Career change

Yale’s newest teacher—one John Kerry ’66—comes with a long résumé.

Leslie Kaufman was a reporter at the New York Times for 20 years.

“Our freshman year, we almost had a nuclear war,” former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 told a packed Law School auditorium on April 27, as he opened the inaugural event of a multifaceted program Yale calls the Kerry Initiative.

He was speaking, of course, of the Cuban missile crisis. In his sophomore year, Kerry added, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. During his junior year, students went South to help register African Americans to vote, even as blood was being shed over voting rights issues. And then, in his senior year, students faced the Vietnam draft.

“But even with that context,” Kerry told the crowd, “I would look every one of you in the eye today and say, ‘I can’t think of a time in the history of our country when it has been as complex, where the world is changing as dramatically” as it is today. It is, he added, “industrial-sized change at digital pace.”

Kerry is returning to his alma mater to help train the next generation of leaders to cope with these transformations. In February, Yale tapped the former statesman and US senator to join its Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He will be the university’s first Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs.

The Jackson Institute aims “to prepare Yale students for global leadership and service,” according to its website. It was created in 2009 with a gift from John W. ’67 and Susan G. Jackson, and it accepts both master’s students and undergraduates. Many of them are planning careers in diplomacy, politics, the military, or international companies or nonprofits. The classes that count toward a degree include the essentials—economics, history, development, politics—as well as some that are less standard: Global Land Grabs, Causes of War, Courage.

Pedagogy at Jackson combines the academic rigor of Yale faculty with real-world lessons from practitioners—the Jackson Senior Fellows. The fellows teach both solo and in tandem with faculty, and they’re expected to mentor students. Many also conduct their own research. The group of about ten fellows changes somewhat from year to year, but it’s reliably eclectic. In the past academic year it included the director of financial stability at the Central Bank of Iceland, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and a past president of Doctors Without Borders. The seminar called Courage is taught by a woman who has rowed a total of 15,000 miles on three oceans, solo.

In the world of international affairs schools, the Jackson Institute is a startup. The schools that generally make the top ten in the various rankings were almost all founded in the first half of the twentieth century; Georgetown’s, which often places first, was established in 1922. Jackson is also smaller than most, with about 200 students total. Many schools have several hundred students. Harvard’s and Columbia’s both top a thousand.

But being small “allows us to enjoy a sense of community,” says Jackson director James Levinsohn, a professor of global affairs and economics. “Everyone knows everyone. We foster community with an intentionally small class size, with a cultivated atmosphere in which cooperation and not competition is encouraged, and by selecting students who have a common goal of making the world a better place and who have typically spent years demonstrating a commitment to public service.” Since about half the master’s students are not US citizens, just being part of the Jackson community can teach members something about everyday international relations.

Jackson prides itself on academic flexibility. Master’s students design their own curricula, and they are encouraged to take classes far and wide across Yale’s professional schools (law and environment are popular). Ellen Chapin ’18MA chose Yale because, she says, “the other programs were almost too structured. They were tailored to just one kind of person.” Chapin, a University of Virginia graduate who spent two years at the Department of Justice—assisting with, among other things, trials of BP executives after the Deepwater Horizon disaster—is focusing on security issues in east Africa. She took the spring seminar on leadership taught by retired general Stanley McChrystal, and next year she will serve as his teaching assistant. For his part, McChrystal finds the students at Jackson committed, high-caliber, and “deeply interested in leadership.”

One problem Jackson faces is arguably a good one to have: rising undergraduate demand for the global affairs major. About 50 students are selected per class year, but increasing numbers of students are turned away altogether or, once they’re accepted, waitlisted for popular classes. Levinsohn acknowledges the issue. “It’s fantastic that Yale College students want to engage with and learn about the complex problems of our day, and it’s on me to try to figure out how to accommodate that demand,” he says. “Right now, we just don’t have enough faculty.”


The addition of a former secretary of state can only raise the profile of the Jackson Institute. (Georgetown, it’s worth noting, has Madeleine Albright.) When the Kerry Initiative gets fully underway this fall, it will have four main components. One is teaching: Kerry will lead a weekly seminar open to all Yale students. He will also work with a select group of students to collaborate on in-depth research and writing for publication; Levinsohn told the crowd at the inaugural event that 200 students had already applied for eight spots as “Kerry Fellows.” Additionally, Kerry will hold public conversations with guests of his choice. And he will spearhead an annual “convening” with world leaders and Yale community members on a topic of urgent importance. The hope is to use these forums to develop new approaches for solving significant but seemingly intractable global problems.

Kerry says he expects learning at the Jackson Institute to flow both ways. Following that philosophy, he kept his opening talk at the inaugural event brief, then threw the floor open for a spirited give-and-take with students. They stood at the microphones in lines of eight or more, waiting to ask him questions. The exchanges covered many urgent topics that will no doubt make their way into his fall seminars—North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the tragedies in Syria, the state of “alternative facts” in Washington, DC, and climate change policy. On the climate question, Kerry said, “This is life and death. This may be the single most immediate security threat that we face.”

But he made it clear that, despite these crises, he still finds reason to be optimistic. Kerry told the crowd that “the first thing” he did after he left office was to participate in the Women’s March on Washington. “The energy out there, the numbers of people out there—it’s astounding.”

The challenge now, he said in closing, is to get those same marchers to be just as energetic in making a difference. “And believe me,” he said, “if we do that, [who can] bar the door on the possibilities?” He added: “Have at it.”


Y: Tell us about coming back to Yale.

K: It’s a nice bookend. I’m excited about it. Yale has a great history of contributing to the public dialogue with folks who have engaged in public life at all levels. And, of course, Yale opened up a world of possibilities to me.

Y: You’ve decided to come back and be the first-ever Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs, a position that will have you teaching global leadership. What do you think are the elements of great global leadership, and how can they be taught? That seems like an ambitious agenda.

K: Well, it is an ambitious agenda. I think it should be. It’s an opportunity to share my real-life experiences with future leaders and those who want to have an impact on various aspects of global affairs. I hope I can provide context. It is also an opportunity to build a community to hash out these major challenges that connect all of us. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I particularly respect the global intellectual capacity of today’s student bodies at every level. I see it as a two-way exchange, not a one-way thing at all. And maybe this can set somebody on a course of inquiry or evaluation that gets translated into public policies.

Y: What do you think are the top challenges your students are going to have to face, both in the near and midterm future?

K: The global environmental challenges are massive: from climate change to the preservation of our oceans to food supply, regarding production. There are going to be, obviously, tensions with respect to extremism that exploits religion and ethnicity. Also, burgeoning populations—particularly burgeoning elderly populations—are going to put pressure on the workplace.

However, all of these are accompanied—and this is very important to say—by massive opportunity. Technology is bringing better health, better health care, longer life—plus lower maternal mortality, less infant mortality, more food. We’re curing diseases. There are great benefits to all of this. And what we have to do is learn how to mix and match all of these opportunities and challenges in a way that is more constructive and productive. It’s going to take the application of skill and devotion to resolving these issues. It’s going to take people organizing and leading. And that’s the part of what I hope to bring to the table at Yale. That is my experience, at the Senate and as secretary of state.

Y: What’s happening with the current political climate, which is so poisonous and so partisan?

K: It is poisonous. We have to get away from that. The way to get away from that is not to engage in the politics but to engage in the substance and have a better set of ideas and better policy choices.

Y: Would those even get a hearing in Washington?

K: I’m more concerned about whether they get a hearing in the country than in Washington, because if they get a hearing in the country, that will force Washington to deal with some of these things.

Y: Your legacy, particularly in Syria, has been coming under attack by the Trump administration. What do you make of the chemical bombings in Syria by Assad last April, and of President Trump’s accusation that they happened because you and President Obama were too soft in the first place? 

K: Like a lot of things that are happening today, the judgments that are being made are not based on facts. We removed 1,300 tons of declared chemical weapons. We knew at the time that there were still some undeclared residual weapons. We took that issue to the United Nations. We got the United Nations to send a monitoring team, and they confirmed what we suspected—that there were some residual weapons. And we requested, at the United Nations, using the tools available to us, to get those weapons out. The Russians blocked it. 

I supported the Trump decision to bomb, but only if it was going to be meaningful—if it’s accompanied by meaningful diplomacy. The military alone is not going to solve the problem with Syria. You have to have diplomacy to settle it. And we left a program on the table for the Trump administration—the International Syria Support Group [plan] and the United Nations resolution [endorsing the plan]—all of which have laid out the way in which you might achieve a political solution with Syria. So I would defend entirely the move of getting the 1,300 tons out, because those, in the hands of Assad, would have [made for] a far graver situation than what we face today.

Y: What do you make of the Trump Administration’s proposals to significantly cut back the state department?

K: It is well known that I supported a larger budget for the state department. It is well known that—as then–Central Command General Mattis has said—if you don’t give me more diplomacy, you’ll have to give me more ammunition. So the bottom line is that it is vital that we fully fund diplomacy. We cannot secure our communities in Iraq, where we put soldiers’ lives on the line, if you don’t hold on to those communities and stabilize them. That requires adequate diplomacy and funding.

Y: As you help young people, are you telling them that America has to lead? Or can they find other ways? For instance, maybe climate change will be solved through China.

K: No, I do believe America has to lead. We are the largest economy in the world. We are the critical ally with respect to the NATO alliance, with respect to European relationships, and with respect to countless other relationships in the world. I found, as secretary, that many things do not happen if America is not leading. We led in bringing China to the table to reach the Paris agreement on climate. And I am not content, personally, not to see that leadership continue—I think it’s critical for American security and America’s role in the world, and for the world’s standards of international behavior since World War II.

Y: You’re going to be educating a pretty elite group of young people. The best and the brightest will be coming through your shop. How will you talk to them about engaging the world, especially people who aren’t elites and seem to have so much suspicion of elites these days?

K: Let me say that most people at Yale go out of their way to try to present a fair, broadly based approach and not an elite approach. But I understand the suspicion, and it’s appropriate for people to be suspicious, because there have been a lot of outright failures. But the way to deal with it is to tell the truth. The way to deal with it is to be very practical and very encompassing of what the challenges are.

You know, when I was in the United States Senate, for over 28 years, I fought against tax reform that just takes care of the upper one percent. And I know of any number of examples of ways in which we’ve tried to do that but have been blocked by people who do protect the elites. Not just in the thousands of pages of the tax bill, but in many, many ways, opportunity and wages have been affected in this country. That has to change.

Y: Do you see yourself still having a political future? You’ve talked about bookends; do you see this as an end of a career or just a pause in a career?

K: No, I view this as a continuation of a career. I mean, it’s obviously a bookend with respect to Yale, but it’s not a bookend with respect to my public life. I intend to keep politically active and involved, and I have a lot of things that I’m engaged in right now which I’m excited about.  

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