SHORTLY after noon, Alice Wolf puts aside her partly eaten tuna-salad sandwich and begins to reflect on her first month as the mayor of Cambridge, Mass. As the featured attraction of a ``Brown-Bag Luncheon'' at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University here, she enjoys the rapt attention of a conference room full of kindred spirits - graduate students and faculty, many with government experience of their own.
One sticky issue, she confides, is how to fulfill some of her ribbon-cutting responsibilities without seeming hypocritical, since she is not particularly prodevelopment.
Dealing with political realities is examined in a far different context in a nearby lecture hall. There, a standing-room-only crowd of students, many from overseas, dive into a case-study discussion of a Costa Rican legislative initiative.
What may sound boring is anything but in the skilled hands of Marc Lindenberg, who guides efforts to gather relevant information about a proposal, conceived four years ago, to consolidate three cabinet ministries into one. There is a high degree of discussion during the 90-minute class, which ends with Dr. Lindenberg sharing the latest word from Costa Rica: The legislation has gone virtually nowhere.
Harvard University president Derek Bok has called the absence of careful preparation for public leadership ``the principal missing link in higher education today.'' Since the late 1960s, however, the Kennedy School has been a trailblazer in bridging this gap, and now it enjoys a lot of company, in one form or another.
Miriam B. Clark, who works at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., has tracked the emerging options in leadership education since 1983. In compiling a sourcebook, she has discovered that more than 500 colleges and universities have specific course offerings or emphases in this area.
Part of what makes the time ripe for this kind of study, says Jack Christ, the mover and shaker of an undergraduate leadership program at Ripon (Wisc.) College, is ``the maturation of the social sciences in the academic community and the willingness of people to cross over boundaries.'' Then, too, he points to an ongoing reassessment of the democratic system that has occurred since the United States Bicentennial (1976) and in the closing years of the 20th century.
The University of Richmond in Virginia will open the doors to the Jepson School of Leadership Studies in the next two years. Endowed by a wealthy alumnus, it will be the first school in the country to offer a bachelor of arts degree in leadership.
The Kennedy School, named for President John F. Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard, already turns out leaders, or, in many cases, enhances the accomplishments of those already on the leadership track.
Josef Reum, a 1987 graduate with a master's degree in public administration, is Indiana's commissioner of mental health. He says, ``Those in the mid-career program are those who have scratched their way to the middle [of government]. The Kennedy School experience then launches people to the top of the heap.''
Schools of public administration are numerous, but the concept of high-level professional government schools - like the Kennedy School and a small number of others such as the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin - has not been widely adopted.
Somewhat ironically, says academic dean Albert Carnesale, the idea of a professional school akin to those for business, law, and medicine, was nurtured at a time when even high-level elected officials cast an antigovernment shadow. ``Jimmy Carter ran [for president] as an outsider, and Ronald Reagan said that government was part of the problem, rather than part of the solution,'' Dr. Carnesale points out. The Kennedy School flourished anyhow, in part, he says, because of the connection to Harvard.
The professional schools of government and leadership studies are a crossroads for many fields - economics, law, sociology, psychology, ethics, political science, and more.
Faculty members come from within the academic community, as well as from outside it. Practical experience can provide a rich teaching resource, particularly when it comes to putting a down-to-earth slant on things.
The case-study method is used extensively. This sort of instruction takes real-life situations, whether those of local agencies or international negotiators, and analyzes the principles and strategies involved in reaching and carrying out decisions.
Ray Bianchini, who received his master's in public administration last year, says the case method is rigorously uncompromising. ``Case study is almost like a sink-or-swim [situation]; you don't really `prep' up to it.''
Mr. Bianchini, whose employer before getting his master's degree was the US Navy Department, came to the Kennedy School after 13 years in the federal government. He wanted to use his mid-career schooling to make the transition to local government, and since last September he has served as administrator in Shawangunk, N.Y., a township 90 miles northwest of New York City with about 10,000 residents.
In retrospect, he wishes he'd used his year studying public administration and taken fewer technical courses on finance and budget and more courses focusing on group dynamics, which at the time he thought might be fluff. ``I could have learned the technical things fairly quickly by reading manuals and dealing with state organizations. What has been most challenging is the people part of this [job].''
There is a fair amount of numbers-crunching and technocratic study at the Kennedy School, but the educational environment is designed to humanize the learning.
``There are two things that constantly frustrate students,'' says Sue Williamson, director of the mid-career program. ``One is wanting to participate in everything that goes on, the forum events, the brown-bag lunches - it's just such a rich environment. The other one is knowing there are 700 people here, each with a story to tell, each with different experiences to share, and not being able to take all that information home with you.''
People from all 50 states have attended the Kennedy School, and about a third of the those enrolled are international students, many sponsored by their governments. Costs are significant, especially for individuals who must pick up their own tabs. When moving and living expenses are added to the $13,000 tuition, the annual bill ranges between $25,000 and $30,000.
The average age of mid-career students, who undertake a one-year degree program in public administration, is 38, and their average work experience is 12 1/2 years.
Kathy Prosser, commissioner of the Indiana department of environmental management, came to the Kennedy School in the mid-1980s after 12 years on the staff of US Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, including three years as chief of staff. ``It was really nice to have that year,'' she says, ``to recognize that I am a government person, that I believe in it, and that's where I want to focus my energies.''
The Kennedy School looks for people like Ms. Prosser, who've demonstrated a commitment to public service. ``These are the people who are willing to get down in the trenches and try to fix problems so the rest of us can live in a decent world,'' says Judy Kugel, director of career services. She explains that entry-level federal government salaries for two-year graduate students, whether from the Kennedy School or elsewhere, is only $24,000. ``People could be making three times that much at the high end of the private sector,'' she adds. A strategy of loan forgiveness, now being tested, is designed to encourage students to take important, lower-paying jobs.
The sky, of course often seems the limit for anyone bearing the Harvard banner. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a former Kennedy faculty member, is one of the highest-profile officials with this affiliation. The Bay State's financial crisis might seem a poor endorsement for the lessons taught at the school, however.
``It's true that it happened on his watch,'' says Dean Carnesale, who has high praise for Dukakis's faculty contributions, ``but we don't pretend that everything in your life will be wonderful if you pass through here.''