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$32 million Bloomberg-Harvard 'mayor school' supports leaders' changing role

The new Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Institute, endowed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Bloomberg Philanthropies, could support mayors' innovative projects. 

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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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For the nearly two out of three American citizens who live in cities, life could be about to improve – or at least get a little easier for their mayors. 

Traditionally, most training for mayoral roles has been on-the-job, with few formal opportunities to learn from their peers. On Thursday, however, Harvard University and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Philanthropies announced their plan to partner on a groundbreaking executive education program targeted at educating urban executives as many mayors take on increasingly ambitious challenges, responding to a perception of government gridlock and increasing urbanization. Nearly 63 percent of Americans live in cities, according to Census data. 

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“This is a vitally important opportunity to advance the understanding of urban issues,” Harvard president Drew Faust said in a statement, “and to work with mayors and other public officials to bring discoveries from University research into communities across the nation and around the world.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ gift of $32 million will fund the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative for four years, meaning it could train as many as 300 mayors and 400 staffers before the next presidential election. The organization will partner with Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School. 

Selected mayors and staffers will convene for several days at the beginning of the program, conference online each quarter, continue to receive year-long support and individualized coaching from former mayors.

The program’s founders hope that the support network and training provided by the program can help spur innovative solutions to contemporary problems, from student achievement to crime and incarceration rates, as mayors' responsibilities grow with their cities' increasing size and influence amid ongoing urbanization – not only in the United States but worldwide. 

“Running a city is one of the most complex jobs on the planet,” Mr. Bloomberg and Dr. Faust write together in a column for The Boston Globe. “A mayor is responsible for overseeing unwieldy bureaucracies, managing budgets, making policy, implementing programs, bringing legislators together, harnessing technology, building infrastructure, delivering essential services, preparing for and responding to crises, and investing in the future.”

Harvard professors will also support the program by performing original research throughout the year, and creating an open use collection of instructional materials for participating and non-participating mayors alike.

The program will be led by Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Jorrit de Jong, who says that although the Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School host many public sector and private sector executives each year, there has been no program aimed specifically at educating city executives.

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“We want to help those mayors who really want to make change but lack the capacity or haven’t been exposed yet to some of the techniques and tools, but are eager to make a change,” said Dr. de Jong. “Most cities are severely understaffed and underfunded. But at the same time, it’s where change is most tangible and visible, so we want to fill that gap.”

Cities are an incredibly important part of the United States’ economy, and could play a significant role in innovating for the future, particularly as cities and states take more matters into their own hands amid perceptions of Congressional gridlock. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, for example, instituted a tax on sugary drinks to pay for early childhood education, while Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton is fighting to reduce carbon emissions. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, meanwhile, is working to combat firearm trafficking.

Worldwide, a network of more than 7,000 city executives, called the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, is taking steps to combat climate change by making their municipalities more walkable and more environmentally friendly, among other steps.

Harvard officials say that they believe that the new partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies is just one more way for the university to make a difference in the world.

“The mission of the Kennedy School is to reach out into the world, and we are often frustrated by limitations on how far we can reach,” said Harvard Dean Douglas Elmendorf, according to a press release. “This tremendous gift gives us an opportunity to reach much further.”