Berkley city councilman selected to study at Harvard

By: Jeremy Selweski | Woodward Talk | Published April 16, 2013

 Berkley City Councilman Steve Baker, right, and Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara were the two local officials selected by SEMCOG to participate in a fellowship program at Harvard University this summer.

Berkley City Councilman Steve Baker, right, and Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara were the two local officials selected by SEMCOG to participate in a fellowship program at Harvard University this summer.

Photo provided by Steve Baker

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BERKLEY — This summer, Steve Baker is heading off to Harvard — not as a college student, but as a representative of his community.

The Berkley city councilman was recently selected by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) as one of two elected officials across the region to participate in the annual Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In July, Baker and Wayne County Commissioner Kevin McNamara will spend nearly three weeks studying at one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions and return home with new knowledge to share with their colleagues.

Baker, who also applied for the ultra-competitive international fellowship last year but was not selected, said that he feels “greatly honored” to be chosen to represent Berkley and the seven-county region that SEMCOG serves.

“I’m humbled to be in the company of so many great leaders who have participated in this program before me,” he added. “I’m very excited to learn and engage and bring back skills and proven best practices that I can use to help improve Berkley and our entire community.”

SEMCOG will provide full funding for the Harvard fellowship, which aims to provide a balance of traditional and hands-on learning experiences to help seasoned public officials meet the changing needs of their communities and constituents. The program runs from July 8-26 at a cost of $11,800 per participant.

Its goals are to help officials become more effective public managers by challenging their assumptions about leadership, developing new ways to address policy issues, examining new models of collaboration and partnership, exploring the relationship between citizens and government, and better understanding the decision-making process. It also gives them a chance to exchange ideas with a diverse group of colleagues from all over the world, as well as learn from distinguished Harvard faculty members.

“This is a very intensive, scholarly program,” said Baker, who has served on the Berkley City Council since 2009 and works by day as an information technology director for DTE Energy. “One of the biggest reasons why I applied was because there were so many things that excited me about the curriculum.”

The Senior Executives in State and Local Government program operates as an interactive classroom, where participants and educators work together on real-life cases and learn from each other. Baker and other public officials will be immersed in a classroom environment that serves as a forum for raising difficult issues and establishing a conversation that leads to change. Through interactive exercises, they will also learn to sharpen their decision-making skills by gaining a deeper understanding of their own biases and attitudes.

“What’s great is that this is not just about sitting there with your head in a book for three weeks,” Baker said. “There are also interactive projects, role-playing activities — lots of different ways to exercise these skills and concepts in a collaborative environment. It makes the whole thing a lot more real.”

According to Grant Brooks, who works in the membership and external affairs department at SEMCOG and oversees the Harvard fellowship program there, Baker was unanimously chosen by SEMCOG’s four-member selection committee from a list of 14 candidates to represent southeast Michigan.

“Steve had a very impressive résumé; he was really close to being selected last year, too,” Brooks said. “He’s definitely very qualified for this position. The committee was really impressed with Steve’s work, both at his job with DTE and in Berkley city government, and I think that really gave him a leg up on a lot of the other candidates. They also tend to look for officials who are relatively young — people who are going to be around for a while.”

Baker was impressed with the thoroughness of SEMCOG’s application process.

“I appreciate the great care and consideration that they put into selecting the winners,” he said. “It was very appropriate, given the significant level of investment here.”

Berkley Mayor Phil O’Dwyer was eager to inform the community about his colleague’s achievement and made the news public with an announcement during the City Council’s April 1 meeting.

“We are enormously proud that Steve has been selected for this program,” he said. “Those of us who sit up here (on council) are very familiar with the extent of his contributions with regard to regional transportation and a variety of other issues across this area. And it’s nice to see that SEMCOG recognized that and honored that. Steve will be a great candidate to study at Harvard and to come back with creative ideas and relationships with colleagues from around the country that will be a great benefit to our city and our region.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program is that its participants spend the entirety of their fellowship living on campus in the Harvard dorm rooms. Baker is excited about this aspect of the program and the brand new world that it could open up.

“I’m looking forward to embracing everything that Harvard has to offer,” he said. “I went to Oakland (University) as a commuter, so this will actually be my first dorm room experience. It should be interesting, but this program is very immersive, which will help me stay focused on the reasons why I’m there.”

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