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How the DNC has helped form a bond between two Northeastern professors

July 26, 2016 - BOSTON, MA. - Distinguished Professor Michael S. Dukakis and Professor Dan Urman pose for a portrait in Renaissance Park at Northeastern University on July 26, 2016. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern faculty member Dan Urman says the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles was his “political coming of age moment”—one he says was made possible by Michael Dukakis.

At the time Urman was a rising senior studying political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a student of Dukakis’, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern and visiting professor at UCLA. Urman had impressed Dukakis in class in the spring, and when the DNC rolled around he asked Dukakis if anyone was running his visit.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?” Urman recalls. “It took me about two seconds to say ‘yes.’  It was a trial by fire, and I learned a tremendous amount. It inspired my passion for politics and teaching.  In 2012, we created a website to teach the larger public about the campaign and convention process, and I can directly trace it to my initial experience in 2000.”

Five consecutive conventions in attendance

They haven’t missed one since. Sixteen years later, Dukakis and Urman are headed back to the convention, which began Monday in Philadelphia. This year marks the fifth consecutive convention they’ve attended together. Urman still plays an important role in planning Dukakis’ packed schedule of media interviews and events, along with other logistics.

He said, ‘Why don’t you do it? It took me about two seconds to say ‘yes.’ It was a trial by fire, and I learned a tremendous amount.
— Dan Urman

Left to right: Dan Urman, Michael Dukakis, and Kitty Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Photo courtesy of Dan Urman

Left to right: Dan Urman, Michael Dukakis, and Kitty Dukakis at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. Photo courtesy of Dan Urman

Dukakis plans to arrive at the DNC on Wednesday—on Tuesday he’s teaching a course at Northeastern that he refuses to miss, Urman explains.

“They’re always great fun,” Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, says of the conventions. “But there’s no great drama like there was in the old days.” He points to the convention in 1960, which he attended, having just been elected the chairman of the Democratic organization in Brookline, Massachusetts. He recalls that nobody knew until the convention that John F. Kennedy would be the nominee.

“They’re more scripted media events now,” Urman adds. “But you also don’t know how well someone will perform that night. For example, on Monday night, Cory Booker, junior senator from New Jersey, gave a fantastic speech. He inspired the crowd in a way I haven’t seen since Barack Obama in 2004.”

At the Republican National Convention last week, it was plagiarism accusations against Melania Trump and Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. And days before this year’s DNC, thousands of leaked emails showed how DNC officials worked to undermine Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

They’re always great fun. But there’s no great drama like there was in the old days.”
— Michael Dukakis, on conventions

But for his part, Dukakis won’t be focused on scandal. “My focus is the importance of a 50-state grassroots campaign,” he says. “That is very important. This is going to be a tough election.”

During an interview in Dukakis’ office on Monday afternoon, the pair reminisces about some of the defining moments they’ve experienced during the past four conventions together. There is being home in Boston for the 2004 convention, when Urman was a student at Harvard Law School and they heard Obama, then a young state senator from Illinois, give the keynote address. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty, heard the speech and said, “If he ever runs for president, I am going to support him.” A few years later, she did just that.

And there is the time Dukakis and Urman ran into Bill Clinton in 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Urman recalls “seeing this shock of white hair” as a man stepped out of the elevator, as Clinton appeared with his still-being-edited speech in hand. That speech, they said, was among the best ever at a DNC. It inspired President Obama to deem Clinton the “Secretary of Explaining Stuff.”

The scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Photo courtesy of Dan Urman

The scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Photo courtesy of Dan Urman

Parallels in opportunities for students

Urman seized an opportunity when he was Dukakis’ student in 2000. Sixteen years later, Reilly McGreen, SSH’19, is following that lead. When McGreen transferred to Northeastern in fall 2015, the political science major sought out Dukakis and nudged his way into the professor’s Public Policy and Administration course. Now Dukakis’ assistant, he’s similarly earned an invite to join Dukakis and Urman at the convention.

McGreen and Urman underscore Dukakis’ unbreakable, long-term commitment to his students and to providing them with opportunities to succeed. A humble Dukakis says it’s real-world experiences like these that are critical to students’ learning and the essence of Northeastern’s experiential learning model.

“It’s a dream come true,” McGreen says of attending the convention. “I’m just so grateful to have the opportunity not to just go to the convention with him but also work every day with someone like the governor.”

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