Rockefeller Center Marks 40 Years of Public Policy Work

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Leaders say the center’s programming is linked to the legacy of Nelson Rockefeller ’30.

Nelson Rockefeller in downtown Hanover with merchant
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ’30, right, and his wife, Happy, with Hanover merchant Harry Tanzi in front of his grocery store in downtown Hanover in the early 1960s. (Rauner Special Collections Library)

At the dedication of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy in September 1983, Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon Johnson, said the center would further Rockefeller’s mission to harness public policy to right wrongs and to learn from a wide spectrum of opinions and viewpoints.

“Nelson would gather a galaxy of stars together, enter the room with that buoyant, boyish enthusiasm, slapping the backs of the assembled academics and experts, grinning and calling each by their first name,” she said, according to The New York Times.

“Problems were opportunities; obstacles were there to be overcome. One adviser said Nelson could never imagine a wrong that could not be righted, or an honorable aspiration that could not be reached,” said the former first lady, who co-chaired the fundraising committee for the new center along with former President Gerald Ford.

Today, Rockefeller Center Director Jason Barabas ’93 sees the center playing a key role in supporting President Sian Leah Beilock’s “brave spaces” initiative, a mission that ties directly to the career of its namesake in the 40 years since its founding.

It is this spirit that the Rockefeller Center is celebrating in a year-long series of events under the title “Rocky at 40,” with programming ranging from the Path to the Presidency series, to hosting speakers such as former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, and the New Hampshire Republican and Democratic party chairs, speaking on issues including political dysfunction, the New Hampshire primary, and free speech and civility.

These themes were on display when Rocky kicked off its 40th celebration in September with an event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s commencement address at Dartmouth in June 1953 in which he told students, “Don’t join the book burners.”

Beyond these events, the center is also developing leadership classes for students, building internship opportunities in the judicial branch, and increasing funding support for both faculty and student research in the areas of government, public policy, and public service.

Author and historian Richard Norton Smith, the biographer of Nelson Rockefeller and a longtime friend of the center, says its mission honors Rockefeller’s lifelong commitment to education and public policy.

Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Mondale
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller ’30, right, meets with his successor, Democrat Walter Mondale, in November 1976. (AP Photo)

“Here leading social scientists trade places with Washington newsmakers. The Policy Research Shop offers invaluable apprenticeships in Concord and Montpelier. Mentored by Dartmouth alumni in significant leadership positions, fellows learn to write a speech and enact a law—for starters,” Smith says. “Never forgetting the public in public policy, Rockefeller Center students are scholar-practitioners, visionaries with their feet on the ground in the best Rockefeller family tradition of service before self.”

Smith will be the keynote speaker at the spring Rockefeller Center Board of Visitors meeting where he will discuss the work of the center and Rockefeller’s legacy.

A grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, Rockefeller served four terms as governor of New York, ran for president three times, and was appointed vice president in 1974 under Ford. As governor, he was credited with dramatically expanding the public university system in New York as well as a range of progressive policy initiatives in housing, transportation, and the environment.

Barabas underlined the deep commitment of the center to inspire students with a sense of the possibilities of public policy work and a commitment to seeking out many voices that take inspiration from Rockefeller’s legacy.

“Nelson Rockefeller was someone who took chances, who said what he thought was right, even if it was going to cost him politically,” Barabas says. “But Rockefeller had a set of values. He was thinking about the entire country, not just his political party.”

Among the events coming up, the Rockefeller Center, the Dartmouth Political Union, the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will host Cheney at 4 p.m. on Jan. 5 for a keynote address titled An Oath to Defend Democracy.

Barabas and Rockefeller Center Executive Director Anna Mahoney say they are excited to play a role in President Beilock’ s Brave Spaces initiative, encouraging communicating across differences in a respectful and open way, and they see students at Rocky and Dartmouth in general responding and embracing this idea.

Mahoney, who started at the Rockefeller Center in August, has been impressed with the seriousness and commitment to dialogue of Dartmouth students.

“And so when President Beilock called on all of us to think big, to have difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations as a way to get to solutions to those problems, I feel like Rocky is really in the center of that,” she says.

As part of the Rocky at 40 yearlong celebration, Mahoney and Barabas also highlighted an appearance by U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., next week and ongoing work to increase student opportunities for judicial fellowships.

Raskin, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, will deliver an address at Dartmouth on Monday, Jan. 8, titled Democracy vs. Autocracy in 2024. The event, starting at 5 p.m. in Filene Auditorium, will also be livestreamed.

Among other innovations, Rocky plans to offer an expanded judicial fellowship program, led by Herschel Nachlis, associate director of the Rockefeller Center. In particular, the center will ramp up opportunities for students to intern with alumni justices/judges from various types of courts, including circuit courts of appeal, state supreme courts, state and federal district courts, and trial courts. The program will enhance the existing internship program, which has placed more than 800 interns over the center’s history.

For a complete list of upcoming programming visit the Rockefeller Center events page.

Bill Platt