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John Kerry heads back to Yale to oversee global initiative named for him

Former secretary of state John Kerry.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — John Kerry, in his first major post-secretary of state role, is heading back to his alma mater, Yale University, where he will oversee an initiative aimed at grappling with some of the world’s most pressing problems from terrorism to climate change.

The project will be called the Kerry Initiative. The former Massachusetts senator and top diplomat will teach as part of the program – kicking off with a seminar open to students from across the university in the 2017-18 school year. Research and international dialogue are also on the agenda.

In addition, Kerry plans to convene conferences both at Yale and overseas with a cross-section of influential figures, including former foreign ministers, academics, business leaders, and activists. The school is calling Kerry their first-ever “distinguished fellow for global affairs.”


In an interview Thursday, Kerry said he knew he wanted an educational role like this to be one component of his life after leaving the Obama administration. “Dialogue and exchanges with students is as interesting as it gets. ... Learning goes both ways,” he said, noting that he expected the research and engagement he would undertake in the Yale role would inform some of the other diplomatic efforts he plans to continue.

He pointed, in particular, to Yale’s Forestry School as a source of “first-rate” work on climate change and conservation issues. A source close to Kerry says he plans to do as much work on environmental issues – if not more – than traditional foreign policy matters through the Yale project.

“Its sort of a new phase. I don’t view this as wrapping something up at all,” Kerry said. “There are a lot of issues where we need fresh thinking.”

The announcement is the latest piece of how Kerry plans to spend the next chapter of his life. Kerry is also working on a memoir, his first, due to be published in 2018; he said in the interview that he has started making notes and collecting materials for that project.


Kerry said he has also had some conversations about possible private sector opportunities, though he hasn’t made any decisions yet. He hasn’t taken a vacation since leaving the Obama administration in January, though he has been getting to the gym, seeing more of his grandchildren, and sleeping in a bit later. “I need to get things locked in,” he said, then he will take time off.

Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966. Yale approached him with the idea that the school serve as a home for his ongoing policy work, and he immediately liked the idea, in part because it gave him a chance to engage with a new generation, said a person close to Kerry.

Yale president Peter Salovey said in an interview that conversations with Kerry began after the Massachusetts Democrat left the State Department in January. “There was mutual interest,” he said. Kerry wanted to take on the role of educator in a scholarly environment, while Yale had long been considering launching this sort of global undertaking and had been wondering what Kerry “might want to do next,” Salovey said.

“This is an educational platform, not a political one,” he added. Kerry has interests that connect many parts of the university, from environmental programs to its global affairs school to the law school, he said. “We love the idea that he can help connect these parts of Yale around the idea of educating future leaders to address some of the most vexing problems in the world today.”


Salovey said he expects Kerry to start work on campus in the spring. Kerry will have offices and a chief of staff based on campus.

“This is a university that helped shape the public servant John Kerry became,” said the person close to Kerry, noting that its campus in New Haven, Conn., is close to Boston, where Kerry returned after leaving the Obama administration. The former secretary of state very much wanted a forward-looking endeavor, this person added. “He wants to lead dialogue and research that can help solve problems, not just reflect on them,” the source said.

Yale has served as a stage to several notable moments in Kerry’s long public life. It’s where he and his classmates decided to sign up for the military and go to Vietnam after graduation. It was also where a 22-year-old Kerry, looking toward the war he was about to fight in, gave a graduation speech that offered the first glimmers of his doubts about the Vietnam War, doubts that would become full-throated opposition once he returned stateside. In it, the young Kerry warned that “an excess of isolation has led to an excess of interventionism,” questioning the prevailing belief in using military force to take on communism.

In the interview, Kerry expressed excitement for the opportunity to influence students to enter the government and public service the way his experiences at Yale sparked his own service. He mentioned the inspiration he felt when he heard civil rights activist Allard Lowenstein speaking on campus, rallying students to get involved in fighting for civil rights in the South.


In 2014, then Secretary of State Kerry returned to campus to give a Class Day speech almost exactly 48 years after addressing his own class. He offered a much different warning, telling the students that “we cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade.”

That speech hinted at his intentions to stay engaged in the issues that motivated his career in public service, even after he left office. Kerry noted that the university’s president the next day, handing out diplomas, would say the degree admits “you to all its ‘rights and responsibilities,’” somewhat different than what most schools tell graduates. “It means we need to renew that responsibility over and over again every day. It’s not a one-time decision. Participation is the best antidote to pessimism and ultimately cynicism.”

Victoria McGrane can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.