DeLeo feels ‘right at home’ in new academic life
Former House speaker brings his real-world experience to Northeastern classrooms
WHEN ROBERT DELEO resigned as speaker of the Massachusetts House a year and a half ago and took an academic position at Northeastern University, his life changed dramatically.
At the State House, he occupied a palatial suite on the third floor adorned with pictures of all his predecessors. At Northeastern, he works out of a tiny office a short walk from campus with room only for a desk, chair, and small coffee table.
On Beacon Hill, as one of the most powerful people in state government, he wielded enormous clout over an institution charged with creating the laws of the Commonwealth. At Northeastern, his days involve giving guest lectures to various classes, offering career advice to freshmen, and arranging guest speakers.
His move to Northeastern has also brought the 72-year-old DeLeo into the 21st century in ways beyond just spending lots of time with young people who were born at its start. At the State House, DeLeo routinely had a staff member print out his emails each evening. He would take them home and write handwritten instructions in the evening on how each one should be handled. Now DeLeo retrieves, writes, and sends his own email, marveling at how ubiquitous the communication method is. “There’s a road closed on campus, I’ll get an email,” DeLeo exclaimed.
“I absolutely love it here,” DeLeo said. “I just really feel right at home,” he said weeks before the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Northeastern as a member of the class of 1972.
When DeLeo prepared to retire in 2020 after 30 years in the House, including 12 as speaker, he said he got calls from lobbying firms, law firms, and other educational institutions. Though DeLeo acknowledges he “would have probably made more money in the lobbying arena” (he won’t reveal his Northeastern salary), he said he had always loved engaging with students, so he chose academia and his alma mater.
Northeastern named DeLeo a University Fellow for Public Life.
Unlike another prominent Massachusetts political figure who migrated to Northeastern – former governor Michael Dukakis, who taught there for 19 years – DeLeo is not a full professor with his own course load. Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern, who has worked with DeLeo on legislation, compared him to Scott Harshbarger, a former attorney general who came to Northeastern for a short stint and used his experience and contacts to give guest lectures and help students and faculty with research. McDevitt predicted that DeLeo’s role at Northeastern will grow as more faculty come to understand how he can help them. “To have someone with his skill set about how legislation gets done is something our students could benefit from, as well as our faculty, frankly,” McDevitt said.
While it’s not unusual for a younger person to follow professionally in the footsteps of one of their parents, by landing in academia for what is likely his last career stop, DeLeo turned that on its head. His son, Rob DeLeo, is a public policy professor at Bentley University.
DeLeo recalled a Thanksgiving conversation he once had with his son while serving as speaker. His son was talking about his research and the need to get it into the right hands to impact policy. The elder DeLeo asked who the right people were. “People like you,” his son replied.
“It taught me that there was room for elected leaders, and professors, and people in academia to work together,” DeLeo said.
DeLeo’s most consistent teaching role comes from co-teaching courses with Northeastern faculty member J.D. LaRock in a doctorate of law and policy program geared toward mid-career students. LaRock teaches courses on the Legislature, the Supreme Court, and current law and policy debates, and asks DeLeo to provide the state perspective. “The speaker will bring in his own work on the issues and share how policy is made and changed in real life,” LaRock said.
DeLeo also meets with freshman political science students as part of a weekly program about life at Northeastern, most often providing career advice. He guest lectures in other professors’ courses, talking about topics ranging from the role of the House speaker to redistricting. He teaches in an “open classroom” initiative, where students, faculty, and the public attend lectures. He holds office hours. He brings in guest lecturers, often state representatives. He advises faculty seeking to get their research into the public discourse. And he staffs educational trips to Washington, helping arrange speakers like Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Congressman Jim McGovern.
One recent trip, DeLeo had students speak with Democratic civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and President Trump’s former physician, Ronny Jackson, now a Republican congressman. He asked the students to think about whether the two could ever work together.
Though he had enormous sway over the direction of state policy while House speaker, DeLeo says he’s had much more time to ponder such things in the academic ivory tower. “I really never got a chance as much to think about issues as I do now,” he said.
One recent Tuesday evening, DeLeo was the guest lecturer at a graduate student seminar in crisis communications.
He spent 35 minutes taking the class of around 15 students through each step involved in passing controversial gun legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. He discussed his shock at the shooting, his convening of a committee led by McDevitt, the Northeastern professor, to make recommendations, and his strategies to obtain legislators’ support.
DeLeo then moved on to the challenges posed when opposition to President Trump dominated the Democratic-led Legislature, preventing lawmakers from accomplishing anything. DeLeo’s solution: Form a committee to handle the Trump issue. “I’m pretty good at forming committees,” he said.
He took questions: How do you get your opponents on board? What kind of crises are hardest to handle?
Most students appeared engaged. Some took notes. One surfed an online clothes shopping site.
Jordan Barbour, an Everett native studying nonprofit management, sounded awed that DeLeo was teaching. Barbour said it provided a different perspective and an actual case study in passing legislation. “It’s the first time you’re actually that close to that person…you’re not someone on the outside watching him on TV,” Barbour said after the lecture.
DeLeo spoke that evening with the aid of a folder of handwritten notes, evidence of what colleagues say is his meticulous preparation. Ted Landsmark, director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said each time he asks DeLeo to speak on a panel, DeLeo’s assistant reaches out weeks in advance asking what topics DeLeo should be prepared to speak about. “No one around here does that,” Landsmark said.
DeLeo has earned the respect of colleagues and students for taking lectures seriously and approaching them with a non-partisan, practical bent.
Landsmark said some professors worry that legislators operate at a “30,000-foot level,” but DeLeo repeatedly reminds students that he represented working-class constituents in and around Winthrop. He has argued persuasively that progressive theories bandied about campus may not be what working families want. For example, when speaking about free fares on the MBTA as a way to help poor riders, DeLeo asked who will pay for it, and how is it equitable if taxpayers in low-income communities not served by the MBTA have to contribute. “What Bob has demonstrated is the legislators are the ones who are really grounded, and [that it is] the academicians who sometimes are operating at a remove from political reality,” Landsmark said.
LaRock said DeLeo is a careful listener. “He will really listen closely to what the students are saying… then weigh in with his own insights that acknowledge and incorporate what the students have said,” LaRock said. One student wrote in a course evaluation, which LaRock shared, that DeLeo took notes on what the guest speakers said, took notes on students’ questions, then responded in a way that brought the two together.
LaRock said some of the most powerful moments have come when DeLeo spoke about his personal evolution on issues – for example, meeting with gay constituents who wanted the right to marry, who led DeLeo to reconsider his early opposition to gay marriage.
Lacey Dean, a policy analyst at the US Space Command in Colorado Springs who was in LaRock’s doctoral class, said DeLeo has the ability to explain his tactics, techniques, and challenges in a “storytelling manner” that students can relate to and use. “The way he broke it down, as a student you felt like, I could do that also, that’s not out of the realm of possible,” Dean said.
Traveling to Washington, DC, with him, Dean said she learned from the way DeLeo approached elected officials by asking hard questions in an inquisitive, not confrontational, manner so the officials would answer.
DeLeo says academic life isn’t quite as cushy as some make it out to be. “They say it’s something like three hours of preparation for one hour of classroom time, and for me that’s pretty close,” DeLeo said.
McDevitt, who worked closely with Harshbarger, said there is often a learning curve for politicians moving to academia. “In the House, he was the boss. In academia, there are no bosses,” McDevitt said.
For a technology neophyte like DeLeo, adapting to the hybrid education required by the COVID pandemic has also been difficult. When DeLeo started the job last year, most of his lectures were online. He needed someone from the university to teach him how to use Zoom. His first time joining a virtual meeting, he arrived at his computer half an hour early to make sure he could get the screen set up so all he had to do was press a button to sign on.
DeLeo said the political bug never really disappears, and he occasionally misses working at the State House. Because of COVID, he never got the in-person sendoff that would be expected for the longest-serving speaker in state history. He keeps in touch with many of his former House colleagues, including current House Speaker Ron Mariano.Yet the less stressful job seems to suit him. DeLeo’s two grandchildren – ages six and three – live across the street from him, and now he has more time to spend with them. As speaker, he said, “I never got home before dark.” In his new role, DeLeo comes to campus three days a week, and spends the other days at home on his computer. He gives speeches when asked and is considering offers to join corporate boards.
At this point, DeLeo said, he has no plans to fully retire. “I’m probably here as long as they’ll have me,” he said.