A Q&A with Larry Kramer, President
Oct 25, 2012
Larry Kramer became president of the Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, California, in September 2012. Before joining the Foundation, Mr. Kramer served from 2004 to 2012 as Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. During his tenure, he spearheaded significant educational reforms, pioneering a new model of multidisciplinary legal studies. His teaching and scholarly interests include American legal history, constitutional law, federalism, separation of powers, the federal courts, conflict of laws, and civil procedure.
He received an A.B. in Psychology and Religious Studies from Brown University, graduating magna cum laude in 1980, and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, magna cum laude, in 1984. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review. Here he discusses his decision to leave the law school to join the Foundation and his thoughts about leading it.
Why did you decide to leave your job as dean of Stanford’s law school to join the Hewlett Foundation?
I loved being dean. The move from academic to dean was a move from teaching and producing scholarship to facilitating the ability of others to do so, and enabling students and faculty to do their work was incredibly satisfying. I viewed this job as an opportunity to take that one step further, to facilitate good things by other means in addition to teaching and research.
…To act as well as facilitate research?
I’d say to facilitate on a wider range of issues and in more ways than I could as the dean of a law school. Scholarship about law is important, but it’s a limited domain—both the subject matter and the devices—whereas here I can engage a broader set of issues and employ a broader set of tools to make things happen and make the world a better place. It’s a rare opportunity. As important for me personally is the chance to grow and to learn from facing new challenges by entering the field of philanthropy and working in so many diverse areas of it. It’s daunting but also incredibly exciting.
How do you bring new leadership to a place that many might say is running well already?
There is no “might” about it: Paul Brest did a remarkable job helping build a healthy organization. I am lucky to succeed him. So I start with that, believing that leadership begins with understanding the personality and nature of an institution, and making it as good as it can be based on what it is. That leads to changes over time, but I didn’t arrive with fixed ideas about the way things should be. Before becoming dean at Stanford I was on the faculties of three other law schools, and I saw firsthand how each was great in its own way yet completely different from the others. The lesson I took away was that what is appropriate for any particular institution depends on its culture and personality. I’m not moving into an institution in trouble that needs fixing. I’m going to an institution that already does things well and trying to help make it better.
And how do you go about doing that?
You talk to people and listen carefully. Even if they haven’t articulated it, people always have a story in their minds about the institution—what it is, what it does, how they see their role within it. Some have a broad sense, others a narrow sense; some people’s sense is focused on their part of the institution, while others have an overall vision. To me, the process of leadership is first and foremost a process of interpretation. You figure out what everyone connected to your institution is doing, as well as what they want to do and think they should be doing, and you develop a narrative—an interpretation—that captures as much of that as possible, in a way that makes sense and describes the most desirable goals. And once you develop this interpretive narrative, it takes on a life of its own that helps guide everyone going forward, though it is constantly being revised as you learn from doing.
None of this is unique to the foundation world. As in any institution, you talk to people, you listen to people, and you figure out ways to get things done.
The Foundation puts great emphasis on metrics and outcome-oriented grantmaking. I’m wondering how you see that unfolding under your leadership.
I guess I’d say I have the same question. That the Hewlett Foundation does, and will continue to do, outcome-focused grantmaking is a given, both because it makes sense and because it’s embedded in the DNA of the place. There is no other sensible way to think about the Hewlett Foundation’s grantmaking. At the same time, and this was a surprise to me, strategic philanthropy with an outcome-based focus is still a relatively new idea in the foundation world. So while the idea makes eminent sense, we must be careful not to let early enthusiasm for a new way of thinking take us too far or too far in one direction. There are many ways to think about a focus on outcomes, and finding the right ones and the right balance among different approaches requires experience and careful thought. It’s still a work in progress, and we need to be careful not to change what we do in unintended, unnoticed ways.
Like a bias toward working on problems you know you can solve or for which it’s easy to show a change in metrics?
Yes, though I should emphasize that this is a conceptual issue, because it clearly hasn’t been a problem at the Hewlett Foundation. Take ClimateWorks, the Foundation’s $600 million investment in mitigating global warming, or the Deeper Learning initiative in the Education Program. These depend on a great many complicated, hard-to-measure steps to secure long-term change. So I don’t see shying away from risk as a problem that this Foundation has suffered from.
There are, even so, worries. If the Foundation develops a certain kind of reputation, people may begin to change what they propose to us. You don’t want would-be grantees self-censoring their requests based on an erroneous perception of what we will fund. That’s a pervasive concern, I think, as foundations generally make this shift to an outcome focus.
I also don’t want to slip into believing that there is only one right way to measure outcomes—not because that will lead us away from doing things, but because I fear it will make us less accurate in assessing what we’ve accomplished. We don’t want to force a square peg into a round hole, as opposed to just saying, “Look, that’s not the way to think about a measurable outcome in this context.” Again, I see that as a risk to guard against, not something that has happened here. On the contrary, our program staff is remarkably creative and conscientious in looking for new and better ways to think about measurement and evaluation.
Can you share any priorities you have for your first year?
The first thing I need to do, and what I’m trying to do now, is simply to get a deep understanding of our existing programs. Actions have momentum. Things are never still, never settled. That’s why I don’t come in saying, “Here’s what we’re going to do now.” You need to understand the direction and momentum of what’s already happening. I need to be on top of things before I can be a positive contributor. That said, I do have some areas I think the Foundation should explore.
The main one, and this is something I’ve started to discuss with our Board, is what might be described as “democracy building in America.” I’m worried about our policymaking process, which is plainly broken and needs to be fixed. Most people blame political polarization, but I see polarization as itself a consequence of broken institutions. But whether polarization is cause or effect (or both), it has made policymaking difficult almost to the point of impossibility. You have a serious problem when facts don’t matter because every idea or position is judged not by the evidence for or against it but by how it lines up with ideological pre-commitments. It’s no longer enough merely to generate good solutions to problems, which is why so many foundations and nonprofits are now struggling with questions about whether and how to fold advocacy into their programs. But that’s at best a short-term solution, and in the long run we need to rebuild a world in which rational, evidence-based policymaking is possible. Foundations dedicate enormous resources to developing solutions based on solid evidence, but if the political process isn’t interested in evidence, our time and effort will count for naught. That’s a problem that desperately needs to be addressed.
Do you have some criteria that you would use to look back after a year or two—you set the time—to see if you are happy with what you’ve accomplished?
No, I don’t have predetermined benchmarks. I think this should be an ongoing process in which the Foundation is always improving, always striving to get better, always finding new ways to do important work in the world. I don’t have any criticisms of the way Hewlett works now, but if we’re doing things the same way five years from now, something will have gone wrong, because the world is constantly changing, and we need to change with it. It’s more a matter of, “Are we continuing to evolve and adapt and shape our role in the world to be an important contributor to making it a better place?”
Last question, a broad one: How do you see the role of big grantmaking foundations in the twenty-first century?
That’s an interesting question to which I don’t yet have an answer. I do know that among the most important developments of the past decade or two is the emergence of a cadre of wealthy individuals who don’t approach their role in the same way as the established large foundations. The broad field in which we are situated is changing, and much like the traditional media in a newly transformed world of communications, our challenge is to adapt to it constructively, to understand what’s getting done and what’s not getting done, and what our role should be to ensure the most good is accomplished. I have so much still to learn.