Eric Andersen was the Director of the Fellows and Study Groups Program at the Institute of Politics from 2003 to 2017. His work at the IOP started at the Shorenstein Center on the Media, Politics and Public Policy. Following his tenure as the program’s director, Eric will join the T.H. Chan School of Public Health as the Director of the Senior Leadership Fellows Program and Deputy Director of Voices in Leadership.
The Fellows and Study Groups Program (FSG) invites distinguished public service figures to live in residence in Cambridge over the course of a semester. Fellows work with a team of undergraduates to host study groups for Harvard students on a topic of their choosing.
Harvard Political Review: FSG has been replicated at other universities, like Georgetown and the University of Chicago. What makes the program so appealing?
Eric Andersen: It is special because of the vision of its founders. I would look particularly to Mrs. Kennedy, the president’s brothers, and some of his advisers, including ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, who said that the IOP would be a living memorial; it should itself be alive. I think what he meant by that was that the IOP was never meant to be an institute with academic focus but rather a place that would bridge the gap between academia and practical politics. The way to get to that was to bring in living human beings who have been public servants, who themselves have been in the arena of public service––broadly defined as elected office, serving in government, political journalism, diplomacy, etcetera––to come and spend a semester at Harvard to share their views, wisdom, and practical experiences with students.
That nexus of the practitioners and the undergraduates is what makes the program special. Undergraduates have this incredible opportunity to get to spend time with, learn from, and be mentored by some of the country’s and some of the world’s greatest public servants. That is an experience that very few other colleges have. You mentioned a couple of others that have done it. I can tell you that during my undergraduate experience at Skidmore College, which is a fine college, we did not have anything like what happens at the IOP. What happens on a given day at the IOP is something that most students do not experience in their four years of college.
HPR: How do you think FSG helps enrich political dialogue?
EA: The IOP is deliberate and careful about the way it chooses its Fellows. The Fellows’ program is highly selective. It is not just the students who benefit from this program. It is the Fellows themselves. To become an IOP Fellow––and I have heard this from people in the world of politics and public service––is a really exceptional experience. Not everybody is accepted, and frankly, few people are able to do it.
When we are selecting a Fellowship class, we think about diversity very broadly defined, in every possible way. Of course, that means making sure our class is diversified by gender, ethnicity, and race, but also by political ideology, regional diversity––whether that means from different parts of the country or different parts of the world. Ideological diversity is important to us. We want to talk about issues that matter, especially to students, and that will matter to them in their own lives as they go forward after college. The way it enriches political dialogue is to give the students an array of issues to discuss and think about––things that they may not have given much consideration to before, and now, in a study group or an event that a Fellow is providing for the, they are given the opportunity to think about.
HPR: Half of the recent class of Fellows came out of former President Barack Obama’s administration. What do you think attracts public servants to FSG?
EA: Public servants want to serve the public. They want to give back to us what they have done for their career. Being an IOP Fellow by its nature means that, particularly for those in elected office, they would have to have retired or been defeated. Otherwise, they would not be available for the program. But they are not done giving back. They want to continue to influence the public dialogue, and many of them got interested in public service then they were undergraduates themselves. The greatest gift you have as a Fellow or an academic who is teaching here is the opportunity to talk to the future. When you are working with undergraduates, that is exactly what you are doing.
At the IOP, and particularly under the leadership of Maggie Williams, one of the things we have talked about is shaping the future of politics. Most of the Fellows who come to the program know that their time is not over but is on the downslope, so we want to make sure that the torch is passed to new generations. Part of what goes on at the IOP is the idea that good politics, good public policy, and good public service should be perpetuated and continued. This is what democracy depends on. It is what our country is founded upon. There is a general altruism among our Fellows who say, “I’ve had my shot. I want to take what I know and give it to students, so they can do an even better job than I did.”
HPR: How do you see Fellows use time at FSG outside of study groups?
EA: We once had a Fellow describe the program as coming back to college as a fully-fledged adult. One adage is that youth is wasted on the young, and that is not entirely true. Most Fellows did not attend Harvard, so auditing classes is extraordinarily exciting. Most of them audit classes in areas that they have not had the time to look at or study in the many decades that they were in service, like art history, or poetry, or English literature, or even music: one of the most popular classes for Fellows to audit in the fall is “First Nights,” taught by Professor Thomas Forrest Kelly. The opportunity to learn about the history of some of the world’s most famous pieces of music and hear them performed is awesome. That is one way Fellows enjoy their time outside of study groups.
Harvard is such a rich buffet, such an intellectual buffet that they are just happy to feast here. They go to brown bag lunch discussions, lectures, all kinds of things that they can do. Some Fellows take the time to exercise. Some enjoy collegiate sports. When they get very close to their student liaisons, they attend some of their theatrical performances. We had one Fellow last semester who was a regular at the Harvard Political Union debates each week because he thought they were fascinating. The biggest question is not how Fellows spend their time but rather how they manage their time.
HPR: What you mentioned about time management is important, especially for younger Fellows who have recently come out of office or are fresh out of their job. How do you see them managing their desire to lead a private life with the pressures of being a recent public official?
EA: It is an interesting comparison: you do see a different dynamic between a Fellow who is older versus one who is younger. For a younger Fellow, this is a short, 3-month experience. While they do receive a stipend, they do have to think about their future, so they are often thinking about their next steps. While it is wonderful to be able to think about those next steps while you are here at the IOP and Harvard, you do have to go through the process more deliberately than you might have to otherwise. For younger Fellows, there is a balance between what they are doing right as a Fellow versus what they need to do in the future because they are starting families, building a secure future, etcetera. A Fellow who is a bit older is probably looking closer towards retirement and less towards their next career. There are a lot of those decisions being made by Fellows about how they will use their time at the IOP.
HPR: What surprised you the most about working with high-level politicians?
EA: It is a simple answer to what most folks do not realize about these politicians, because we view them as something else. They are regular people just like us. That is all. It is just that they happen to do extraordinary things as public servants.
I can remember when I was recently hired at the IOP, one of the Fellows was Ted Sorenson, who had been the special adviser and speechwriter for President Kennedy. On the one hand, Ted was not an average man; he was an extraordinarily gifted writer, incredible intellectual, a man who had helped shaped the words of the presidency. One of the things we know about the legacy of President Kennedy is that his words mattered. The way that he called people to public service was extraordinary. He used words to influence and help avert crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the same time, Ted Sorenson had a heart as big as any ocean, he was deeply concerned about the problems facing regular people, and he was deeply concerned about me. We became great friends.
That is a story I can share about every Fellow I have met, that by and large these are people who are good-hearted and want to give back. Otherwise, they would not be Fellows in the first place. Most of them could easily find another place to stay for three months where they would make more money and have more time. Fellows do not realize that the time commitment is so demanding: all of it rewarding, since it involves undergraduates. I think that the people who come through our program are generally special and want to give back.
What surprised me most is that at the end of the day, these are regular people. Politicians are not devious, and they do not have ulterior motives. My experience has been that––and this goes for Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between––they care about their country and want to make the world a better place. They might do it differently than each other, but that intention is ultimately the common denominator, and at the end of the day, these people are passionate. They would not have spent so much time doing what they did otherwise, especially in the public eye. It is a tough place to be.
HPR: With your experience working with figures on both sides of the aisle, how do you build trust despite political differences?
EA: A challenge we had at the IOP over the years was making sure we created and always adhered to a bipartisan program. If that is the case, we will attract students from different ideological points of view. We tend to do well with Democrats and we need to continue to try to do better with Republican Fellows.
How can we build trust? I would say that at this point we have a fair amount of trust because our program is so well-recognized. It is 51 years old, has an incredible reputation, and our roster of Fellows is extraordinary – including both Democrats and Republicans. The way we build trust is to treat everyone equally and with a tremendous amount of respect, no matter who comes through the door. No matter who they are or what record they have, even if you disagree with them personally, at the end of the day, they are all public servants. Their views and approach to public service might differ, but never doubt their devotion to their country––whether that is the US or another country. When you decide to become an IOP Fellow, you already demonstrate that you want to give back to young people. Building trust was never that difficult. You always have to keep in mind the purpose of the IOP from its beginning.
I also think being flexible means understanding that what worked during one decade may not work in the next. The interests of the students will shift, and you have to be adherent to that. Building trust means paying attention and having empathy for where the students and the Fellows come from. If you can do that, you can build trust easily. And treat everyone equally: I do not care if it is a three-term senator or someone with a lower profile.
HPR: You have directed this program since 2003. How do you think your vision for FSG has changed?
EA: I do not know how much it has changed in degree. What I always put a premium on – and hope will be the case after I leave the IOP – is the involvement and voice of the students, especially undergraduates. But what I will say is – to borrow from a movie I loved – that I found I got older while students stayed the same age. What that means is that when I was hired at the IOP in my mid 20s, I was not that far off from my college years, so I understood where they were coming from. We spoke the same language and enjoyed the same things. As I got older, that might not have been the case. It is important to listen: what I might think is interesting to the students might not be interesting, and force-feeding them something is not going to work.
Everything at the IOP, especially in FSG, is done by voluntary participation. You come to study groups because you want to listen and learn from an incredible policy-maker or leader, not because anyone is making you. Our students’ parents are not sending them here and paying tuition to attend study groups. You will never receive a grade or a certificate. If you are not presenting students with something they care about and are interested in, they will not show up. Harvard is such an incredible place; it has so many other things to do. We compete amongst ourselves as a university for students’ interest. There is something happening at any given point in the day. To be 18, 19, 20 years old – I remember what that was like, and to be frank, I do not know if after a long day of studying and classes, that at 4 o’clock I was turning my attention to sitting around a table to discuss politics.
But our students do, and I think that is because we do––again, back to our selection process––work so hard on it, are so deliberate, and involve the student voices. Every Fellow who arrives has gone through an application process. We do not simply “select” Fellows. That selection process is important because, among other things, it might include an interview. Fellows must demonstrate sincerely that they want to spent time with undergraduates, and the undergraduates will probe and ask questions of these people. If the students are satisfied, then chances are good that the candidate will be a Fellow. I do not know whether or not that has changed. It has strengthened over time, because I believe it is critically important.
Students do not make all decisions at the Institute. Certainly with the selection of Fellows, it is a combination of a professional staff led by the director. The voices of the students will always and should always be heard as we select Fellows. That has been important to me.
HPR: What will you take away from your time in FSG?
EA: I will take away a whole lot of friendships: friendships among the Fellows, friendships among the students, and among a lot of dear friends from the staff. The IOP staff is an extraordinary collection of people. They work really hard, harder than most people realize. Work does not end when one goes home. It continues through the night and into the weekends. We all share that deep commitment to the mission of the Institute.
I will tell you one other thing that I have that I wish everyone in America had: a profound understanding of politics, not necessarily the mechanisms and intricacies. What I am talking about is understanding different points of view, having an appreciation for people who think differently. I do not have a kneejerk reaction to politics the way I might otherwise or the way a lot of my friends do. I am not saying that I am not passionate or partisan in my own way. When I stepped into the office every day, I was not a Democrat or a Republican. I was someone who wanted to celebrate public service, and that is how I approached my job. There are many people I met whom I thought I would not like, whom I now have deep and fond admiration for, and frankly, for some other people whom I thought I would get to like, less so. Politics is about people. That comes first and foremost, and so when I met some of these people, I realized that those who are the best at what they do care about other people deeply. And the people who turned me off seemed a little dismissive of that. The good news is that most of the people who came through FSG really enjoyed people.
Those are the things I will take from the IOP. I wish I could spend more time at it, but I have done my time. I am looking forward to my next adventure, but I will never forget my time at the Institute. It is an emotional thing for me. I poured a lot of my time into it – sometimes I felt too much, my wife would say too much. I do not regret any of that. But I think there is always a time to move on to a new chapter. I wish the IOP nothing but the best. I’ve offered to help in ways I can if needed, and I hope that the next person who becomes director of the Fellows program has as much fun and is inspired by it as much as I have been.
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