THE John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University cuts a wide swath in the public-policy arena. Its faculty and alumni not only advise governments but, at times, run them.
By any criteria, the school exerts tremendous influence. For instance, it is not unreasonable to speculate that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev could turn up as a lecturer someday.
So when the school's new dean, Albert Carnesale, says that education policy, health-care issues, and environmental questions are "frontiers of knowledge so important" that he "cannot imagine the Kennedy School not focusing much attention and energy on them," he is reacting not only to public-policy concerns, but charting a course of study aimed at their solution.
"Leadership can take place at many levels," he said in an interview in his office, referring both to his own approach to management and to the leadership role of the Kennedy School.
"The simplistic notion of 'leaders' and 'followers' does not work very well. Sometimes just clearly defining the problem for an organization or society" is leadership, he says. "Leaders have to be the ones who help the organization, and the others with whom they are working, share a vision of what it is they're trying collectively to do."
Mr. Carnesale is an expert on American foreign policy and international security, technological change, and policies associated with nuclear weapons and arms control (he served on the United States delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1970-72). He holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering and joined the Harvard faculty in 1974. He was appointed in November by Harvard's new president, Neil L. Rudenstine.
Public officials "are always making decisions of interpretation," he says. "They are always making decisions of extrapolation. They are always applying [policy] to particular cases that don't quite fit the generalization."
Since it is the nature of public policy to operate within a broad guideline, and for personnel in an organization to implement policy, such personnel also make policy, he avers.
The critical concept for students is to recognize that public-policy leadership exists at many more levels than they might imagine. Students must also understand how news media influence communication with constituencies. This is as much a leadership issue as it is a management issue, he says.
How does this affect curriculum and research at the Kennedy School?
For starters, the "biggest change is much more comparative analysis, much more of an examination of how others address these problems [in other countries]. We now find others do things better than we do," and we can learn from them, he says.
Leaders cannot just look inward at their institutions or organizations. They must look outward, fully realizing they cannot function without knowing more about the world. State governors go on trade missions abroad, even mayors go on trade missions, he points out.
Thirty percent of the Kennedy school's 700-student enrollment comes from other countries, Carnesale says. "They clearly feel that how Americans view public-policy problems will be useful for them to take back home.
"But none of them make the mistake of thinking, 'Oh well, you can just take exactly the American system and just transplant it.' Foreign students and American students know better than that," he says.
The Kennedy school must prepare leaders at all levels of government to deal with increased global interdependence, he says. This reality, however much of a cliche it has become, is still something new to policymakers.
Lest all this sound abstract, he poses a problem facing his own institution, his efforts to define its solution, and how in his role he must act on his own advice:
"What we have not done much of is collaboration across the lines of the university, where you would engage faculty from various schools in a sustained, long-range project," he says.
Can anyone imagine resolving problems in health, education, or the environment - three priorities he has set for the Kennedy school to study - without an interdisciplinary approach? he asks.
The first hurdle in creating such a collaboration is the suspicion that premier research institutions have toward interdisciplinary studies, he says.
"People have always been suspicious of the interdisciplinary approach because it tends to draw from the two ends of the spectrum of capability - those who couldn't make it in the discipline, and people who are very successful in the discipline" rising to a higher challenge, he says. Traditionally, there are far more people in the former group than the latter, he says.
Nevertheless, Carnesale is confident that "we are getting over" the downside of this suspicion and that it is being recognized that more successful people in a discipline want to move into an interdisciplinary approach "to engage in it," he says.
At Harvard, the message from President Rudenstine is clearly more interdisciplinary, he says, not as an exit from the discipline, but an entrance into it.