Harkness & New York

First Published in the September 2011 Harkness Report

Veronica Plowden who travelled with William to New York for the three years he was based there as the Director of the Harkness programme, describes the two big changes that happened in the 1980s and 1990s.

Manhattan Skyline

The first in 1988, following a review of the programme that began in 1985, was designed by William under the threat that the only alternative was a shutdown of the entire scheme. The second, in 1996, effectively ended the programme. In 1985 Alfred J (Roy) Atherton Jr, then newly appointed Director of the Fellowships, was urging a review of the programme, on grounds of cost, and the dominance of East Coast placements, Oxbridge fellows, and MBAs. He also saw the need to evaluate aspects of the programme: how successfully were they selecting for excellence and potential leadership in such a broad and undefined range of fields? What was the impact of the Fellowships on individuals’ lives, and the influence of the network of Fellows on their own countries and on the United States?

A background rumble of some former Fellows’ disapproval of the changes that followed from these questions, and culminated in the new type of Fellowship William was appointed to develop from 1988, started then and continues now. Sometimes even the loss of the whole programme in 1996 is attributed to the ‘Plowden’ changes. This misunderstanding may have been partly a failure in marketing, but was equally a reluctance to accept any change to a cherished icon. William and others explained to everyone interested, including in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, that the changes were required by the Commonwealth Fund Board as an alternative to closure, and had many positive aspects. The new system indeed produced an inspiring and influential set of Fellows who continue to interact within and between their professional fields as well as with the wider alumni network.

Key features of the new programme were that candidates were invited to focus on specified subject areas in which the Fund was already active, and of interest in both the US and UK: Education for the 21st Century, Promoting Good Health, and People in Cities. Even more broadly ‘Crosscutting’ and generic issues such as innovation, inter-organisational working and accountability, long interests of William’s, were highlighted. Candidates would be in ‘mid-career’ so slightly older than in the past, and they would be engaged in public policy, so less likely to be operating in a purely academic field. They would come together several times during their 6-9 months tenure, and the travel element was not lost. The original Harkness aims of increasing international understanding and developing leaders who could bring about change in both countries still held good, and would perhaps be even more clearly achieved. The range of Fellows’ backgrounds and interests was in no way narrow. Between 1990 and 1994, in addition to the expected doctors, nurses, educationists, local authority managers and civil servants, people from housing, police and prison services and the voluntary sector, there were still journalists and, yes, artists.

As before several Fellows had spouses with them who not only benefitted personally but often added ideas and knowledge to the mix, also children who now, twenty years on, remember it as a special and memorable time. One, Tabitha Schenck, now 29, is currently collating a visual and verbal record of the 1991 Fellows’ time there for a July reunion.

Living and working in New York from 1988-91 was an amazing experience for us, like a second Fellowship. As well as being involved with the Fellowships I had a job and voluntary activities which linked with the Fellows’ areas of interest. Never having lived anywhere but London, we seriously considered staying on in New York into old age. William had been hesitant about leaving the Royal Institute for Public Administration, but was easily persuaded, partly by our children, to leave our emptying nest and ‘go for it’. He never regretted the decision despite not getting what he called a ‘proper job’ on our return in 1991. Harkness and Atlantic Fellows have remained close friends with common interests, as has New York colleague Robert Kostrzewa. William and others were much saddened by the extreme limiting of the Fellowships in 1996, under the new Commonwealth Fund President Karen Davies, which effectively ended them.

His involvement with the Harkness Fellows’ Association was one of William’s main interests and pleasures until he died. And his lifelong belief in the Fellowship concept is one reason he would have been highly gratified by the proposed William Plowden Memorial Fellowships which we expect will get under way next year.