CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—President Obama has plucked at least a dozen professors from Harvard University for his administration, tapping a resource on which presidents with wide-ranging ideologies have relied heavily for nearly a century.
Mr. Obama’s picks make up a veritable brain trust, with experiences ranging from overseeing military planning during the 1994 North Korean nuclear weapons crisis to representing a secretary of state before the Supreme Court to accepting a Nobel Peace Prize for limiting global arms after the Cold War.
“This is the largest number of Harvard professors going into government that I can remember in a long time,” says David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and an adviser to former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“Harvard in the ‘60s, and today, remains the leading research university in the world. It has a very large faculty of political scientists, historians, economists and others. Presidents like to have people around them who understand the world.”
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and author of “The Harvard Century: The Making of a University to a Nation,” says former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was the first president to bring together a gathering of the most capable minds to hash out public policy solutions.
The “brain trust” idea got further attention from Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University; gathered more traction under Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and reached its zenith under John F. Kennedy.
“That was a radical idea, that a university had an obligation to be part of its time and not just a cloistered area to study the past,” says Mr. Smith, a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University. “During the Kennedy years, Washington was known as ‘Harvard on the Potomac.’”
Mr. Smith says Mr. Nixon repeatedly denounced the Ivy League for what he saw as elitism, yet he had a number of Harvard faculty and alumni in his administration, including Henry Kissigner. Mr. Smith also says Lyndon B. Johnson would rail against “the Harvards,” who would write what Mr. Johnson thought were unfair history books.
However, Mr. Smith says, despite the stereotype of Harvard as a bastion of progressive thought, presidential poaching from the institution has been a bipartisan affair.
“This is something that’s been part of the political culture really for 75 years, and it’s bipartisan,” Mr. Smith says. “It’s not just the liberal Democrats.”
Conservative activists see things differently, however, arguing that universities have an overwhelming bias toward hiring progressives rather than conservatives. While this shuts them out of academia, it doesn’t shut them out from presidential influence. Conservatives have been able to entrench and finance research institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute to serve as intellectual buttresses for their policy proposals, Mr. Gergen says.
Organizations such as David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom and Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Academia devote themselves to exposing what they see as a persistently slanted mind-set across U.S. universities.
“One thing you’ll see is that Democratic administrations tend to draw more college professors in than Republicans,” says Mal Kline, executive director of the District-based Accuracy in Academia. Mr. Kline edits a monthly newsletter distributed to conservative activists around the country, including at influential weekly meetings hosted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
David Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School,says while the Kennedy School does not have an ideological quota, it does have a history of hiring people from across the ideological spectrum, including recent hires such as Nicholas Burns, a diplomat under George W. Bush, and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, a key adviser to Mr. Bush during the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq.
“I think it would be a really bad idea, either way, to take into account ideological diversity when making hiring decisions,” says Mr. Ellwood, himself a Clinton appointee who worked on welfare reform in the 1990s. “That said, I speak often about how critical it is that people hear from diverse voices.”
Mr. Obama’s picks come from three main areas on campus: five from Harvard Law School, four from Harvard Kennedy School and two from the economics department of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Lawrence H. Summers, a former president of Harvard who most recently worked as a campuswide professor, heads Mr. Obama’s National Economic Council.
“In general, we think this is terrific,” Mr. Ellwood says. “What makes the Kennedy School unique is not only do we provide strong scholarly background for how you think about problems, we also have people that have actually been there, so it’s not just theoretical, pie-in-the-sky thought processes. The powerful ideas that are generated at the school make a difference.”
Across campus, Howell Jackson, acting dean for the law school — he’s holding the space vacated by Elena Kagan, Mr. Obama’s pick for solicitor general — expresses a similar view.
“This is an unusual moment,” Mr. Jackson says. “It’s terrific for us that so many of our colleagues are getting this opportunity to serve. It’s great for our law school, and it’s great for our students to have these role models.”
Harvard allows all professors up to two years’ leave time for government service or other reasons, and professors must reapply if they go beyond the two-year mark. Mr. Jackson says a research university, such as Harvard, typically sees as much as a third of its professors outside its teaching rotation, so the school is well-equipped for the recent departures.
“If the past is any guide, most of them will come back after two years,” Mr. Jackson says, noting that all five law school appointees have agreed to return to speak on campus at some point next semester, schedules permitting.
Both Mr. Ellwood and Mr. Jackson acknowledge that uprooting rock-star professors can cause a bit of an upset (particularly in the law school’s area of environmental law with the departures of Cass R. Sunstein and Jody Freeman) but on balance, it’s a good thing for students.
“It makes people proud to be at a school where so many people were asked to join the administration,”says David K. Kessler, president of Harvard Law School’s student government. “I think that’s tempered a little bit because students were looking forward to learning from these professors.”
Mr. Ellwood says student frustration over a lack of pre-notification that their professors, some of them academic advisers, would be leaving is understandable, but it’s an uncontrollable problem.
“When someone is under consideration, they are often one of several candidates under consideration,” Mr. Ellwood says. “Administrations don’t want it being discussed. They are very, very strict about secrecy, and you can lose a job if you are seen as someone who is leaking. They pretty much demand that they are the ones who announce it.”
Mr. Ellwood says he initially predicted anywhere from two to six departures and expects one or two more may be in the works. Thus far from the Kennedy School, Mr. Obama has hired Ashton B. Carter, an international affairs professor and former assistant defense secretary under Mr. Clinton whose portfolio includes crafting military strategy during the North Korean crisis and removing nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries. For Mr. Obama, Mr. Carter will serve as an undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
John P. Holdren, who taught environmental policy at Harvard and accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for his organization’s work on limiting arms proliferation, will advise Mr. Obama on science and technology issues. A former head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mr. Holdren has seen his nomination stall on Capitol Hill over concerns among conservatives about Mr. Obama’s agenda for fighting climate change.
Human rights activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power is on leave from her professorship at the Kennedy School and will serve as Mr. Obama’s senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council. A fiery critic of U.S. inaction on global genocide, Ms. Power stumbled and resigned from the Obama campaign after she told a Scottish newspaper that Mr. Obama’s then-rival Hillary Rodham Clinton was “a monster” whose ambition for the presidency knew no bounds.
Even though he has raided Harvard, Mr. Obama’s not leaving the school high and dry. Next month, David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager for last year’s hard-fought elections, will be a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
“I know everybody’s looking forward to hearing from him,” Kennedy School’s Mr. Gergen says. “I hope and trust that we will have individuals coming in from Republican ranks. I think it’s a good thing for everybody.”