By The Citizen Staff
Saying goodbye to the Kennedy School today – alongside the Class of 2013 – is Dean of StudentsChris Fortunato, who was named the 16th head of school at the Blair Academy in northwest New Jersey. He is leaving the Kennedy School after three and a half years.
In this final interview with The Citizen, Dean Fortunato speaks about his experiences at HKS and his future plans. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: What will you miss about working at HKS?
A: There is a lot to miss here. You know, when I started working here, I remember sitting down with a mid-career student who had told me about some of his work in media in Pakistan, and I remember sitting in that meeting feeling extraordinarily humbled – about his passion, about his work – and feeling that these students are looking to me for advice! It is humbling and exciting at the same time to work with such an incredibly diverse, smart, passionate group of people. This has been such an incredible learning opportunity for me; so much of the learning happens by the conversations, the stories that I am able to share with the students. So I guess what I will miss most are the students.
Occasionally there are some interesting Forum events, and some incredibly interesting and wonderful people who come here as guests of the Kennedy School. It’s such an exciting and dynamic place to be. I got into this line of work having practiced law years ago; I made the shift wanting to work with students – I think that’s why I do what I do. That’s always the crux of what I’ve enjoyed the most.
Q: What will you keep with you from the Kennedy School for your new role as headmaster Blair Academy?
A: I think the gold in the Kennedy School, or in a place like Blair Academy, is the relationships that people build and the learning that happens because of these relationships. I think I’ve tried to do as much as I could here to focus on relationships-based learning, and that’s exactly what I intend to focus on when I get to Blair.
Things like leadership, communications, the ability to impart your personal vision and narrative, the ability to solve complex problems working with teams of different people, to negotiate, to persuade – all the things that we do at the Kennedy School in some of our most effective skills-based courses – are things that thematically, and on a curricular basis, I plan to bring to a younger generation of people, so that perhaps some of them will choose to be at a place like the Kennedy School.
Q: What has been the greatest frustration and in light of that how would you like to see HKS develop in years to come?
A: I don’t know if it is a frustration here per se. I am very convinced about what this kind of education and institution offers people. I think there is not necessarily yet a pervasively understood sense of what the value proposition is of a degree like the MPP or MPA. There are people who look at a JD or MBA or more traditional professional routes in order to get to the place where Kennedy School students are actually getting to, where they are learning how to, in an interdisciplinary way, solve complex problems and engage and relate to one another.
When I initially started talking to [high school kids] about my work at the Kennedy School and each of the degrees the school offers, they looked at me quizzically.
I think – in some circles – we do a really good job of imparting what this place is about, but I think there is more work to be done to really have people understand the value of an MPA or MPP. Sometimes it is frustrating that the starting point of the conversation has to be backtracking and telling people what this is about, and only then, launching into what amazing things happen here.
Q: What is the greatest obstacle in achieving greater understanding of the offerings at HKS?
A: I think some of it is a messaging and communications issue. People historically get what a lawyer or doctor does, but I don’t know if we have the best distilled message of what this is. I think the blessing, and the challenge, of the Kennedy School is that we have such a diverse range of interests, areas of concentration, and perspectives, that at times, it can feel a little bit more diffused and less coherent. There is a point of celebrating the diversity of thoughts and interest, and then there is also the need to really have some measure of focus on mission – what we are trying to achieve. We get it because we are here every day; I think people outside of academia and outside of Kennedy School don’t necessarily quite get it. We need to keep refining our message.
I also hope that – as an institution – we can find a better balance between what individual centers and individual degree programs are trying to get accomplished, while making sure that we as a community are connected.
Q: What has been your proudest moment at HKS?
A: I feel that the proudest achievements that I have had here have been the result of my work with a team of people. When I got here, the Study didn’t exist. I arrived at a time when students were actually collecting data and putting together a really thoughtful advocacy [project] to the Dean about the need for dedicated student space. I also believe very strongly that students need a space – that can be a social and engaging space –but also a learning space on different levels that belongs to them. Things came together quickly. A research center moved out of the space, and I capitalized on the moment, with a whole legion of students behind me and the Dean and others. It was the fastest moving building project that I have ever been involved with. We met and approved this project in May of 2010 and we were functioning in September. I think the space is modest in scope but I think it has worked.
I think creating the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is an important stake in the ground, and the Dean and Executive Dean were extremely supportive of that. And things like the HKS Talent Show and the Day of Service did not exist in those forms before I arrived. I was not the sole driver but I feel very proud of leveraging teams to make those things happen.
Q: Why a talent show?
A: The Talent Show is also a great opportunity to see the humanity in people, in everyone from the Dean to the students to faculty. At the end of the day we are focused on public service, which is about policy, but is really about people and our humanity and ability to engage and connect with one another. Sometimes when we are able to be human and poke fun at ourselves and really have a good time with the community, I think that does a lot for a place like this.
Q: What do you lose sleep over, when you think about students at this school?
A: I lose less sleep over it now, but when I first started, in a wonderful way we send students with funding and support to every corner of the globe, and the University didn’t necessarily have the best mechanism in place to support and track that. So that we weren’t giving much thoughtful analysis to, say if you’d have an internship in South Sudan, has someone with some expertise given us advice as to whether it is safe or not safe to go.
So when people go away for spring break or summer vacation, that is one of the times when I get less sleep because we are constantly trying to support and monitor the situation where people potentially, even though they are doing the exact work that we want them to do and they want to do, the world is a changing and sometimes dangerous place. That sometimes would give me pause, and yet it has been extraordinarily rare, maybe like two or three times since I have been here, that we have had to say to someone, “You know what, I do not think you should go right now,” and we find ways around that.
That probably will be different in some respects with the age of population you work with. You are all adult graduate students and making informed choices. But first and foremost as Dean of Students my responsibility is to take care of your safety and well-being. I do have a really good team of people, so luckily I am not the only one who has to lose sleep, and we are an institution that is so well established and has such great people working here.
I think we all lost sleep over the last six to eight weeks, and I think that when the lockdown happened and we were trying to do whatever we could to be supportive remotely, it was very challenging.
Q: As Dean of Students, what is your approach toward inclusivity for international students?
A: The Mason fellows program [helps] getting students to be better acclimated when they come here, especially students from developing countries who may not have as much connection to the western experience in the United States. Where we do need to do additional work is to connect international students. I do want to celebrate populations of students to have their own individual identities, but sometimes you can actually create a cleavage between international and US students in a way that is a little bit unnatural and not productive. So the Mason seminar happens for several weeks, then the full mid-career summer seminar happens. And there is an identity that in a wonderful way forms for the Mason fellows, but it is almost to the exclusion of being better integrated into the mid-career program. I think there is some work that needs to be done there.
I think there are opportunities and challenges of coming to the Kennedy School as international students, whether it is on the financial side or on the cultural side. I think generally though it is an extremely supportive and interested and engaging environment for all students, but people may have different opinions about that too.
I learned on day one that we will never reach a point where we say we got the balance of international and domestic students just right, because the world keeps changing. There were moments when I pushed, a little bit early on, when I met with students and faculty who would say we don’t have enough students for this region, from this background, from this area of interest, but particularly on the geographic side. So when I met with all these different stakeholders, I kind of came back and said we have a finite population of 900 or so students; if you have more of students from a different area, that means you would have less of students from another area, and if everyone says we want more, we can’t keep having more. So I think it needs to be an adaptive and fluid situation as to how we [recruit].
First and foremost we want to have a really diverse and talented group of people. This past year’s incoming class was about 47-48 percent international, which is very impressive, and I think we had the largest Mason class last year that we’ve ever had. Going into next year, we are anticipating an even slightly larger class. So I think, if you ask any person here they are going to have some opinion as to the mix should be slightly different or slightly adjusted in some way. I think it is a great mix, I really do. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t always keep looking very carefully and make course corrections.
I think the place where we need to do even more work is in building the applicant pool, not necessarily making sure that we have some particular formulation of the number of international students, which tends to gravitate to around that sort of 45 percent, which seems to be working well for the school. But I would love to see how do we make it clear to students, especially students in developing countries, who never envisioned that they could come to a place like Harvard (either because of personal circumstances or particularly financial circumstances) how can we message it in such a way that they actually start exploring that opportunity.
Q: If you had it all to do over … What would you have done differently?
A: I think the range of work for my position, which is everything from all the aspects of enrollment (like recruitment, admissions and financial aid), to career services, the academic administration of all the programs, student services, and everything in between; it sometimes puts you in a position where you are having to sit behind your computer a whole lot more than you care to. I feel like I have been in far too many long meetings and in front of a computer screen, when the thing I love the most is actually spending time with the students who need to have their Dean of Students to be as visible as possible.
This is what I told the incoming students of the Blair Academy – it is not enough to be smart, it is not enough to have brilliant ideas. There is a legion of people out there with brilliant ideas and a lot of them sit on the shelf, because no one wants to work with them and they have not put the investment of actually getting to know and engage with people. So I guess one thing I would caution myself and others in the future is to make sure you are out and about connecting with the people who you are supposed to be working with as much as you can.
Q: What is one thing you wish most students had known at the beginning of their HKS experience?
A: I think the buffet of the Kennedy School is extraordinary and also overwhelming at certain times. Throughout everyone’s time here, one thing I have tried to advocate to students is that you can’t have it all. I think sometimes people arrive here and are excited and overwhelmed by everything this place has to offer, and several months into it, don’t feel like they have a coherent sense of why they are here. I think that people should to talk to people and ask for help. I don’t say that in any patronizing way; we all need help, we all need mentors and advisers to figure out how we want to intentionally navigate where we want to go.
A good thing also is that the Kennedy School is not going anywhere. I hope people engage with the Kennedy School ten years down the road, whether it is coming back for an Executive Education program, or being involved with co-curricular life as an alum. That’s a place where we need to do a lot more work. I think our relationships are the most important assets we have at the Kennedy School. We don’t necessarily leverage our alumni population as effectively as we can. I know there are people who are focusing their energies on that now and are hopeful.