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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Alumni

New Direction

September-October 2001

Karen Spencer Kelly
New HAA president Karen Spencer Kelly '80

Photograph by Justin Allardyce Knight

Karen Spencer Kelly '80 opened her first speech as Harvard Alumni Association president-elect with characteristic frankness--and humor. "I know what you're thinking," she told listeners on Class Day in June. "'I was expecting an old white guy.'" She paused. "Well, not this year."

Kelly, a tall woman dressed that day in an outfit of flaming coral, is, arguably, the furthest thing from that long-standing Harvard stereotype. She is the first African-American woman to head the HAA, and her pointed comments reflect one of her top priorities: to reach out to minority--and other--alumni who have been reluctant to get involved with Harvard. "I would like to increase diversity at the HAA in many ways," says the Philadelphia lawyer. "I'm not just talking about black people, but all kinds of people and all kinds of ideas. People will pick up this magazine and look at my picture, and say, 'Whoa, what is she doing there?' And that could make people feel more welcome."

She seems particularly well-equipped to attract newcomers. Kelly is polished and personable, practical, but quick to laugh: "I can talk to just about anybody about anything." In a recent interview, the conversation ranged from her views on her job as a litigator and the role of religion on campus to the the founding of the Womens' National Basketball Association, her brief encounter with U2's Bono on Class Day, and the time-consuming process of drying and curling her teenage daughter's hair.

Of the HAA, she says, "We have a very challenging year coming up"--due primarily to the implementation of the HAA's strategic plan, which was announced in 2000 (see "The Future of the HAA," January-February 2001, page 90). The plan includes increasing communication with alumni, adding new staff, and integrating University-wide projects. At the forefront for Kelly, however, is the effort to reshape the HAA's committee structure and make it more efficient. The organization relies throughout the year on hundreds of volunteers for alumni outreach, club work, and reunion planning. "All the HAA is, is people," Kelly notes. "Getting alumni to adjust to the HAA's changes and committee work will be the focus. What is most important is that people have to know they are being heard." She views her role as helping to balance fresh perspectives and the abundance of institutional knowledge at the HAA. The changes, along with the arrival of a new University president, could, she asserts, signal a healthy "shake-up" that opens the door for improvements, new leadership, and a shift in priorities throughout the University. Perhaps with that in mind, Kelly sought to assure alumni during her Class Day speech that "participation in the HAA does not depend on what you give to Harvard."

Her goal to include more minorities, Kelly concedes, is a long-term project that will extend beyond her one-year term as HAA president and require broader University support. She speaks of possibilities like the creation of a mentoring program, career-related assistance to undergraduates, or other projects that urge alumni to return to Cambridge. "We got here, we did it, we made it, we got through," she says of herself and other minorities. "So why not be here?"

Kelly herself has served on one or more alumni committees every year since she graduated. For years she was the regional director of the Radcliffe alumnae organization for the mid-Atlantic states, and as one of the last trustees of Radcliffe College, she aided in the transition to the Radcliffe Institute. These days she typically visits Harvard four or more times a year but "has at least some sort of communication about Harvard with someone every day," she says. Why? "Is it too simple to say it's because I love the institution?" she replies. "I believe that the people and the ideas that the University produces are not just for us, but for the world. How corny does that sound?! But I really believe it."

Growing up in an affluent Chicago suburb, she attended a small preparatory school and was almost stunned by the diversity of opinion and opportunities she found at Harvard. "There were so many perspectives and lifestyles and ways to see the world," says the Dunster House alumna. "It was so expansive and in some ways shockingly so, because I came from a narrow background." She became a Kuumba singer, joined the Radcliffe Union of Students and the Black Student Association, was a captain of the crew team, played basketball, performed with the Dunster House Drama Club. "I took advantage of everything sophomore year," she recalls. "It was overload. And the thing that suffered were my grades." A comparative religion concentrator, Kelly pulled her gradepoint average up enough to graduate cum laude and went on to get a law degree in 1985 from Villanova University Law School.

Diverse interests and skill at "multi-tasking" have followed her into adulthood. These days, in addition to work at her firm, Kelly and Monaco, she performs pro bono work for community groups and churches. A volunteer for numerous legal, Democratic, and womens' sports organizations, she also serves as a Eucharistic minister for her church. It was she who proposed that the theme for the HAA directors' meeting this October be spirituality at the University. Then there is her family: she and her husband, John B. Kelly III '82, a financial consultant, live in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia with their two children, Katherine, 13, and Nicholas, 8. The load of responsibilities can weigh heavily, she admits. "The truth is, I can't do all of it all the time," she says. "Some things do suffer. I don't want young women to think 'super-chick.'" Still, the same desire to participate fully in life that Kelly felt as an undergraduate has stuck with her. "Oh yes, that girl is still there," Kelly laughs. "She keeps coming back for more."