Mark Gearan, SAC 1978, is the current president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Outside of his work in higher education, he has had experience working as a lawyer and public servant as White House Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Communications under President Bill Clinton in 1993. He graduated from Harvard College in 1978.
Harvard Political Review: What programs did you participate in during your time at the IOP?
Mark Gearan: Well, the study groups really were a great source of ah interest for me and in many ways an inspiration. One of the was with former Governor of Massachusetts, Frank Sargon. For me, as an undergraduate, it was a chance to really see the intersection of policy and politics, to see through speakers who came in, to go to my roommate’s study groups, to see the lives that people led in public service. I think it was very formative for me as I thought about my own career.
HPR: How did it influence your experience at Harvard?
MG: I think significantly. It was a chance to be exposed to ideas and issues of politics at a good level. I think modeling the kind of discourse and dialogue was very helpful to me. You know, I went on to law school and so I think having that experience of ideas and different perspectives in a very intimate non-academic, in the sense that there was no graded course work, setting was very useful for me. So, I’m very grateful to the Institute. The other piece is that I was granted a summer stipend to go to Washington to intern for my congressman from Massachusetts. I believe it was $500, which was significant at the time, and made the difference in my being able to accept an internship. It led to my interest in working on his campaign, then going back to Capitol Hill, and my journey into Washington.
HPR: What were the greatest challenges of working in a public service career? What were the greatest opportunities?
MG: I think the challenge for those in a political environment like Capitol Hill is the uncertainty of politics. I’ve had friends who have worked very hard and very well, and their senator or member that they were working for suffered a political defeat. Those are career defining dimensions for people. For some, the question is, and it’s not my perspective, but can you really make the kind of difference you want to? I found either at the congressional level working for congressmen on Capitol Hill or at the state level working for my governor here in Massachusetts, Governor Dukakis, or on campaigns and in the White House on a national level, they were all opportunities to make a difference. As a staff person, I didn’t run for office, but as a staff person, to assist either the candidate or officeholder were opportunities. So, I think people going in with eyes wide open to the challenges, as you put it, it’s wise to do that…. It’s not a static environment, such that people gain a lot of responsibility in a relatively short period of time, which I think is exciting. When you look at staffing on Capitol Hill or a campaign or other areas of public service, there are many young people with good ideas, ambition, and who want to make a difference.
HPR: What was your personally most rewarding experience? Something that sticks with you?
MG: I think the chance to serve President Clinton in the White House and Vice President Gore was significant. But I would say the opportunity to be the director of the Peace Corps was, from a management point of view, a wonderful and enriching opportunity. And the chance to be a part of President Kennedy’s greatest legacy, for a son of Massachusetts, was a particular honor. In that role, having the chance to travel and meet with volunteers and see what they are doing, and also having the management responsibility was a really rare combination that I treasure and am grateful for.
HPR: You’re no longer with the Peace Corps, but you left quite a legacy by making the Crisis Corps. How does it feel to watch your creation flourishing today?
MG: It’s very exciting! I just spent the day at the Peace Corps a couple of weeks ago. The current director brought back all the former directors and we had a debriefing about today’s Peace Corps. I think what’s exciting for me is obviously the important work that it’s doing which all the numbers indicate, but also, how it gives today’s Peace Corps the chance to think about other innovations as they go into this next 50 plus years. The Peace Corps is 55 years old this year. And I think there are different models of service that are interesting for the Peace Corps to think about. One of my interests in meeting so many return Peace Corps volunteers is that they said they would love to serve again, but another two years was just hard for them to put off their lives for. It always struck me as such a regrettable loss of talent, experience, language skills, and cross cultural understanding to have them not serve in some way. So that’s how we foster this shorter term service for those who had served in the Peace Corps…. I think if anyone would have prized that flexibility and innovation, it would have been Sargent Shriver and John Kennedy because of the kind of foresight and creativity they had in putting together the Peace Corps to begin with. I’m excited about what it’s done today, and I’m very excited about what it can mean for the future.
HPR: To touch on the second half of your career, which is in education, what are the benefits of being both the head of a university and as a professor?
MG: Like in politics or the public sphere, it’s mission-oriented and values institutions who are preparing the next generation. So I’ve spent a lot of time as a president thinking through the civic engagement of students and corporate subsidies of the institution itself…. I think for those who are interested in the public good and vital advancement and civic engagement more broadly, higher education is so important… I find it very complementary to some of the things I worked on in government and a great opportunity to stick with some of the things I learned at the Institute of Politics. For me, I am optimistic for the future because of what I see in students at my campus and elsewhere and the commitment they bring despite all of our challenges that exist in the United States and globally. I think it’s such an exciting time to graduate from a college or university because of the opportunities that exist. I’m ever hopeful and proud to be part of a sector that’s preparing students, and what we say on our campus is “encouraging students to think about lives of consequence.”
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