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Kirwan Returns to Harvard

Former Mass. finance chief, College grad to take the reins of FAS budget

By Bonnie J. Kavoussi and Esther I. Yi, Crimson Staff Writers

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Port Authority fell into chaos as revenue plummeted across the board. Leslie A. Kirwan ’79, then finance director of the MPA, lost no time in responding. She quickly organized four task forces and got the authority back on firm financial footing within nine months, according to MPA aviation finance director Brian R. McMorrow.

It’s this prowess in fiscal management that drew Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith to Kirwan—in an e-mailed statement last month, he cited Kirwan’s “history of building and leading strong administrative organizations” as a strength she will bring to her new post as Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean for Administration and Finance.

“She’s a highly competent, highly numerate, extremely skilled individual who has both good budgetary sense and good political judgement,” said Economics Professor James H. Stock, who serves on the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors and worked with Kirwan in quantitative modeling and forecasting of revenues.

Armed with what colleagues call an exemplary leadership style marked by candidness and team-building, Kirwan will move into University Hall as FAS finance dean in early November, fresh from her stint as the State of Massachusetts’ head finance official under Governor Deval L. Patrick ’78. Kirwan comes on the heels of sweeping budget cuts across the FAS, which faces a remaining deficit of $110 million.

In an interview with The Crimson earlier this month, Kirwan shied away from making definitive statements on how she plans to close the FAS deficit, emphasizing the need to meet with relevant constituents before professing any grand designs.

“I’m going to be very careful as I arrive at Harvard not to have any preconceived notions about how I would recommend changes be made,” she said. “It’s going to be really important for me to do a lot of listening to Dean Smith, to the faculty—who are the heart and soul of FAS—and other stakeholders.”

And building a team environment, colleagues say, is exactly what Kirwan is known for.

“She is the perfect hire for Harvard, and Harvard is the perfect job for her. This is a terrific fit,” said Betsy Taylor, MPA director of finance and treasury, who spent nine years directly reporting to Kirwan. “Everyone says that Harvard does everything by committee—and that’s her style.”

NOT A LONE LEADER

No one individual is ever completely given the reins on administrative decisions in state governance, and the structure of committees and groups is a frustrating setup for some, Taylor said. But Kirwan is a natural consensus-builder and most at ease when she is working in a group setting, according to several state government colleagues.

“She wants to know what’s important to the people around her, both in a profound way and in a more social way,” Taylor said. “She can deal with both very serious issues—professionally and personally—and she is really in touch with the little things, the funny things, the silly things that make people who they are.”

As the chair of the Health Insurance Connector Authority Board for the past couple of years, Kirwan was described as a good listener with even-handed judgement who consistently steered the board to unanimous votes, according to board member Celia A. Wcislo.

Though Kirwan has had to close $7 billion in budget deficits during her two-year tenure, healthcare board member and Harvard School of Public Health lecturer Nancy Turnbull described Kirwan as “very creative” in collaborating with others to try to sustain the healthcare coverage expansions made in Mass.

But Kirwan is no yes-woman. She said she believes in frank communication, even if the news may be less than pleasant for its recipients. Even more importantly, Kirwan stressed that it is often incumbent on leaders to acknowledge that they do not know something instead of resorting to silence.

“Leslie [Kirwan] could not be less like a bull in a china shop, and yet she is capable of being very direct, and that is a very unusual combination,” Taylor said. “She makes people cope with whatever needs to be dealt with. She will not hide the problem, and she will not sugar-coat it. She’ll deal with them.”

Kennedy School Professor Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, who taught Kirwan while she was at the Kennedy School, said that he expects Kirwan to be a more transparent administrator than most at Harvard, noting that she turned the state budget into a much less cryptic public document when she took over as finance secretary.

“I think Leslie’s inclinations in general would be to say that an understandable accounting is better for some of the players than a cryptic and difficult-to-understand presentation,” Leonard said.

CUTTING THE RIGHT WAY

A glance at Kirwan’s resume reveals extensive experience in the fiscal management of large organizations. As the state’s secretary of administration and finance, Kirwan helped close a series of billion-dollar deficits and developed the state capital budget. Prior to her time in the State House, Kirwan also worked for the MPA and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.

“She has built a career moving in a fairly logical progression within that domain, developing greater experience the whole way,” Leonard said.

“I have a long list of questions that come from my own experience of how budgets have been constructed in agencies I have worked in—there are going to be Harvard flavors of all of those things,” Kirwan said. “I’m sure there are many analogies I’ll find in the Harvard FAS budget.”

FAS may be uncharted professional terrain for someone familiar with working for state organizations, but Kirwan is no stranger to Harvard. Kirwan, who grew up in Cambridge “in the shadow of the University” was a student not only of the College but at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Her FAS appointment, Kirwan said, is the perfect opportunity to help her alma mater as it undergoes tough fiscal times, and to use the management skills she has bolstered through her various government positions in the past. The FAS deanship was “too good a chance to pass up,” Kirwan said.

Though Kirwan declined to comment on her plans regarding the FAS budget, she said the top priorities and missions of the University would serve as benchmarks as she makes administrative decisions in the future.

“We have to look always to preserve the essence of what makes Harvard the university that it is,” Kirwan said. “What are the core missions, core services of the organization you work for? It’s important to keep those in the forefront of your mind as you’re planning what cuts you can make.”

The longer the downturn continues, however, the more likely it will become that cutbacks will “really dismantle things that we still need to be in the business of doing,” Kirwan said.

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.

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