Atwood begins deanship at Humphrey Institute

Paul Sand

Sitting on a shelf in J. Brian Atwood’s new office are photos of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, conducting a meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, and being selected to a high-ranking government position by former President Bill Clinton.

At 59 years old, Atwood is the new face of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Beginning his tenure as the institute’s dean Tuesday, Atwood replaced former dean John Brandl, effectively marking the end of a controversial national search.

“I think he’s a fascinating guy,” said Joe Nathan, senior fellow and director of the institute’s Center for School Change. “I’m looking forward to learning what his priorities are.”

Most recently, Atwood served as president of Boston-based Citizens International, an organization that establishes public and private partnerships with developing countries, corporations and international aid agencies to build democratic market systems.

During the Clinton administration, Atwood served six years as administrator of the Agency for International Development, an agency the first Bush administration recommended to abolish because of ineffectiveness.

Atwood said he undertook a major reform effort, streamlining the AID and cutting out much of its red tape.

“I feel that any public affairs institute should care a great deal about public management,” he said. “(AID is) basically a good example of what you can do to really reinvent a bureaucracy and make it more service-oriented.”

During his time at AID, Atwood was also designated special presidential coordinator for Kosovo Relief Operations and led presidential missions to Haiti, East Africa and El Salvador.

Atwood has taught as an adjunct professor at Harvard University’s JFK School of Government and was the Sol M. Linowitz professor for international affairs at Hamilton College in New York.

Clearly redefining the Humphrey Institute’s mission, Atwood said, will be one of his first actions.

“I think that any public affairs institute struggles with its mandate, its mission,” he said. “It has to constantly be redefined.”

Atwood said since arriving on campus, he has frequently heard that positive things are happening at the institute, but somehow it isn’t quite running on all cylinders.

“‘It’s less than the sum of its parts’ is the phrase I hear over and over,” he said.

“We need to define our public affairs mandate here first. I think things will fall into place more logically after that,” Atwood said.

Involving the students is vital to the success of the institute, Atwood said.

One project he said he would like to start is a dean’s international forum that would meet periodically to discuss international issues.

“I think there a lot of students who are very concerned with the state of the world right now,” Atwood said. “And I think it’s important to give them an opportunity to express those views.”

Although his resume is extensive, the intensive national dean search resulting in Atwood’s hiring was considered controversial by some in the institute. The finalists were four white men, and some students and faculty expressed concern that the group wasn’t diverse.

Tom Fisher, chairman of the search committee and dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said the committee was also unhappy with the lack of diversity in the finalists. The committee advertised in journals that cater to communities of color, he said, and asked the firm conducting the search to find diverse candidates.

Fisher said the search committee hoped some of the candidates they interviewed would have been stronger. Many would have been finalists if they had more experience, he said.

There was also suggestion of halting the dean search and starting over, Fisher said. The committee felt the institute needed leadership from a new dean soon, and that a new search would end with the same results, he said.

“We weren’t convinced that we left any stones unturned,” Fisher said. “We really tried hard to find candidates of color and women, and we weren’t convinced that if we started the search over, we wouldn’t find the same thing.”

Fisher said the search committee is satisfied with Atwood.

“Brian is going to be terrific. He’s a great person. He has incredible skills to do the job. The institute needs to move forward,” he said.

Atwood said he knows the search committee wants diversity and thinks the University’s hiring record is good. Still, he said he would like see a more diverse student body and faculty.

With the search committee controversy aside, Atwood said he is ready to focus on strengthening the institute.

“I have a real desire to make sure students are getting the best possible teaching in the classroom that we can give them,” he said. “That means keeping a strong faculty, which we have now, and making sure these centers we have remain strong and relevant.”

Paul Sand welcomes comments at [email protected]