Get to know Harvard Summer School instructors in our faculty spotlight series. Our featured instructors share advice in their areas of expertise, studying in the summer, and favorite spots in Harvard Square.
This month, we meet the instructors of Leadership Lessons from Modern Presidential Politics—John Paul Rollert, lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, and George Wendt, South Carolina-based consultant. They offer tips on how to constructively engage in political conversation at the next family dinner—and also share some of their favorite books, news sources, and local restaurants.
Making the Most of their Differences
John Paul Rollert is a democrat who worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and George Wendt is a libertarian-leaning Republican who worked for a Mitt Romney Super PAC in 2012.
You might think it would be difficult for professors with opposing political perspectives to lead a course without constantly squabbling. But Rollert and Wendt cite their friendship and deep mutual respect as key factors in leading a classroom conversation that embraces disparate perspectives.
“This is not two people arguing over politics at a bar on a Friday night,” laughs Rollert, “We do our best to litigate our opposing views with an aim toward making sense of tough questions in management and leadership.”
“Even if I disagree with President Obama on a policy issue,” Wendt says, “I have to be ready to acknowledge that there are things he does right and things he does wrong. That’s true of just about every leader across the political spectrum.”
Keeping it Civil
When politics come up in the classroom, in Washington, or at the family dinner table, it’s easy for the conversation to quickly turn into a shouting match. To keep the dialogue constructive, Rollert advises, “Try to find a balance between passion and objectivity. George and I, for instance, are both very passionate about our political beliefs. But we also know that if we hold on to some objectivity, we can learn a lot from listening to each other’s pushback.
“The skill of listening to someone with a different point of view is something we try to pass along to our students,” Rollert adds. “And it wouldn’t be a bad corrective for a lot of what is ailing contemporary American politics right now.”
Spending the Summer at Harvard
Rollert and Wendt believe they have a pretty good handle on the student experience at Harvard Summer School. “After all, both of us were students here,” Rollert says. “I took a course at Harvard the summer before my senior year of high school, and George was actually a student in a leadership course I taught at Harvard Summer School in 2010.”
As a Summer School student, Rollert recalls being energized by “the high-intensity experience of working so hard and learning so much in a short period of time.” Wendt remembers similar intensity: “I studied all the time! But I also met amazing people who became my lifelong friends.”
Even as a teacher, Wendt continues to build relationships during his summers at Harvard. “During the week, we often have lunch or group dinners with former students who are here taking other courses. It’s a treat to reconnect with them.”
Rollert, who has taught summer classes at Harvard since 2005, notes, “I have great affection for the summer program. Each year, students descend on Harvard Yard from all over the world for this session. As a professor, it’s my job to make sure they leave with their highest educational expectations affirmed. It forces you to bring your ‘A’ game every day. I love that challenge.”