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On the surface, it may look like Harvard is going to stay out of Washington in 2004.
None of the nine Democratic contenders for president have Harvard degrees. In fact, the only candidate who boasts a Crimson tie is President Bush, a third generation Yalie, who studied for two years at Harvard Business School.
But behind the scenes, Harvard professors are hard at work.
Faculty from a diverse array of academic departments are drafting policy briefs and touching up speeches on everything from taxes to terrorism.
Inboxes across the University are filled with e-mails from advisors to Democratic candidates Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, but the requests often have multiple motives.
To candidates, Harvard professors are a source of policy information, and often more importantly, political connections.
Coveting the clout of the Harvard name—and the weight it carries with potential donors—politicians seek out professors for endorsements and advice.
To professors, work on a political campaign means practical experience and a national stage for their ideas.
According to Former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) Graham Allison, hundreds of professors could be advising campaigns during any given election.
Allison, who served as assistant director of Defense for the Clinton administration, says he is not officially affiliated with any current campaign, although he adds that he has long served as an advisor to Kerry.
He says that one of professors’ most necessary contributions to a campaign is not intellectual, but financial.
“Campaigns need money and keep reaching out to fund-raising circles,” he says. “Most of the time they don’t really have time for listening.”
Harvard professors are the ultimate insiders in the political game, sought after for their ability to raise money, as well as for their minds.
Show Me the Money
As a group, affiliates of Harvard University rank as the fourth biggest block of all-time contributors to Kerry’s political campaigns, according to opensecrets.com.
And political candidates have not hesitated to tap into Harvard’s financial connections.
According to KSG Assistant Professor of Public Policy Xavier Briggs—who stumped for Gore in 2000—Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School are the top three sources of political campaign advisors.
Briggs says professors can help candidates by writing memos, serving as a sounding board for ideas and attending policy meetings.
But he adds that the Harvard name is in itself a major boon.
“[Some professors] have a certain credibility with donors of a certain stature,” he says.
Allison says he is often inundated with requests for advice and support, but the expectation is often the same.
“In the primaries, money is so much the objective,” Allison says. “They dial for dollars.”
And when it comes to discussing ideas or getting votes, candidates have clear priorities.
Briggs says that professors themselves often get little face time with the candidate, dealing mostly with his assistants and other advisors.
“I did it knowing very well that the issues I worked on day to day did not rank very high with the candidate,” Briggs says.
A Two Way Street
While their opinions sometimes take the backseat, Briggs and others say that professor can learn a lot from working on a campaign.
“The effort to get someone into office is extremely important,” he says. “You must respond in the moment to the reception of an issue.”
KSG Wiener Professor of Social Policy Christopher J. Jencks says he has declined two offers to advise candidates but still likes to keep his hand in the political world.
“It can help you focus your attention on the kinds of issues the political process is paying attention to,” Jencks says.
But he adds that good ideas can only get one so far, and that his research on poverty and income equality often remains on the fringe.
“Truth be told, the kinds of people who do best in campaigns are people who are good at being relatively upbeat and optimistic with relatively limited resources,” he says. “And my career has been devoted to studying what candidates often do not want to hear, although it might do him good to hear it.”
But others maintain that professors can also use political campaigns for their own agendas.
“If a professor is doing work in a policy area, usually they would like to see the kinds of views or ideas they advocate get adopted and implemented,” says Weatherhead Professor of Public Management Steven Kelman, who worked with Al Gore ’69 in the late 1990s on the then-vice president’s campaign to “reinvent government.” “Or they might get interested in a full time job after the campaign and one way to get that is to help the candidate get elected.”
And Briggs points out, that no matter the issue or the candidate, Harvard professors will “always have ties open.”
“Nowhere is in a position quite like Harvard,” he says. “Harvard is blessed with a certain reputation. This place is incredibly connected.”
—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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