By John Stoehr
Until 1990, Douglas W. Rae was a political scientist at Yale best known for writing the Ur-text on election studies. Called The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws, it established the terminology and guidelines for a nascent field of inquiry that grew rapidly after its publication. During the 1980s, he served as chair of political science.
Then he did something unusual for an acclaimed scholar. He ran the political campaign of John C. Daniels and helped elect New Haven’s first African-American mayor.
“At the time, the idea of an African American with no money beating the city’s political machine was extraordinary,” says Ian Shapiro, a former student of Rae’s who is now Sterling Professor of Political Science and the Henry R. Luce Director of Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. After Daniels took office in 1990, Rae became his chief administration officer, a job he held for a year and a half.
What happens when an academic starts working hands-on in the field he used to study?
“Transformative” is one way that Rae describes his experience in government. “Revelatory” is another. “I learned that city government governs less than you might imagine,” he says.
One result of that experience is Rae’s book City: Urbanism and Its End. City is a history of New Haven focused on the rise and fall of urbanism, that civic life force that springs from free markets and technological change. Rae found no amount of government spending was going to stop New Haven’s decline. By the 1980s, many Yale faculty and staff had moved to bordering towns. Most of the business community had likewise moved to suburban towns. Worse, New Haven’s public school teachers, police officers, firefighters, and bureaucrats had followed suit. By 1990, when Daniels became mayor, crime was at an all-time high, tax delinquency was out of control, and labor contracts amassed into a full-on budgetary crisis.
Rae says, “What was killing the city was not the unions or contract negotiations. The long-term issue was that people with money and earning power had disproportionately left in the decades after 1920. Reversing that trend is the key challenge cities face.”
Harold Pollack, a former student of Rae’s who is now a University of Chicago professor of social service, says that City “captures what many of us admire about him: Beautifully combining the intellectual rigor of a leading urban scholar and political scientist with unsentimental analysis of the political and social forces at play in the city he obviously loves. Students of America’s urban challenges will read that classic work for years to come.”
Another result of Rae’s hands-on experience in urban management is that when he returned to Yale in 1991, he sought a joint appointment at the School of Management, where he is today the Richard S. Ely Professor of Management.
Rae didn’t just reinvent himself after his stint in government. In many ways, he reinvented Yale SOM, says David Bach, the school’s deputy dean and a professor in the practice of management. City, he says, is one of the foundational texts of the school’s approach.
“Doug was one of a group of faculty that anchored the school intellectually,” he says. “City reflects his legacy not just at Yale but in serving the city that needed him at the time.”
When Yale SOM reinvented its MBA curriculum in 2006, Rae created a new course called State and Society, focused on the interplay between business and government; Bach now teaches the executive MBA version of the course.
The course explores questions, Bach says, that are not typically part of business school curricula, but key to leaders operating in the real world—“questions like, ‘What are the citizen’s expectations of business and government?’ and ‘How do people’s perspectives play a political and social role?”
Few business schools demand a course in political science, Bach says, “but at SOM, we do, and that’s because of Professor Rae, and that’s because of his experience being a practitioner in public management.”
Indeed, State and Society conveys “the interconnectedness and complexity of the issues,” says Disha Patel ’15, who is now a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. She was Rae’s head teaching fellow in the class.
Rae’s “breadth of knowledge and intellectual passion made him a powerful teacher,” she says. But he was always looking for new perspectives. “Doug was incredibly open-minded, supportive; he listened and acted on input from the TFs,” she says. “It was very empowering for us students to feel so heard and respected by our professor. Most of all, I will always remember very fondly how openly and sincerely he engaged with us.”
The journalist Paul Bass has warm memories, too. He first met Rae in 1978, during his freshman year at Yale College, when he took a political philosophy class from Rae. “It was something I had never experienced,” he says. “Conversations after class really opened my mind.”
Bass later became news editor of the New Haven Advocate, an alternative weekly (today, he runs the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news organization). He covered Daniels’ historic campaign and Rae’s tenure at City Hall.
“We gave him such a hard time,” Bass says. “Too hard.”
Bass and Rae later co-wrote a book about the murder of Black Panther Alex Rackley, and the remarkable life of Warren Kimbro, who was convicted of the killing. Kimbro went directly from prison to Harvard, and founded a major organization dealing with ex-offenders as they reenter society. The book is titled Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And the Redemption of a Killer. Bass had been skeptical of academics, he says. “I thought it was kind of bogus.” But in working with Rae, he came to understand “the noble calling of a professor.”
Rae was raised in a liberal household in southern Indiana headed by his father, an integrationist clergyman. He came to Yale in the summer of 1967 to teach political science. “Big business was seen as the adversary,” he says. His experience working for the City of New Haven, and the decades at Yale SOM that followed, have shifted his view.
“The role of business is pivotal,” he says. “For the past decade, I’ve been constructing an account of that. Capitalism has accelerated technological change and created wealth several orders of magnitude beyond anything that came before the 18th century. The top 80% of any advanced society has done spectacularly well in the long run. Our ability to reach the bottom quintile on a sustained basis is the great challenge. The question is how to push wealth and welfare downscale without killing the engine. That’s the heart of the matter.” (Rae is scheduled to deliver the Henry Stimson Lectures at Yale in 2019 on this subject.)
Preparing to retire at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, Rae looks back at his decades at Yale SOM with affection. The school’s increasingly higher profile, he notes, has attracted excellent students. “I have come to treasure SOM and the best aspects of its mission.”
He’s not the only one in his family who feels that way. His wife Ellen Shuman, a managing partner of Edgehill Endowment Partners, is a member of the Yale SOM Class of 1984. (Their home is in New Haven’s Lincoln-Bradley neighborhood, adjacent to Edward P. Evans Hall; Rae likely has the shortest walk to work among his colleagues.) And in 1995, Rae persuaded his daughter, Katie Rae ’97, to turn down admission to Harvard’s Kennedy School and enroll at Yale SOM. She is now president of The Engine, MIT’s $200 million startup accelerator focused on “developing breakthrough scientific and technological innovations aimed at transformative societal impact. “She took my advice,” Rae says, “and she has had a spectacular career.”