‘Soar and Do Great Things’

January 29, 2017

Todd Bigelow for The Chronicle

To most of us, Michael S. Dukakis is "the guy who ran against Bush I." But since exiting the national political stage, the Massachusetts Democrat has enjoyed a deeply rewarding career in the college classroom — one that began well before his 1988 White House run.

After he was defeated for re-election as Massachusetts governor in 1978, Mr. Dukakis found teaching and fell in love with it. He would return to politics — serving another stretch as governor from 1983 to 1991, and of course winning the Democratic presidential nomination — but he longed to return to teaching.

His Republican opponent, George H.W. Bush, granted that wish in the form of a sound thrashing in the Electoral College. Mr. Dukakis served out the remainder of his gubernatorial term and headed back to academe.

For the past quarter-century he’s been a public-policy professor at Northeastern University, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate students. During the winter quarter he relocates to the University of California at Los Angeles to teach graduates and undergraduates and a course on California state policy. And when he’s not teaching, Mr. Dukakis helps his students land internships and jobs in statehouses or in Washington. Some have gone on to political careers of their own, like Jimmy Gomez, a California assemblyman who is running for the U.S. Congress; Rusty Bailey, mayor of Riverside, Calif.; and Matt Dababneh, a California assemblyman.

Mr. Dukakis spoke with The Chronicle about the role of higher education in the age of Donald Trump and how passing the political torch to students may be one of the job’s best perks.

How did you get into teaching?

I came into my last year [as governor] and things were looking pretty good. A guy named Ed King ran against me with sort of the same appeal that Trump apparently has had. He was a very conservative Democrat. And to the astonishment of everyone, he beat me.

That was in 1978. I had practiced law and I was not in love with the law. Then I said, Oh, maybe I’ll take a look at teaching. Fortunately the Kennedy School was looking at trying to put together a much stronger state and local program.

“I don't care who the president of the United States is or who is in Congress, we better pay attention to higher education.”
I taught there for three years. In the meantime the guy that beat me was running a kind of unsavory administration. I decided, two years into my teaching, that I’d challenge him again. I went on the campaign trail full time, defeated King in 1982, and then I was re-elected for a third term as governor in 1986. Then I ran for the presidency and lost, as you know. By that time there was no question that I wanted to go back to teaching.

I’d always been a fan of Northeastern, love the co-op program. I’ve been teaching full time there for the past 26 years. Since the ’90s we’ve been coming [to UCLA] for the winter quarter, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s intense. I’ve got a full teaching load at both places.

What is it about the job that draws you?

If you love what you’re doing — I think this is true of a lot of folks in various professions — at some point you want to teach it to others. I teach a lot of my mistakes, I can tell you.

What sort of mistakes?

Look, I got defeated the first time out, right? I must have been doing something wrong. I wasn’t a very good consensus builder. And one of the things that you discover — sometimes painfully — is that if you can’t bring people together around common goals, you’re going to have a very tough time getting things done. I’m a much better listener these days than I used to be. I was a terrible listener. Great talker, not much of listener.

When did you become a good teacher?

It was a gradual process. Remember, I had gone to law school. I try to get students deeply involved in the class discussion, largely around case studies. I don’t do any straight lecturing. I don’t get up and talk for an hour and a half. I’d be bored out of my mind listening to myself. It’s all about questions, questions, questions.

How much time do you spend grading? As much as you spent answering constituent letters?

I’d say more. I assign memoranda that my students have to write as staff to those decision makers in the public sector. Those are the kind of papers that I’m looking for. They are not footnoted papers with bibliographies. Most of them have never done anything like that.

I’m occasionally on dissertation committees, and I’m happy to deal with that, but it’s mostly the policy stuff that I’m interested in.

What’s the appeal of Northeastern’s co-op program?

It’s universitywide. Kids go five years and not four. After the first year, which is all academic, they start rotating six months work, six months study, six months work, six months study. These are paid jobs by the way. It’s a terrific model, and I’m not quite sure why other colleges and universities haven’t adopted it.

Students these days are perhaps more job oriented than they used to be, which doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in things of the mind and the traditional kind of liberal-arts curriculum. But we went through a brutal recession not too long ago, and all of a sudden a lot of young people and their families who worked hard, paid a lot to get a higher education, found themselves driving cab. That memory is still very fresh in the minds of a lot of our students and their families. The opportunity not only to do these six-month stints for pay, but to connect with employers, it’s clearly an enormous draw for Northeastern.

How does higher education fit into today’s national conversation?

I didn’t hear a lot certainly from the guy that’s in the White House on the subject of higher education. It doesn’t seem to be part of his conversation. My state now has an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, and so much of this depends heavily on the role of colleges and universities in Massachusetts and across the country.

I don’t care who the president of the United States is or who is in Congress, we better pay attention to higher education. We better be supportive of it. That includes a major role for the country’s research universities. In terms of the country’s economic future, it’s a lot more important than the percentage of the country’s manufacturing base that has been hurt by trade. Not that that is not important, but it doesn’t even come close to dealing with the impact of higher education, both on the country’s economic future and the skills that our students are going to need.

Are you teaching this from a public-policy perspective?

Absolutely. One of the issues we confront every year here in California is the apparent inability, difficult though it is to understand, that California’s extraordinary higher-education system cannot produce enough workers in the high-tech, biotech, and related fields to fill thousands of very good jobs that this economy’s creating. Every year we have this battle over H-1B visas and whether or not the cap should be lifted to allow companies to bring folks into the United States, presumably because they have skills that our kids don’t have. That to me is ridiculous. These are $70,000, $80,000, $90,000-a-year jobs. This is a state of 38 and a half million people. It’s got the best public higher-education system in the world.

And the time, in my opinion, has long since passed when this state — and for that matter any state, because they all have great state universities these days — is in a position to provide the nation’s economy with excellent graduates who have the STEM skills and can fill these jobs.

If we can’t do that, then there’s something the matter with us. Making these opportunities available to American kids, with not only the good pay that they produce but the futures that they produce, should be a top priority. It’s not just a federal responsibility, it’s 50 states which should be part of this.

Do students know who you are?

I kiddingly say to people if they’re under 30 they don’t know who I am. People say: "The guy was governor of Massachusetts for 12 years. He was the guy who ran against Bush I." Once you have a chance to connect with them and spend some time with them they’re wonderfully responsive.

How does it feel to watch them take on political roles you once held?

Absolutely terrific. There’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than to see students of mine achieving and succeeding in public life, some in elected office. The mayor of Riverside, Calif., Rusty Bailey, was a student of mine in the master’s program here and my student assistant. It’s just a wonderful feeling to see these folks really soar and do great things.

I’m doing what I love doing, and I’m going to continue to do it until someone taps me on the shoulder and tells me, "It’s time to wrap it up." At the age of 83, I’m still challenged by it. I’m interested in it. And obviously I’m interested in what’s going on in the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.