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Portrait: Alan J. Stone

After a career of advising policymakers in Cambridge and Washington, Stone looks back on career of service

By Nathan C. Strauss and Kevin Zhou, Crimson Staff Writerss

In one black-and-white photograph on the wall of his Mass. Hall office, Alan J. Stone looks exhausted, staring into the middle distance as he sits in the Oval Office. President Clinton reads a draft of an address penned by Stone during long and sleepless nights, while several Clinton advisors look to the president, waiting for him to speak before they pass judgment on the speech.

This is just one of many photos adorning his office, and while Stone has spent the last 13 years in higher education—first at Columbia and then as Harvard’s vice president for government, community, and public affairs—Stone’s ties in the world of policymaking still run deep.

For the past two decades, Stone—who announced last year his decision to leave the University on July 1—has continuously reprised his role as the trusted hand near the nexus of power, whether on the banks of the Potomac or those of the Hudson and Charles.

“If you want to pass a piece of legislation, you have to take different ideas and figure out what you can live with,” Stone said. “That’s what I’ve done wherever I’ve been.”

MR. STONE GOES TO WASHINGTON

A native of Chicago’s north side, Stone has been involved in social activism since his college days at Miami University of Ohio. In fact, back when he had long, flowing hair, Stone was a passionate anti-war activist who turned down lucrative offers following law school at George Washington University in order to pursue a career of service.

Politics and activism collided for Stone while he was writing for the New Mexico Review and Legislative Journal, a leftist monthly.

Though the publication had a relatively small readership, an article that Stone wrote managed to reach one of the most powerful figures in Washington: George S. McGovern, the Democratic senator from South Dakota who had chaired the party’s commission to reform the primary process.

“I was blown away that the guy who would eventually make a run for president had read my work,” said Stone, who began his Washington career as a legal counsel to McGovern, after the senator lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon in 1972. While working for McGovern, Stone became a proactive advocate for combating hunger and poverty.

“When I was working for McGovern, I had a chance to write legislation for poor kids,” Stone said. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Stone was influential in crafting and updating the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as WIC, which provides federal money for nutritional and health care needs for low-income mothers.

In the 1980s, he continued his work in this field by championing core issues like foster care and family leave at the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families.

“They had the power to advocate, and I felt comfortable there,” Stone said. “They were social issues that were just gaining importance.”

UNDER A MICROSCOPE

Stone would eventually leave the Hill for the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, where he spent two and a half years as a speechwriter for Clinton. Stone decided to leave after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and when Columbia University asked him to create a public relations office, Stone jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to stay in a not-for-profit role, and I loved my undergraduate life,” Stone said.

Six years later, Stone received a call from Harvard offering him a position as vice president. When he was deciding whether he wanted to take the job, he got a taste of the weight that the Harvard name carried.

Patrick Healy, who was then covering higher education for The Boston Globe, told Stone that his appointment could be front page news.

“When I was at Columbia, The New York Times would never have written a story about the new vice president,” he said. “It is so visible and powerful because any story gets extra treatment.”

When he arrived at Harvard, he found that the call he received from Healy was just the tip of the iceberg. Even small controversies, he discovered, could easily be blown out of proportion.

“You have to be very sensitive to the perceived power of Harvard in the community,” Stone said. “Partly it’s our size, partly it’s our wealth, partly it’s our fame, and partly it’s just a fact of geography.”

During his tenure, Stone revamped the position, taking a more hands-on approach to negotiations with the Cambridge community.

When Harvard was building the Center for Government and International Studies, Cambridge residents protested that their opinions had been neglected by Stone’s predecessor, Paul S. Grogan. They were upset that a proposed tunnel between the two buildings—which was later scrapped during the negotiations—was unnecessarily invasive and that construction would be too noisy.

Stone spent time getting to know community residents and making his presence felt in the neighborhood through the negotiations and by attending city meetings.

“I can’t be an invisible presence—whoever is in this job has to be known,” Stone said. “If the city manager of Cambridge doesn’t know me, I haven’t done my job.”

Colleagues attribute Stone’s success at Harvard to his inclusiveness of all opinions and to his “wonderful” intellect.

“He clearly understands the missions of the University and believes that the work it is doing is important,” University spokesman John D. Longbrake said of his boss. “If anyone belongs at a university, it’s Alan.”

In May, Stone became the first Harvard administrator to receive the “Advocate Award”—a rare honor given for a community leader’s dedication to public service—at the Public Service Celebration of the Phillip Brooks House Association (PBHA).

“He’s not the type of person that seeks attention, but he seemed honored that it was coming from the students that are committed to public service, and seemed interested in being at the dinner and hearing more about what they were doing,” said Gene A. Corbin, PBHA’s executive director.

A HOMECOMING

After Lawrence H. Summers was ousted from Harvard’s presidency, Stone seriously considered leaving his post, as he thought that University President Drew G. Faust would want to install her own administration, and that it would be a natural transition point to exit Harvard. (Stone had previously left Columbia during its presidential transition in 2001-2002.)

But when he met with Faust four months after announcing that he would be leaving, he changed his mind. By staying, he would have the opportunity to facilitate Faust’s transition to Mass. Hall.

“The chance to work with her has been incredibly fulfilling,” Stone said. “We both benefited.”

Though Stone has no definite plans, he intends to return to Washington—the place where he has spent most of his adult life.

Just as he used his knowledge from Capitol Hill for his job at Harvard, Stone said that this time around, he will bring the skills he acquired at Harvard to Washington.

“I feel like I learned a lot at the University,” Stone said. ”It’s an unplanned and great blessing for me that I’ve gotten to be part of the senior management team.”

—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at strauss@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer Kevin Zhou can be reached at kzhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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