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In the spring of 1970, the Yale campus was on the brink of chaos. At the height of the protests over Vietnam and civil rights, a member of the radical Black Panther Party named Bobby Seale was about to go on trial in New Haven for murder. Activists chanting “Free Bobby!” had descended on the city from across the country, many of them bent on excoriating Yale as an example of all that was wrong with “establishment” America. A few were openly eager to burn the University to the ground. The National Guard had been called out to keep the peace, by force if necessary.
A week before the trial was scheduled to begin, a bitterly divided faculty filled Sprague Hall to debate the wisdom of suspending classes, as many students had demanded. In acquiesence to the noisy marchers outside, the professors took the then-unprecedented step of allowing an undergraduate leader to address the meeting. The speaker was Kurt Schmoke, the secretary of the Class of 1971 and a leader of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.
The professors were primed for angry and abusive rhetoric. But as John Hersey '36, who was then master of Pierson College, later wrote in his book, Letter to the Alumni, what the audience heard was vastly different. According to Hersey:
Yale suspended business as usual, bending, but not, as it turned out, breaking. The crowds left the city, the tear gas cleared, life returned to a semblance of normality, and Schmoke, as was his custom, went to Battell Chapel for the Sunday morning service. “Kurt was a very smart, very sensitive young man,” recalls William Sloane Coffin, the University chaplain at the time. “That Sunday, he spoke with considerable heart and reminded us that we should deplore not only violence but also the conditions that lead to violence.”
Few if any present could have predicted that—for all his intelligence and sensitivity—a black member of the Class of 1971 would be making plans for his 30th reunion as the Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation, a body that for more than two centuries had been led by pillars of white America, whether diplomats such as former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson '15 or clergymen like Paul Moore '41, the former Episcopal Bishop of New York.
It is a measure of how far Schmoke and Yale have come that his race plays such a small role in his current public identity. From Yale, Schmoke went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and to Harvard Law School. He then became Baltimore’s state’s attorney, and in 1987 the city’s mayor. He is now a partner in the Baltimore office of the international law firm of Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering.
If Schmoke’s current position at the peak of Yale’s governance structure might strike some as surprising, his lifelong involvement in issues of education and social justice should not. In the months before May Day 1970, one of Schmoke’s roommates in Davenport complained bitterly that Yale’s dining hall workers couldn’t afford good child care. Schmoke’s response was to help start what would become the Calvin Hill Day Care Center, a Yale-sponsored New Haven institution that was named for Yale football standout Calvin Hill '69 and remains one of the city’s finest such institutions. The impulse to solve problems through institutional change rather than violent confrontation has remained with Schmoke throughout his career. “I wanted to see reform, not revolution,” he says.
Schmoke traces his preference for progress over provocation to his upbringing as the son of college-educated professionals (his father was a civilian chemist in the Army; his mother was a social worker) in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era that brought integration to Baltimore schools. “My parents both came out of the deep South, and it was not easy for them. They were deeply religious, and they had a quiet courage.”
Schmoke grew up in a household characterized by what he describes as “strong family values,” and he was helped immensely when a local judge, Robert Hammerman, made him a member of the Lancers Boys Club, an organization—composed primarily of young Jews—that combined exposure to athletics and debating. “Judge Hammerman invited in speakers who had widely differing viewpoints, from people in business and the arts to the head of the Maryland Ku Klux Klan, and afterwards, we'd discuss what they had to say. ”
Through the club, as well as in an integrated high school where he quarterbacked the football team and led the student council, Schmoke learned how to deal with different ways of viewing the world and how to find common ground. The training would serve him well at Yale as the clock ticked down to May Day of 1970. “I sensed that there was a wide variety of opinion on campus, and that most students, like much of society in general, fell right in the middle: concerned about the trial, but concerned about a lot of other things—the country, the University, their own academic success,” Schmoke says.
By deftly walking a moderate path, Schmoke helped Yale avoid disaster. The experience thrust him onto the national stage. “The May Day events resulted in an enormous amount of publicity, and the comments, letters, and speeches I heard about the activities on campus made me realize both how important Yale was to the country and what a significant role a strong private university could play in educating and developing future leaders.”
In recommending him for a Rhodes scholarship, President Kingman Brewster, who worked closely with Schmoke, lauded his “sense of larger loyalty and concern for the community and institution of which he is a part—whether team, residential college, or University.” During his studies at Oxford and, later, at Harvard Law (he graduated in 1976), Schmoke would maintain this centrist bent, serving first as an attorney in private practice, then as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy staff, and, in 1978, as assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.
Elected state’s attorney (the city’s chief prosecuting officer) in 1982, Schmoke soon learned something important about his criminal clientele. “I was struck by the fact that we never prosecuted a college graduate for a violent crime,” he says.
The revelation fundamentally affected his position when he decided to run for mayor of Baltimore in 1987. “I could see that we had to prepare our citizens for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past,” he says, “and I based my campaign on a commitment to lifelong learning, from the public schools to the libraries to adult literacy programs. I wanted Baltimore to be known as ‘the city that reads.’”
The voters agreed and made Schmoke the city’s first African American chief executive. He would be elected to two more terms, but with the millennium approaching, Schmoke inaugurated a city-wide and personal period of introspection based on the slogan “a new mayor for a new century.” Although the polls indicated that he could have been that “new mayor,” he decided to leave politics altogether.
“It’s a tough business, and it’s particularly tough on families,” says Schmoke, whose wife, Patricia, is an ophthamologist. (They have two children, Gregory, 29, an independent film maker in California, and Katherine, 20, a junior at Columbia.) “Most people don’t have the expectation of interacting with, say, the governor or members of their congressional delegation on a day-to-day basis, but they’re not shy about making their opinions known to the mayor—or his family. It does start to wear.”
Perhaps the most wearing episode in his tenure as Baltimore’s mayor occurred almost as soon as he took office in 1988. Baltimore had had a long-running problem with drugs, heroin in particular, and as a result of the widespread use of contaminated needles, the city was also in the throes of an AIDS epidemic. Schmoke, as Baltimore’s chief prosecutor, had seen the effects of the nationwide war on drugs, and he didn’t like what he saw. “I concluded that most of the street violence in our cities was related to wars over profit,” he says. “The murders were not the result of people ingesting drugs, going crazy, and shooting one another.”
The mayor called for what he describes as “a more balanced program that looked at addiction as a disease, not just a crime. I said the war on drugs should be primarily a public health war, rather than a criminal justice war.”
Schmoke had offered a nuanced critique of existing policy, but it was devoid of specifics. Conservatives in Congress accused him of simply trying to legalize all drugs; he was called “the most dangerous man in America” by Charles Rangel (D-NY).
The experience taught him two important things. “I learned that if you’re going to challenge the status quo, you ought to have a reasonable alternative to propose along with your critique,” said Schmoke. “I also learned that unfortunately, in political life, everything gets simplified.”
A widespread interpretation of his statement had the mayor removing criminal sanctions from all drugs. Not so, he explains. “I just wanted those sanctions to be based on the potential of the substance to do harm,” he says, acknowledging that he advocated eliminating penalties for the possession of marijuana. “It didn’t make sense to me then—and it still doesn’t—that we have a green, leafy substance that the Centers for Disease Control says kills more than 400,000 people a year in this country, and that’s legal. But there’s another green, leafy substance for which there are no known deaths from simple ingestion, and for that you can get 15 to 20 years in jail.”
Characterizing his approach as decriminalization rather than legalization, Schmoke put more of the city resources into public health and began a needle-exchange program based on the one pioneered by Yale researchers in New Haven. The program, adopted in 1994 only after considerable arm-twisting in the Maryland legislature, which had to change its drug laws, has recently been renewed with little fanfare. The reason: It works.
“Needle exchange helped to dramatically slow the spread of AIDS,” says Schmoke, citing statistics from Johns Hopkins that documented a 70 percent decrease in HIV infections over the past six years among addicts who participated in the program.
Gratifying as the efforts against AIDS were, the assault on poverty in Baltimore was no less so. Schmoke and his administration were determined to tear down what he called the “warehouses of poverty”—the high-rises built in the 1950s and 1960s to provide housing for low-income citizens—and replace them with affordable, safe, and attractive neighborhoods. As mayor, he pushed through “living wage” guidelines to raise the pay of workers employed by the city. As a result of private initiatives spearheaded in part by the Rouse Corporation’s Bruce Alexander, who is now Yale’s vice president for New Haven and state affairs, and with a $100 million Empowerment Zone grant from the Clinton Administration in 1994, Baltimore underwent what Schmoke characterizes as a “quiet renaissance.”
Ironically, the hallmark of Schmoke’s three campaigns—education—is the one area he cites as a source of some disappointment. “I was not very successful in making the public schools excellent across the board,” he notes, giving himself a “C” for results (but an “A” for effort). “However, we did dramatically improve the community colleges and our libraries, and President George Bush gave us the National Literacy Award in 1992 for our adult literacy programs.”
With plenty of unfinished political business of his own, Schmoke admits to a certain amount of restlessness in this election season. “You can’t exorcise politics from your blood,” he says. “But I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.”
Schmoke’s work building up a practice with Wilmer, Cutler, and Pickering, an international law firm (started by Lloyd Cutler '36, ‘39LLB), is keeping him extremely busy. Much of his work these days deals with regulatory matters, but he has also begun a project to consult with mayors in places as disparate as London and Madagascar and use his background to enable local elected officials to establish effective systems of governance. “In many cities around the world mayors are being granted real political power for the first time,” says Schmoke. “I’m helping them learn how to wield it to eliminate poverty and move forward.”
Schmoke’s service as mayor has also provided dividends to the Yale Corporation. The University’s governing board, whose role is to work with the President and senior administrators to establish and monitor long-range policies, is divided into ten committees: audit, buildings and grounds, development and alumni affairs, educational policy, finance, honorary degrees, institutional policies, investments, investor responsibility, and trusteeship. For most of his 11 years with the Corporation, Schmoke has played a leadership role on the buildings and grounds committee.
“As mayor, it always amazed me that we'd set aside money to take care of our buildings, and time after time, the city council would delete it from the budget,” said Schmoke. “That’s easy to do in tough financial times, and when I joined the Corporation, it was clear that Yale was doing the same thing. We weren’t investing enough in our physical plant, and it was putting us at a competitive disadvantage.”
The effects of that turnaround in thinking are palpable throughout the campus, from the new buildings going up on Science Hill and at the School of Medicine, to the overhauls that are proceeding residential college by residential college. As Senior Fellow, Schmoke continues to oversee construction planning, but he also presides over a much wider scope of activities, from monitoring debates over graduate student attempts to unionize (which he opposes) to calls for the University to divest its tobacco stocks (which, to avoid politicizing the endowment, he also opposes).
“I don’t really have any additional power—my position is not like that of a chairman of the board,” he notes. Instead, his main role, exercised through powers of persuasion, personality, reason, and analysis, is to serve as “an early warning system” to President Levin and his officers about concerns voiced at the Corporation’s six annual meetings and through regular consultations with alumni, faculty, students, staff, and administrators.
“The Corporation is not a secret society,” Schmoke quips. “There’s no secret handshake or oath, and we don’t operate in isolation. We’re always listening, and when we meet in Woodbridge Hall, we get out regularly to see the campus and the city.”
The Senior Fellow likes what he sees. He’s especially proud of the role the Corporation played in creating the position of vice president for New Haven and state affairs, and Schmoke, as a member of the generation that seemed to define activism, believes that, contrary to popular wisdom, the current crop of students has in the aggregate outstripped the vaunted accomplishments of his own generation. “My class was certainly vocal, but the truth was, the activists were a loud minority,” he said. “Today’s undergraduates are really concerned with the community, and a majority of them are doing something about it, whether it’s starting community-based corporations, tutoring, working in the arts, or helping with summer programs.”
The job of the Corporation is to help Yale continue to provide a wealth of opportunities. “The University is always a work-in-progress,” says Schmoke. “The best we can do as trustees is to maintain the excellence of a great institution that, for all of its 300 years, has been dedicated to preparing the world’s leaders of tomorrow.”
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