Four Heller Deans on Navigating Crises and Community Resilience

June 08, 2021

On June 3 University Professor Anita Hill moderated a virtual panel discussion between four Heller deans focused on the major challenges faced by four of its most recent leaders: current Dean David Weil, and former deans Lisa Lynch, Jack Shonkoff and Stuart Altman. The event, which was originally planned for Heller’s 60th anniversary in June 2020, opened with welcome remarks from anniversary committee co-chairs Sue Windham Bannister, PhD’77, HHL’19, and Tom Glynn, MSW’72, PhD’77.

Professor Hill kicked off the conversation with an acknowledgement that every dean has led the Heller School through times of crisis and transformation. She asked each panelist to reflect on the biggest challenge they faced during their tenure. 

Stuart Altman, the Sol C. Chaikin Professor of National Health Policy, first joined Heller in 1977. He recalled hearing about President Reagan’s resolve to cut spending on “wasteful government programs” while driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike. “I struggled not to crash the car,” joked Altman, who knew that the Heller School depended on the very programs Reagan was determined to cut. Altman’s decision to expand Heller’s research capacity in the 1980s allowed the Heller School not just to survive, but to become a vital force in field.

The next dean, Jack Shonkoff, started at Heller in 1994. He recalled Newt Gingrich’s rise to power in the Republican party and the public’s growing distrust of government, calling it “a harbinger of future politics.” Shonkoff felt it was an important time for the school to double down on its mission. Under his leadership Heller developed three new master’s programs and an undergraduate program, raised funds for a building renovation and expansion, and reinvigorated the Heller Alumni Association. “It was all-hands-on-deck, to keep the issues that matter most to the school alive and well,” said Shonkoff, who is currently a professor and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 

Hill noted that when facing external threats, both Altman and Shonkoff broadened the school’s reach, rather than withdrawing. Lynch continued that trend when she became dean in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession. Under her leadership Heller expanded its master’s programs even further, increasing enrollments and adopting the master of arts in conflict resolution and coexistence (MA COEX) program from the Ethics Center.

“The university was going through a hard time, and many of our students were, too,” said Lynch, who is currently the Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Heller. “But I loved how people had this shared commitment to 'knowledge advancing social justice,' even though no two people agree on what social justice means.”

Lynch also spearheaded a strategic planning process in 2011 with a specific goal to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the school. “Heller could not be excellent unless we truly embraced and were a diverse, equitable and inclusive community,” she said. “It was time to move beyond our aspirations and into implementation.”

Dean Weil recalled his experience joining the Heller community in the wake of #FordHall2015 and shortly after the election of Donald Trump. “Heller is so affected by the political process, for better or worse, given the issues we care about,” he said. “The president and his rhetoric created a truly threatening environment for many members of the Heller community.” He characterized his first months and years as dean as focused on healing and community building through discussions.

Lynch agreed, and reinforced Weil’s comments on the importance on community discussions at Heller. She recalled how school-wide events in the Zinner Forum tend to draw together students, researchers, faculty and staff who might otherwise never get to know one another. “A lot of work has been done to reinforce that sense of community on every dimension of the Heller experience,” she said.

This prompted Altman to reference the founding leaders at Heller, who he knew personally in his early years as dean. “Those people taught me what community is all about,” said Altman. “That history has really stood us well, and built the foundation we’ve all benefited from.” 

Dean Weil attributed part of Heller’s unique community feel to its unusual financial model. “There’s an entrepreneurialism baked into the Heller model,” he said. “And yet it creates this very unusual kind of place in terms of trying new stuff, being creative. The boundaries between research and academic programs are much more porous than at other institutions. 

For their final thoughts, Professor Hill asked each dean to offer one key takeaway from their time as dean. Lynch thought back on the 2011 diversity, equity and inclusion steering committee, saying that she felt the work was positive, though it needed greater urgency. Altman recalled fighting tooth and nail to keep Heller’s administrative offices in-house, rather than centralized at the Brandeis level, and considers that structure a key part of Heller’s community and its strength. Shonkoff pondered the questions he didn’t even know to ask during his time as dean, noting that he - like the other panelists - had never been a dean before joining Heller. 

Dean Weil offered his reflections last, choosing to focus on instruments of social change. “Our students are often motivated by the view that social advocacy is the way, and that’s part of it. But there’s also part of it that’s working within the system, changing it, challenging it,” he said. “No one of those is sufficient. Social policy changes come from the outside and the inside.”

After 90 minutes of vigorous conversation, Professor Hill closed the event and thanked each dean for their insights. She said, “I have been on the faculty at Heller for 21 years, and each iteration of your deanships I learn something from each of you, and I’ve learned something new from each of you tonight. I daresay the entire audience has as well.”