A Little Yellow House: The IOP Turns 50

A little house, painted yellow, with a small front stoop and an attic overlooking the road stood across from what was then the Holyoke Center, now the Smith Campus Center. It was this little yellow house where Harvard's Institute of Politics was born.

The house went unnoticed on the IOP’s opening night, October 17, 1966. The attention of the press, the students, and the secret service was directed across the street, where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert F. Kennedy ’48, Edward M. Kennedy ’54, Institute President Richard E. Neustadt, Washington Post President Katharine Graham, and a number of others—including cabinet members, an ambassador, and Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey ’28—gathered for the opening reception in the Holyoke Center penthouse.

The Crimson reported at the time that about “200 students and Harvard Square workers” gathered outside the Holyoke Center, where the FBI mandated that the guards ask for identification from anybody entering the building. The Kennedy brothers were rushed to the Center after a political rally, stopping briefly to shake hands on their way inside, where a dinner of “oysters Rockefeller, endive ala Franchaise, and roast tenderloin of beef Bordelaise” awaited them.


The black-tie party in the Holyoke Center, said President Pusey, was not only “a birthday party for the Kennedy Institute,” but also a “wedding feast” between government and academia: “a commemorative dinner” for President Kennedy and the new Institute of Politics.

The pageantry and fanfare of the dinner stands in contrast to “the little yellow house,” as it was then known, which is flanked—overshadowed—on one side by the Spee, and on the other side by the Signet. The house at 78 Mount Auburn St. is where Harvard’s “living memorial” to President John F. Kennedy ’40 began, and it still stands today, although the Institute moved to its present location on JFK Street in 1978.


The fellows and students would meet in “a small room,” according to Mark D. Gearan ’78, a former Crimson editor and member of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee, the undergraduate body partially responsible for the composition and direction of the Institute. “Literally, it was the living room,” he said.

The small stature of the building did not reflect the power nor the importance of the guests that came and continue to come to the Institute to engage with Harvard undergraduates. For the next 50 years, the Institute has brought in speakers from all areas of public service.

The Institute also has seen countless study groups and fellows, and the creation of the Director’s Internships, the Policy Program, and the Harvard Political Review.

All of this was done to fulfill the Institute’s mission of engaging Harvard undergraduates with leaders in public service and encouraging these students to go into public service themselves, however the students may define it. On April 1 and 2, the Institute will celebrate its 50th anniversary of fulfilling this mission.


One of the defining characteristics of the IOP is its ability to bring in prominent political figures. Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik ’06, who served as vice president of the Student Advisory Committee as an undergraduate, remembers the speakers as being a particularly noteworthy part of her Harvard experience.

“The opportunities that the IOP provides are world class, and unlike any other institution in the world, really.” Stefanik said. “The fact that they host speakers in the forum multiple times a week…[is] unlike anywhere else, and it prepares you to have a seat at the table.”

From its very first days, the Institute has brought in high-profile and often controversial speakers. Robert S. McNamara, who served as the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and was influential in defining America’s role in Vietnam, was one of the first speakers at the IOP.

McNamara’s visit to campus didn’t sit well with a large segment of the student body. A petition circulated requesting that McNamara debate with an anti-war representative and garnered more than 1,600 signatures, of which approximately 50 were from faculty members. According to The Crimson, two students even planned to dump bloody bones at the feet of the Secretary as an act of protest.

A crowd of 700 students turned out to protest McNamara’s visit, and blocked the Secretary’s exit. Former Dean of the Kennedy School Graham T. Allison ’62 had to act as a decoy, making his way through the students in a car, so that McNamara could be taken to Leverett House on foot, and then smuggled in the underground tunnels to Kirkland before he could make his escape.

While this instance may stand out in terms of the opposition’s ferocity toward the speaker, the IOP continued to bring in important and controversial speakers to engage with students.

Anurima Bhargava ’96, a former IOP member and current fellow, remembers being awed by the speakers that came to the forum. She recalls one instance where, within a span of a few weeks Israeli and Palestinian leaders were to come express their points of view at the Forum.

“For me to be able to see Yasser Arafat,” she said, “and then two weeks later [Yitzhak] Rabin was supposed to speak, but he was assassinated in the interim.”

Since its founding, the IOP has hosted international leaders, from George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to Mikhail Gorbachev, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Institute has also hosted individuals from the arts, including Barbra Streisand and Peter Yarrow, part of the group Peter, Paul, and Mary.


Part of the Institute's mission includes a broader definition of public service than simply becoming a politician or lawmaker. According to alumni, this has had a large effect on students who have gone through the IOP, and, in particular, those who are less politically-inclined.

Henry W. McGee III ’74, a former Crimson editor, a member of the SAC, and longtime president of HBO’s home entertainment division, was involved with the IOP, even though he knew he “was interested in public service, but not necessarily elected office.”

“I joined the student advisory committee not because of an interest in politics, but because of an interest in public service,” he said. “I turned my attention to public service in the arts, which overlapped quite strongly with President Kennedy’s interest in the arts.”

For Bhargava, her time at the IOP and on the SAC also encouraged her to go into public service, although not on the politician track.

“It encouraged me to pursue a career in civil rights,” she said. “I didn’t think of myself as a political person....[but] I did know I wanted to fix some of the problems in my community.”

This year there is an extra focus on the relationship between public service and the arts, as Anne Hawley, former director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is directing her own study group with a focus on how art can be used for both political and cultural purposes.


That isn’t to say, however, that the IOP hasn’t seen its share of political enthusiasts. Former members of the IOP have emphasized how their time at the Institute gave them the tools and confidence they needed to pursue a career in politics and public office.

Stefanik is a current member of Congress from upstate New York and the youngest congresswoman ever elected. She said she “was interested in public policy and engagement” before she got to Harvard, but credited “the skillset that the IOP afforded” her and everyone else in the program for giving her “the confidence to run for office.”

“It helped prepare me for the very partisan political world right now. I am very respectful of people who disagree with me, and I have a record of working across the aisle,” she said. “And that has served me well in Congress.”

Eric P. Lesser ’07 was also a member of the SAC before going on to a career in politics: first working for the Obama campaign, then in the White House, and now as a Massachusetts state senator. Lesser credits the IOP for augmenting his interest in politics.

“I was a Director’s Intern for a summer and I taught a citizenship class in the local public schools,” Lesser said. “It really opened my eyes to a group of young people who shared my belief in that the political process can be a force for good.”

Gearan also went on to a long career in politics. He worked on both the Dukakis and Clinton campaigns, then served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, head of the Peace Corps, and finally took his current position as President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1999. He also emphasized the unique perspective on politics that students gain at the IOP.

“I think I had a window into the world of politics and public service that I don’t think I would've had as just a Government major,” he said. “It exposed me to debates, conversations, and individuals, and to really contemplate public service as a career.”

While the IOP has produced scores of public servants, the current race for the 8th Congressional District in Maryland stands out. Kathleen A. Matthews, an IOP fellow from 2004, and Jamie Raskin ’83, a former IOP member, are competing for the soon-to-be-vacated seat of Congressman Chris Van Hollen, himself a Kennedy School alum.

—Staff writer Nathaniel J. Hiatt can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @nathaniel_hiatt.


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