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King Of the K-School

By Laurence S. Grafstein

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.

While Brown stepped down from the podium, his face exhibiting no emotion, Allison took a microphone beside the stage. His voice fraught with barely restrained fury, he warned, "If you don't shut up right now, Secretary Brown will leave." The audience proved more receptive to the administration position than another gathering has 13 years before. As applause drowned out the hoarse, profane shouts of protest, Graham Allison made his way up to the K-School forum's second tier and personally escorted the rabble rousers out of the building.

Allison sticks to his guns. "Students, of all people, should be exposed to a broad range of perspectives. Not to hear any counterarguments is wrong," he says. "But simply to distrup...you're within your rights to ask questions, even to have a short argument. But you're not within your rights to shout and scream."

Another incident involving Allison and "the right to shout and scream" took place year before the Brown incident. The occasion was the dedication of the $11 million building for the K-School, and the plans for that day were grand. But about 400 demonstrators chanted throughout Bok's address, protesting the naming of the school's library for Charles W. Engelhard--a magnate who earned much of his fortune in South African gold-mining.

The days leading up to the dedication were filled with tense, round-the-clock negotiations between student groups demanding that one member of the organizing groups be allowed to speak at the ceremony, and several administrators, including Allison.

In his address at the building's inauguration, Allison said at the beginning that a representative would only be allowed to speak if the protestors "respected the dedication." Drowning out the University's president with chants does not exactly coincide with Allison's idea of respect. But the ceremony's featured speaker, Ted Kennedy, played politician and told the crowd of more than 5000 he and his family would assuredly stay to hear a spokesman chosen by the demonstrators, adding that he hoped the rest of the audience would remain as well.

Spokesman Mark Smith '72-4 gave a rousing speech denouncing apartheid following the end of the ceremony. It made the network news. K-School officials reflected later that Allison and his fellow negotiators had been trapped by the Senator's politicking.

But the Engelhard library issue did not filter away from the k-School as quickly as the throngs did. Jackson estimates Allison spent more than 500 hours dealing with the controversy. Schelling recalls the issue in vivid terms, saying, "It was a terrible blow, a stunning shock to the whole school. It was an exceptionally difficult political and diplomatic problem, on both sides. He (Allison) was under enormous pressure from alumni threatening to withhold money, deans of other schools who saw it as an important precedent, and concerned faculty and students."

By the time a committee had hammered out a solution in late May, the Engelhard issue had exhausted all concerned. Allison and his team devised a classic compromise--the library would not be named after Engelhard but a commemorative plaque would be hung on a library wall. Schelling says, "We came out not unscarred but well and healthy."

Allison comments ingenuously on his role in the conflicts that have dotted his career. "Sometimes maybe I've erred in failing to be sensitive enough to the concerns of some constituents who feel deeply about, and even offended by, the presentation of ideas. There is danger in a University environment of being too cautions about confronting ideas. My approach is not to shy away from ideas," he says.

"There's nothing chicken-hearted about Graham Allison," Jackson says, adding, "He's a tenacious, dogged apostle of points of view, but is mature enought to modify or correct his point of view when opposing arguments prevail." Schelling points out that the dean's position often shrouds his inner self. "A lot of people probably find him a little distant, harsh, overbearing, or thick-skinned. To do his job he has to be--most of us are not good at giving people bad news, but as dean he is fully responsible for all the hard decisions," Schelling says, evoking questions about the island of Timor arrangement.

The same way that Allison's personality seems a split between bureaucratic and entreprenurial prototypes, the K-School is undergoing a process of introspection and uncovering a dual strain: training students to manage effectively and to think creatively. But in summing up the K-School's goals, Allison cannot resist listing three major aims: competence in public management, understanding of basic public policy issues, and encouraging people to "think hard about the aims and limits of government."

And in the same way that Allison has been freed of many of his taxing administrative chores with the arrival of Hale Champion, executive dean, he hopes that the K-School can free itself to address larger questions. "I think old-fashioned questions of political philosophy will become more wide-spread," he says. If they do, Graham Allison will be right in the thick of the debate, whether at a Trilateral Commission tryst or a Council of foreign Relations meeting. He will travel to keep in touch with what he terms the "marketplace"--he squeezes about six appointments a day into his weekly sojourns to Washington or New York--always on the ball, hustling, but never fully forgetting his role as a model for bureaucrats.

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