Remembering Professor Carter

Harvard professor and future secretary of defense Ash Carter speaks at a 1986 conference.

Harvard professor and future secretary of defense Ash Carter speaks at a 1986 conference. Diana Walker/Getty Images

Steve Kelman reflects on the former defense secretary's life in government and academia.

There was a memorial service, with about 150 in attendance at Harvard's Memorial Church in Harvard Yard on Wednesday, for my Kennedy School colleague and former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who served as SecDef from 2015 through 2017 and who died unexpectedly in October of a heart attack at the age of 68. It was fitting the service was in a church that honors Harvard war dead in World Wars I and II, whose names are listed on the wall of the sanctuary.

There are a lot of things to say about Ash, but for me as a Kennedy School faculty member and someone very committed to our school's public service mission, the very most significant is this: When most secretaries of defense leave their jobs, they go on to well-paid jobs in the defense industry and/or board memberships. Ash came back to academia. Asked at the time to explain his decision, he said that while he was in government and traveling globally, he "continually encountered former students serving in a range of government positions around the world who greeted him with, 'Hello Professor Carter.'"

Ash's public service was laced with major achievements. He shepherded the development of mine-resistant MRAP vehicles that saved the lives of countless soldiers in Afghanistan. At the service, my colleague Graham Allison noted a prediction in the early 1990s that, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons would proliferate to a slew of new nations on former Soviet territory. Working with a bipartisan team of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, the number of nations newly acquiring nuclear weapons was zero.

Ash also had close ties to the tech community in government. He established the Defense Digital Service to bring private-sector tech folks into stints in government, as well as the Defense Innovation Board. He occasionally spoke with me to get advice about his work with Frank Kendall, then undersecretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, to promote cost control on weapons systems programs. He developed a course at the Kennedy School called Solving Tech's Public Dilemmas that reflected an interest he developed in the last few years of his life in using technology for the public good. Indeed, he gave a lecture in that course the day he died.

During the service, one of the speakers commented on Ash's bad back and the pain he was often in when walking. This reminded me of how I most frequently interacted with Ash, whose office was quite near mine. I took a walk inside the Kennedy School building most days during the winter to help me regain stamina after suffering from cancer. He took walks on a similar path to help him with his back. Most days, we saw each other.

I saw Ash only three days before he died at a lunch where he was speaking to students in one of our executive education programs where I also teach. That was completely a labor of love, and a statement about his respect for public servants – faculty are not compensated for such appearances.

At that lunch, there was absolutely no sign of any health problem. As I was getting ready a few days later to finish class and recounting the participation of my colleague General Dana Born, somebody came in and interrupted us to tell Dana the news.

I will miss him. More importantly, the country will.