What Warren Phillips and George Kelling Had in Common

This month brought news of the death of two giants. Warren Phillips was for 15 years the CEO of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, during a period of business growth and journalistic excellence. George Kelling was a criminology researcher and, with James Q. Wilson, the author of the March 1982 article “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety,” one of the most influential articles of the second half of the 20th century.

An underappreciated fact is that in the early 1990s, they both taught at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was fortunate to take classes from both men.

Warren Phillips
Warren Phillips

Over the days since they died, I’ve thought about what exactly made them great teachers and how understanding that might shed some light on today’s education controversies.

Perhaps the most obvious point is one I made elsewhere following the death of another professor I learned from in college, Richard Pipes. That is, despite Harvard’s image, then and now, as a left-wing bastion, it was totally possible at the university, at least in the early 1990s, to get direct exposure to center-right people and ideas.

In Fall 1992 Phillips, recently retired as CEO, brought the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley, to guest lecture in his class, “The Changing Press: The Effects of Economics, Technology and Societal Change on Its Public Mission.” The syllabus described that session as follows: “Dec. 3: Editorial Pages. The purpose of opinion pages. Their impact on public opinion and public policy. How decisions are reached on editorial policies and positions. Bob Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, will discuss these matters, including his own experiences with public-policy makers and their interaction with editorial writers and others in the press. He will also talk about the criticisms of editorial pages and editorial policy he hears voiced most often.”

It was the first time I was in the same room with Bartley. I certainly couldn’t have imagined that less than a decade later I’d be in the basement of Bartley’s Brooklyn Heights home helping with an editorial being written from there because a terrorist attack on Lower Manhattan that morning had rendered the Journal’s own newsroom inaccessible. But a seed had been planted.

George Kelling
George Kelling

I’d see Kelling years later in New York City, too, at events of the Manhattan Institute, where he was a fellow. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would appear at Manhattan Institute events and credit Kelling with helping him and police commissioner William Bratton achieve significant crime reductions. The New York Observer quoted Kelling in 2007, talking about Giuliani: “In terms of crime control, he was a dream come true… For me, how many academics get their ideas tested in full view and consistently in New York City?”

Rankings of educational institutions sometimes give colleges and universities more credit for having courses taught by full-time, tenured faculty, or by those with doctoral degrees. Phillips had a bachelor’s degree from Queens College, and had been rejected by Columbia Journalism School. He was at Harvard not as a tenure-track professor but as a “Lombard Fellow.” Kelling, who did have an earned doctorate, was also a mere fellow at Harvard; his main academic affiliation was at Northeastern, where he was a professor in the college of criminal justice. He later moved to Rutgers.

Both classes were small — perhaps a dozen students in Kelling’s “Workshop in Criminal Justice: Municipal Policing,” two dozen or so in Phillips’ class. So much for the imperfect notion of judging professorial quality by crowd-drawing power.

Neither professor was shy about face-to-face encounters with students. Phillips recalls in his memoir that he “opted to live with students at Lowell House,” which he said helped give him, at age 66, “the fresh feeling of youth again.” Kelling had one of the sessions of the class meet over pizza in an apartment that he and his wife, Catherine Coles, shared in Boston’s Back Bay.

Phillips recalled in a recommendation letter he wrote for me in November 1993 that I later consulted him about issues at the student newspaper. “We have stayed in touch” is the way he put it in the letter. I also reached out after college to Kelling, who responded helpfully, when I found myself as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times investigating officer-involved shootings.

High school seniors seeking close contact with college faculty members are often advised to apply to small liberal arts colleges rather than large research universities. For me, though, a huge advantage of Harvard was the presence of graduate schools, particularly the Kennedy School of Government, and the opportunity for undergraduates to take graduate-level classes.

What Kelling and Phillips offered in their classes was precisely the opposite of an ivory tower. The Kelling syllabus says, “Original empirical research is encouraged. Help will be provided about topics or arranging access to police or other organizations. For students who have not had first-hand experience with police and who would like to, arrangements will be made for them to patrol in a local police department.”

And so I did, as a 20-year-old Harvard junior, show up one evening at Cambridge police headquarters. The Newark foot-patrol experiment, as Kelling and Wilson had described it in the “Broken Windows” article they published in the Atlantic, found that “officers walking beats had higher morale, greater job satisfaction, and a more favorable attitude toward citizens in their neighborhoods than did officers assigned to patrol cars.” I tested the proposition by spending part of my night in Cambridge accompanying officers walking the beat, and part of it in the back seat of a police car — in the same neighborhood. Sure enough, the officers in the car described the neighborhood as dangerous and drug-infested, while the ones on foot described the same blocks as a pretty good neighborhood. I have forgotten an awful lot of what I learned in college, but that night with the Cambridge police is clear and fresh in my mind.

Which is where your education is supposed to be, after all.

In preparing this piece I went down to my basement in search of old class notebooks or papers that I had written. I went to the Harvard Kennedy School library to look for the syllabi. But what I really got out of those classes from Kelling and Phillips wasn’t in my basement or in the library. It was in what I remembered of that night in the back of a police car, that first encounter with Robert Bartley, the voices and values and sensibility, the way of looking at the world based on real-life, real-world experience and “original empirical research.”

It explains, at least in part, why, for all the bashing of Harvard and other universities, some of which may well be deserved, people are still lined up to pay lots of money for the privilege of attending. And it explains, at least in part, too, why, more than 25 years later, it’s a particular joy for me to be back at the Harvard Kennedy School — a thrill and an honor, really, to come to work each day in an Education Next office in the same building where Phillips and Kelling once both taught.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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