson describes him as "self-effacing" and "remarkably unpretentious," he also terms him "a bull, a tiger, a hustler, a zealot, an entreprenurial guy, an unmodified enthusiast, and a genuine one." Despite his carefully controlled veneer when discussing matters important to him, Allison is "in a fundamental way, a regular guy," according to Jackson. And his style has never been to shun controversy. In fact, he often seems to attract it, at times betraying more than a trace of bluster. If Allison displays many characteristics associated with the "consummate bureaucrat," he also has a streak of maverick individualism, sometimes, he concedes, to a fault.

One colleague recounts a dinner party Allison attended last spring. "At base, Graham is a man of passion. I asked him about the campaign. But he had been introduced to a zoologist, and they immediately launched into an animated discussion about racoons, a few of which apparently frequent the Allison's backyard. They talked for an hour about racoons. Once he got going on a subject he clearly enjoyed, he could not be disengaged."

Don K. Price, Weatherhead Professor of Government and Allison's predecessor as dean of the Kennedy School, has nothing but praise for his successor, noting in particular his fundraising skills. He, too, detects the duality Allison's personality, an easygoing manner combined with extraordinary intentness. "I know Graham as an occasional fishing companion. He's a very good, very ardent fisherman who will go with you at the drop of a hat. He's great fun to be with, whether watching a tennis game or collaborating on a project," he says.

Ardor is a trait that has revealed itself since his days as an undergraduate. After two years spent as a Marshall scholar at Hertford College, he returned to Harvard and became an official at the fledgling Institute of Politics while working on his Ph.D. thesis, eventually published as The Essence of Decision. In 1966, he acted as a decoy when Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the first IOP "honorary associate," was beseiged by 700 angry anti-war demonstrators--the first indication that the war would not let the University rest in peace.

In an effort to sneak McNamara past the crowd, institute officials had Allison sit in a car at the Quincy House Master's garage on DeWolfe St. It took a couple hundred of the eager demonstrators some time before they realized the car's occupant was not defense secretary Robert McNamara, but loyal Institute official Graham Allison.

Last October, another Secretary of Defense visited Harvard to deliver a dull address on the merits of SALT II to a more sedate group of observers. Harold Brown had finished reciting four of his list of six reasons why SALT II was a "significant step" towards controlling the arms race when two surly members of the Revolutionary Communist Party interrupted his speech with a stream of obscenities.