Babson Magazine

Summer 2013

Getting to Know You

Looking beyond Kerry Healey’s public persona.

Kerry Healy, Babson College President
Photo: Webb Chappell
Kerry Healy, Babson College President

People often think they know Kerry Healey, Babson’s newly named president, especially if they’re from Massachusetts. With more than 15 years in the limelight as a politician on both local and national levels, Healey has had her share of publicity. Many people know she went to Harvard. They know she was elected and served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts alongside Governor Mitt Romney. They know she then ran for governor and lost to Deval Patrick. They know she later became the Republican National Committeewoman for Massachusetts and worked for Romney on his presidential campaigns.

What people may not know is that Healey, coming from a struggling public school system, went to Harvard because it was one of the few universities about which she knew anything. That she spent 10 years researching policy on subjects such as domestic violence and child abuse, which drove her to run for election so she could affect change. That for many years her mother was a Democrat and, although her father never told her as much, she thinks he was a Democrat, too.

To better know our new president, we talked with Healey. Here we share some of her stories.

Q: You grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., but were born in Nebraska. Do you have any memories of it?

A: I actually have no memory of that. My parents were both native Floridians. My father was a real estate developer, and his work occasionally involved travel to develop subdivisions in other places around the country. One of those was in Omaha, Neb., so I was literally born while my parents were living in the model home of a subdivision. And my mother could not stand the snow. It was way too cold for her. So she implored my father to move back after two years, and we were back in Florida before I could even remember any bit of being in Omaha.

Q: Looking forward to what was sort of your first foray into public service, you were class president in high school.

A: [Laughing,] I was president of student council my senior year, and I was class president every year before that.

Q: Why did you want to be part of student government?

A: I think I’ve always been interested in having an impact on my environment and being part of a community. I’m an only child, so maybe I was looking for a way to gather people together around me. I had a wonderful, loving home, but both my mother and father were only children as well. So my family was a very nuclear three. Perhaps I have always valued my friends and my community highly because I view them as an extension of my family.

Q: What would you say impacted you most during your school years?

A: I would say a couple of things were formative for me, first of all, my mother being an elementary public school teacher. She taught at the school I attended, so I was always “mean Mrs. Murphy’s daughter.” She was an excellent teacher and still has students coming back to tell her 40 years later what a profound impact she had on their lives. At that time, the public schools that I attended were not very high quality, and they were really struggling. We had teacher strikes. We had racial disturbances during integration and busing, so this was not an atmosphere that was conducive to learning. My mother, who continuously valued education, was the most important intellectual influence on me.

The second big impactful experience was that my dad had a heart attack when I was 15. I was a sophomore, and he wasn’t able to work after that. We had never been wealthy, but then we were dependent upon my mother’s salary, which at that time was really almost shockingly low for a teacher with a master’s degree. I will always remember when I got my first tuition bill from Harvard, which included housing and food. It was around $15,000, and my mom was making $12,000 a year. So I was very grateful to her and to my father for the sacrifices they made so I could have my education. I received grants from Harvard, but I could’ve gone on a full scholarship to other colleges. They wanted me to go to the best college that I could. I think that connects strongly with my desire and my focus throughout my life on providing those kinds of educational opportunities for others. Education matters and is probably the most transformative force in the world.

Q: You took a job when your dad became sick.

A: I started working at minimum wage in 1975, which was around $2 an hour as I recall, at a local souvenir shop. I sold puka shell necklaces and printed T-shirts, and I cleaned. I did that illegally for a year. I wasn’t supposed to be working yet because I was 15. But it certainly taught me a lesson about what it means to work for minimum wage.

I was working there probably 30 or more hours a week, and I quickly thought that what I wanted was to get a job that was not minimum wage. I had been the school reporter for our local newspaper and had a job writing a column for it about my high school. That didn’t pay much, but it did introduce me to the editor of the newspaper. She and her husband owned the newspaper. They were very forward-thinking and wanted to be the first computerized typesetting operation in Florida, and they wanted me to assist in that.

Q: What did you know about computers?

A: Well, it was a very odd moment in time when the U.S. space program was winding down and a lot of the G.E. rocket scientists who had been working on the Apollo program were told to go back up north. Some of them broke off and decided to start a computer science department at the Daytona Beach Community College. Now imagine this: It was a typical community college, and these rocket scientists are teaching young kids BASIC and Fortran and COBOL and assembly language programming. At 16, I took my savings from working at the shell shop and went to the community college to study with rocket scientists. I learned enough programming so that I could then go back to the newspaper and work in research and development. We installed four minicomputers. They still ran on paper tape at that point, and I actually wrote all of their early word processing programs. That paid quite well. That was $4.50 an hour, and that taught me the important lesson that education also results in higher pay.

Q: After high school you went to Harvard. Why Harvard?

A: I came from an environment where no one knew anything about any of these institutions. I knew the name of Harvard. I had been reading a lot of Victorian novels, so I knew about Oxford and Cambridge as well. My father had briefly attended Duke before World War II, so I knew about Duke. But beyond that, I really knew nothing. When I said to my high school counselor, “I think I’d like to apply to Harvard,” she said, “I think it’s in Connecticut.” This was before the Internet, so I had to go to a library and look up the address to figure out where these places were. I really had no idea of what I was doing when I applied to Harvard. I just knew that it existed and that it had a good name.

Q: When you arrived in Cambridge to attend Harvard, how did it feel?

A: I was as naive as you could possibly be. It was a big culture shock for me coming to Massachusetts. I had never lived in a city. I had never seen homelessness. I had never encountered the diversity of political opinions that I was seeing there. And, of course, the intellectual environment was spectacular. I was entirely self-taught in terms of the arts and the humanities. I had been able to study computer science with very smart folks, but the rest of my education was completely self-taught. So I struggled. I had never been asked at school to write a term paper or read a whole book. I had read many books, but I had read them without any direction. So a lot of what I wanted to do once I got to Harvard was to restudy many of the things that I had read, but with professors who could tell me what the context was. I quickly found out that I mispronounced a slew of words because I had never spoken them. That was pretty humbling.

Q: At Harvard you joined the Republican Club. Why? What connected you with that party versus the Democrats?

A: I didn’t feel connected to the Republican Party at all. What I felt connected to was a set of values that I had seen demonstrated in my parents. My parents had never discussed politics. They abided by that old rule of not discussing sex, religion, or politics. So it was one of those things where I simply tried to deduce what my parents’ political views were from their values and their actions. I saw that they believed in public service strongly, my dad being in the military, my mom as an educator and a community volunteer. I saw that they were both deeply religious and committed to their different churches. My dad was Catholic, and my mother was an Episcopalian. And I saw that they were dedicated to family.

I heard a great deal about their experiences during the Great Depression and World War II, and in particular their economic conservatism really came out through those experiences. They felt strongly that they needed to be independent of the government, that you needed to work hard to support yourself and your family, that you needed to give back to your community, and that you needed to help those in need. So those were the values that I grew up with. In my mind, I made the leap to imagining that those were values associated with the Republican Party.

When I turned 18, I told my father that I had registered as a Republican. He had one of the few outbursts I ever heard him have—actually, probably the only—where he said, “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. Now you’ll never have anyone to vote for.” Because at the time, everything in Florida was Democratic. There were no Republican candidates whatsoever. So although we never had a discussion about his politics, and he died without me knowing it for sure, I suspect that he was a Democrat. And now I know that my mother was, in fact, a Democrat. She was an FDR Democrat. She confessed that to me when she came up here and I said, “I hope you’re going to be voting for me,” and she said, “Well, I’ll have to change my party.” [Healey’s mom has since changed parties.]

Q: You also went to Trinity in Ireland for a PhD. You met your husband there?

A: He and I were on Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarships. After I had lived in Dublin for three years, my husband went back to the States to go to Harvard Law School, and I followed shortly thereafter. I spent a year as a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School.

Q: What next?

A: I started working at Abt Associates, [a research firm focused on health, social, and environmental policies and international development], in its law and public safety department to pay my husband’s tuition.

Q: You worked there for 10 years, and it seems as if the subjects you researched—child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, gang violence, witness intimidation, drug crimes—influenced much of what you’ve done in the rest of your life.

A: Yes. It was an interesting moment to be involved in criminal justice, because criminal justice per se wasn’t a topic that people studied. When I first started working in that area, Abt Associates had people who had doctorates in history and physics and sociology and political science. We were all coming at these issues from different silos of perspectives. Suddenly it occurred to people that, oh, we should be looking at this as a much more integrated sociological issue. We should be taking in pieces of health as well, and looking at some of these problems as addictions and disease that also need treatment. So suddenly it was as if something broke open and the perspective on criminal justice was much broader.

Q: In 1998, you decided to run for state representative. You lost, but what had spurred you to run for office?

R: I had been working on a number of exciting, important issues, including drugs and gangs and domestic violence, child abuse and neglect. And I thought that my colleagues and I had some answers that were important for people to know about, but it was clear to me that no one was listening. There was a disconnect between the academic community and the policymaking community, the people who had the power to actually implement policy. So the only way I could think of to span that gap was to become one of those people with the power to implement policies.

I literally went to the State House and to the State Bookstore. It’s on the bottom floor there, and I got a little booklet. I can still see it in my mind. It said this is what you do if you want to run for office. It had a checklist in the back, and I just went down the checklist, and that’s how I got into politics.

Q: Looking at your time as lieutenant governor, what are the top three things that stand out for you?

A: It’s funny, because some of the biggest things we accomplished, like health-care reform, probably aren’t going to be one of the top three. But one thing that really stands out for me is Melanie’s Law. That wasn’t something that I had intended to do, but when I got into office, I realized the scope of the damage that was being done by our very weak drunk-driving laws, and how many people were being killed by drunk drivers each year. Beyond that, all the people who were being injured and maimed, and all the families being impacted by the deaths and the disabilities. It was a vast problem. It was unconscionable because the reason why the laws were so weak was because a third of our legislature were personal injury lawyers. They just didn’t want change in the system. You would find people who had been arrested for drunk driving at a serious level of intoxication, maybe 10 or more times, and they would still be on the roads because these lawyers knew how to advise people to get off. It was a big battle, and I feel very good that we won and created legislation that was meaningful.

Q: What next?

A: I worked with then-senator Steven Tolman to establish three recovery high schools. There were a number of young people who were recovering drug addicts. They’d gone through treatment and were clean and were interested in attending school, but they couldn’t go back because there really aren’t any drug-free high schools in the entire commonwealth. So they would have to go back and see their old friends with whom they used to do drugs. They would go back and see their old drug dealer. Kids were having to choose between sobriety and their education, and that seemed wrong to us. Senator Tolman and I were able to work across the aisle to do something that in retrospect was almost impossible to imagine. We established three schools in a year and gave seed money to get them going. Now there are waiting lists for these schools. They are true, drug-free environments, where therapy and support is built into the curriculum. And those kids are going to college. It’s so exciting when I go to a graduation. You hate to think that anyone’s life could be ruined at 18 by drug addiction.

Q: And your third?

A: I was at a press conference announcing this new technology that we were going to be using with Level 3 sex offenders. We had totally revamped all of the sex offender registry, and one of the technologies that came out was this GPS tracking bracelet that you could use for monitoring. But it had something new beyond just the basic tracking. You could draw safety zones around certain points on the map. So, for example, in the case of sex offenders, you could draw zones around elementary schools or playgrounds. If that person walked into those areas, then the police or their probation officer would be called automatically, saying that the offender had violated the safety zone.

So I’m listening to this and I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, this is the technology that could right a fundamental injustice of our criminal justice system, which is that women or anyone who has obtained a civil restraining order against someone who is harassing or attacking them can’t do anything to enforce it. The restraining orders are just fundamentally unenforceable, because there aren’t enough police.

Let me take that a bit further. What’s the consequence of that? Women, victims of domestic violence in particular, would know that they were in great danger and realize that no one could actually protect them. So they would become homeless. They would take their children out of school. They would leave their jobs because they wouldn’t be safe in their employment. Suddenly, you go from being a victim to being a homeless, destitute victim with children who are disoriented and unhappy and who are going to suffer as a result of having to leave their school and friends and so forth. That’s not fair. Why should you as a victim be the one to pay the terrible cost of trying to protect yourself?

So when I was looking at this technology being rolled out for sex offenders, it suddenly occurred to me that you could use these exclusion zones to place protection areas around a woman’s home, around her place of work, around her children’s schools, and that you could turn that paradigm on its head so that the person who was the victimizer would be the person paying the price for that conduct, not the victim. I was enormously excited about this and went to Diane Rosenfeld at Harvard Law School, who was a member of our Governor’s Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, and asked her to help me draft a law that would make the violation of a civil restraining order a criminal act punishable by the imposition of this sort of GPS tracking.

You can’t protect someone the first time an order is violated. We could never figure out how to do that. But the first time the restraining order was ineffective, that became a criminal act. I was able to work with Jarrett Barrios, who was a senator at that time from Cambridge. He and I worked across the aisle to get that passed, and it was signed the last day before I left office. Diane has taken the legislation around the country, and I believe that it is now law in 20-plus other states.

Q: Now that you’re out of politics, what do you think you’ll miss the most?

A: I think probably some of the camaraderie and the great friends that I made. When you work together for any purpose, you bond closely with others.

Q: What will you miss the least?

A: That sort of tense feeling in your stomach before you pick up and read the papers every day. I can do without that.

Q: Why did you want to become president of Babson? How did you even know the job was open?

A: Well, that was easy. I got the proverbial call from the headhunters.

Q: I wouldn’t have thought, “Hey, there’s an opening for president at Babson, let’s call Kerry Healey.” You know?

A: Exactly. No, you’re exactly right, and I was joking with the search committee that the day before I received a call asking me to come in and speak with them, my mother-in-law had said, “I know what you should do. You should be the president of a college.” And I had replied, “You know, you have to be asked.”

Q: So when you were asked, what went through your head?

A: That my mother-in-law was right again, and that’s a lesson that we should all learn. I had a little knowledge about Babson, not a lot. But the more I learned, the more excited I got, the more it seemed that all the things I had done throughout my life fit within the Babson vision. While I had never imagined myself as having any sort of unifying principle to my activities, once I learned about Babson’s commitment to Entrepreneurship of All Kinds, and Babson being a driving force for change in the world, I realized that this philosophy had been driving my choices of career and avocation throughout my life.

Q: How do you define entrepreneurship?

A: I like the notion of Entrepreneurship of All Kinds. I would put the emphasis on “of all kinds.” I expect us to continue to emphasize private sector entrepreneurship, but I would love this school to equally embrace social entrepreneurship and innovation within the public sphere. I believe that I was an entrepreneurial leader in government, and I would hope that there are more out there. We should encourage people who choose any profession to try to improve that area through creative and entrepreneurial thinking. I don’t think we should view Babson as a school that has any limitations or a school that would only be of interest to one type of student. I believe all spheres of society will be improved by applying Entrepreneurial Thought and Action.