A Conversation with Finn Caspersen ’66
“The next generation is well-prepared to take over”
Finn M.W. Caspersen ’66 is chairman of the board and CEO of Knickerbocker Management, a private management firm that oversees the assets of various trusts, foundations and individuals. He is also chairman of Harvard Law School’s Dean’s Advisory Board, and he led the school’s “Setting the Standard” campaign. The drive raised $476,475,707, blowing past its goal and making it the largest and most successful campaign in the history of legal education.
Why did you agree to lead the campaign?
I view campaigns as not only a way of accomplishing certain things—i.e., endowments, professorships and so on—but also a way of drawing people together. And, there were a lot of things that the Harvard Law School needed to do. Clearly, the need for scholarships and increased endowment was there, and the physical plant was lacking. Meanwhile, the necessary campaign infrastructure was in place. The administration, led at the time by Dean Bob Clark, was very strong. Economic times were reasonably good. All in all, it was clear that we should go ahead.
You came up with the campaign’s name—“Setting the Standard”—when you posed a question: “If this place doesn’t set the standard, who will?” Now that the campaign is over, is the school in a position to meet that goal?
You always have to do more. You never get to perfection. That said, the school is in much, much better shape today than it was back then. And I think by any important measure, it is setting the standard.
That phrase helped overcome the biggest objection that Harvard faces in fundraising, which is, “You’re already the richest law school, and the richest university, in the world.” The response to that is, “Well, somebody has to set the standard, and we believe it should be us.”
The success of this campaign will allow us to continue being the best law school in the world.
Early on in the campaign, you made the largest gift in the history of the school. Recently, you designated it for a student center in the Northwest Corner. Why?
I left it undesignated initially, in order to allow others to step up and say what they were willing to support. Then I could see what was left over, and put my gift there. I made the gift early on because I wanted to provide a spur to my fellow alumni. I also wanted to redefine the parameters for “major gifts,” and, to a large extent, it accomplished that.
Now that the campaign is over, I have decided to designate it for the student center because I believe interaction with one’s peers is one of the most critical aspects of the law school’s education. Further, I have had a history of such gifts, doing much of the same at the Peddie School in New Jersey, and I enjoy following in the footsteps of one of my mentors, Walter Annenberg, who did the same for Harvard.
One of the unusual aspects of this campaign was that at the outset, it wasn’t clear whether HLS would move to Allston or stay where it was, so about a quarter of the overall campaign goal—the building component—had to remain an unknown.
True. That was a complicating factor. And in the end, the Northwest Corner—which is what most of the building component turned out to be—is going to cost much more than a quarter of the campaign receipts, so we still have more to raise there.
How do you personally feel about the outcome: staying put, and investing in that corner of the existing law school campus?
I was open to both outcomes, but moving the whole school would have delayed everything significantly. This way, we were able to decide what we needed and get on with business.
Frankly, I was a little worried that the city of Cambridge might impose tight strictures on the law school’s expansion, but in fact, the city has been extremely reasonable in terms of the Northwest Corner. The project has gone better than anybody could have hoped for, and it will benefit both the city and the school.
Many alumni wanted the school to stay where it was …
Yes, surprisingly so. That was brought home very early on, when a poll of the alumni indicated quite clearly that they wanted us to stay where we were. And of course, in fundraising terms, that’s the ocean, and that’s where you’re going to have to fish. If the alumni want something, and if it’s reasonable, then you’d better listen to them.
You were not only the chairman of the campaign, but also of the Dean’s Advisory Board. Can you contrast those two roles?
In the longer term, chairing the Dean’s Advisory Board is a far more important job, because that board provides a systematic way for alumni leaders to have a say in the future of the school. It provides the dean and the faculty with a sounding board based in the reality of the practice of law, business and public service. It enables the school’s leadership team to bounce new ideas off a group of very sophisticated people who have no hesitation about saying, “You’re wrong.”
When Larry Summers became president, one of the first meetings he had was with the Dean’s Advisory Board of the law school. Similarly with Drew Faust. To me, that suggests that they find it a useful forum.
Over the course of this campaign, some of the key players—deans, presidents and fundraisers—have changed, while you and your alumni colleagues have been the continuing presence. Do you think of it as a kind of stewardship role?
Absolutely. The alumni really are there forever. They’re the stewards of this institution.
You helped Jack Cogan when he led the school’s previous campaign, so in a sense, you were groomed to lead this charge. Do you see a similar grooming going on, in terms of the next generation of alumni leaders?
Yes, I do. I think one of the great things about the campaign was the number of energetic younger people who were drawn into it—and in the process, really learned about the school, about campaigning and so on. Through an effort like this, it really becomes a cohesive whole, I think, and that’s extremely important. But the short answer is “yes”: I think there’s a very, very deep bench for the future.
You and your wife have been extraordinarily committed to HLS and also to other schools and colleges that are important to you. Is that part of a bigger picture, and a philosophy?
If there’s any one area of charitable endeavor that should be highlighted, it’s education, because it’s an investment in the future—an investment in human capital. I’ve been active in a range of other things, but education’s always been my particular love, which is why I’m so pleased with the outcome of the HLS campaign.
We reached our goal, and then went well beyond it. I am confident that the law school is in very good hands today with Elena Kagan, and I think the next generation is well-prepared to take over.