Delayed Development, No Political Communication: Harvard in Allston

Bill Purcell, the current director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and former mayor of Nashville, is set to resign and take on greater responsibilities in advising Harvard University on its Allston development plans and on its role as Co-Chair of the Allston Work Team, The Crimson reported last week. Despite a few vocal Allston community members’ suspicions of about nearly anything Harvard does – some of which is justified, some of which is not – this appointment marks a positive change and hopefully, a recognition that the University’s political strategy requires fundamental changes.
It’s pretty obvious that the University’s development strategy require changes; both Harvard officials and members of the Allston community recognize this. In a Crimson article this morning, Allston residents on the Harvard Allston Task Force and University officials both agreed that Harvard’s financial challenges have placed significant strains on the existing Allston community development plans. While each side may disagree on what commitments Harvard is still bound by, each recognize that it’s unlikely that Harvard will be able to pursue the same ambitious agenda it proposed just years ago.
But if it has been painfully obvious to everyone that the development plans require changes, there hasn’t been as much concentration on the political and communication strategies. This may be in part because Harvard effectively has no choseive political and communication strategy for its Allston project. This isn’t just hyperbolic writing, but an observation based on the University’s repeated failures to communicate with residents and inability to identify the needs of the Allston community and find a way to work to find a mutually amenable solution.
In the most recent Crimson article, Allston resident Harry Mattison of the Harvard Allston Task force complained about Harvard backing out of a number of commitments to the community. However, The Crimson also quoted him complaining about Harvard’s lack of communication. In a separate, recent article by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Mattison said about the current situation in Alston, “I don’t think anyone in Allston has any idea what Harvard is doing. Hopefully they’ll find a way to be more open and inclusive about what they intend to do in our neighborhood.” Residents have every incentive to complain and fight to make development plans fit their personal vision, and it is almost inevitable that this vision may conflict with that of the University. But these complains on communication show that with a little more information, uncertainty and distrust can easily crop up. And these complains certainly aren’t new (Crimson articles citing communication failures include a 2010 article, a 2009 one, and even a 2007 report).
Further, beyond communication, the political strategy – figuring out how to best align University and community interests to reach a mutually beneficial result – has also failed. Over the past few years, due to a lack of a cohesive and long-term political strategy, the University has decided – or at least appear to decide to many people outside of Massachusetts Hall – that they could obtain support from the community by simply throwing money at the problem. Instead of communication as a means to figure out what the community needed and genuinely responding to these concerns by adapting and molding development plans, Harvard, whether consciously or not, has appeared to think it can use its immense wealth to make opposition go away. In April 2009, Harvard launched the Harvard Allston Partnership Fund, a $500,000 fund to provide grants to “community improvement proposals submitted by neighborhood non-profit groups,” according to The Crimson. It’s hard to deny that this projects likely had a positive impact on the community. Other community benefit projects, such as an education portal for Allston residents launched by Harvard June 2008, even garnered significant praise by the community, according to The Crimson.
But while many people may find community benefit projects useful because they often are indeed, the detractors have a point. Around the launch of the Harvard Allston Partnership Fund, The Crimson quoted Allston community activist Jake Carman saying he “opposed to community benefits as an appeasement and a replacement of having direct neighborhood participation [in the planning process].” It’s certainly up for debate what degree of involvement Harvard should provide community members in the planning process, but money will only provide band-aids to the larger problems facing tense town-gown relations. Communication is the best political strategy for Harvard to pursue.
Given the University’s lack of communication and engagement with the Allston community, it’s almost predictable that the lede for an article on the reaction to Purcell’s move was, “Though Allston residents say they have been displeased with the level of communication they are receiving from the University about its intentions to expand into their neighborhood, the revelation that Director of the Institute of Politics Bill Purcell–who announced his resignation this week–will take on a role in the Allston planning process was cause for more frustration among community members.”
This does not need to be – and probably should not be – their reaction. As a former two-term mayor, Purcell understands the challenges in development and political communication. He brings experience in bridging the gaps that a mission-driven institution like Harvard can have with a community feeling under assault by a $26 billion behemoth. And he has worked closely with neighborhood organizations – even campaigning on the idea of “Nashville’s neighborhood mayor” – to realize their goals in improving quality of life according to one article about his legacy after he left office.
If Harvard is indeed committed to make Allston’s development work for both the University and the community – and I have no reason to think they do not – then having Purcell on board, and hopefully applying him to help guide and manage the present communication problems into a cohesive strategy, can only be a positive change because so much work needs to be done on communication before any real work can be done on development.
Photo credit: Flickr user bradsearles via Creative Commons licensing.

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