UPDATED: April 24, 2017 at 3:05 p.m.
When University Professor Danielle S. Allen received an invitation to University President Drew G. Faust’s office in November, she remembers thinking: “What had I done?”
But Faust wasn’t summoning Allen to reprimand her: she was honoring her with a University Professorship, the highest accolade a Harvard professor can receive. This position, designed for “individuals whose groundbreaking work crosses the boundaries of multiple disciplines” according to Harvard’s website, puts her in the company of Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and former University presidents.
Although Allen arrived at Harvard as a professor less than two years ago, the James Bryant Conant University Professorship is just the latest in a string of titles she’s accumulated across the University. She is also the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, a professor of Government and Education, a member of the Faculty Council, and co-chair of the Presidential Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging.
Harvard can not seem to get enough of Allen, but the feeling was not always mutual: Allen said she turned down the University’s first offer of a professorship. During an event hosted earlier this month by the Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging—a committee convened by Faust in September to evaluate Harvard’s efforts to create an inclusive environment and recommend improvements—Allen said she sometimes felt uncomfortable during her time as a graduate student in the Government department.
“I think Harvard feels a lot more dynamic now than I experienced it as being,” she said. “I’ve been blown away by the breadth and depth of quality of human capital here and the diversity of kinds of expertise and work that people are doing.”
By now, Allen—who is in her mid-forties—seems fairly at home at Harvard in her spacious Edmond J. Safra Center office. Her meteoric rise at Harvard is the latest step in a distinguished career as a political theorist and classicist. Between her positions on the Faculty Council and as the co-chair of a presidential task force, Allen’s influence at Harvard will continue to grow over course of what could be a decades-long career in Cambridge.
Before her return to Cambridge, Allen was the UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Much like the University professorship, the institute’s website says its work “crosses disciplinary boundaries.”
“Danielle is a hugely imaginative scholar,” Government professor and Edmond J. Safra Center Director of Graduate Fellowships Eric Beerbohm said. “What’s noteworthy is that even in a field capaciously named democratic theory, that doesn’t do justice to her interests. If you looks at classicists, theorists of equality...they will all talk about her as someone with innate, bold, original contributions.”
Allen began her studies at Princeton, where she graduated in 1993 with a degree in Classics. From there, she went to the University of Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship, leaving with a Ph.D. in Classics. Her first book, “The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens” was published the same year as the completed another degree, her Harvard Ph.D. in Government.
In addition to Princeton and Harvard, Allen has taught at the University of Chicago, where she was the Dean of the Division of Humanities for three years.
Allen’s other three books similarly span time periods, nations, and topics. “Our Declaration,” a philosophical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, earned Allen the 2015 Francis Parkman Prize.
She is also a teacher both within the Graduate School of Education and the Government department.
This year, she taught Gov 1060: Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy and Gov 94CZ: From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age. She co-taught the latter with Government post-doctoral fellow Chaebong Nam.
“I’m really drawn to her work and I’ve really deeply committed myself to her because of her personality,” Nam said. “There are a lot of smart people out there. There are few people who are smart and a genuine person.”
As she’s continued to make advances as a scholar at Harvard, Allen has also stepped into the role of a public intellectual, penning columns and leading administrative committees.
Just last week, Allen and her colleague at the Declaration Resources Project Emily Sneff announced that they had discovered a parchment manuscript of the Declaration of Independence. Allen said it’s only the second known parchment manuscript of the Declaration ever discovered.
“From the point of view of thinking about American history, it’s significant,” Allen said.
The announcement is the second time this month that Allen’s work has been the subject of national media attention.
At the “Afternoon of Engagement” hosted by the Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging, Allen announced a competition to change the final lyric of Harvard’s alma mater “Fair Harvard” from “Til the stock of the Puritans die” to something more “open to everybody.”
While some applauded the decision, it also drew criticism from both opponents of “political correctness” and those who argued the change was not substantive. Allen said this is merely a “baby step” for the committee.
“Our report won’t come out until the spring of 2018 and we wanted to signal to people that we are serious about concrete steps,” she said.
She also affirmed that changing the alma mater served an important symbolic purpose.
“The alma mater doesn’t play a huge part in the day to day experience, but we do use it to start and finish the year and that’s important,” she said “It anchors a set of core values.”
But public controversy is not exactly new to Allen. As a columnist at the Washington Post, she has written repeatedly about the rise of President Donald Trump, prompting backlash from some conservatives. According to an article in The Guardian, Allen once considered herself a conservative, but her views have since shifted.
Beerbohm described both her teaching and leadership styles as “egalitarian.” Allen, the scholar of equality, said there is a way in which her administrative and academic roles inform one another.
“I bundle all of my research projects together under the label the democratic knowledge project,” Allen said. “Everything I do is about how to cultivate the kinds of knowledge resources a democracy needs in order to thrive.”
She added that Harvard, like the United States is a federalist system. If that’s the case, Allen plays a role at both the national and state level.
“This is the dream job,” she said.
–Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.
CORRECTION: April 24, 2017
A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated the name of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.