Massachusetts Speaker Robert DeLeo joins Northeastern University to teach, mentor

Massachusetts Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo speaks at the Statehouse in Boston on Jan. 25, 2016. AP Photo by Steven Senne

When he considered what would come next after his historic tenure at the helm of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Speaker Robert A. DeLeo soon focused on one idea: returning to his alma mater.

The 70-year-old Winthrop Democrat, who graduated from Northeastern in 1972, has been appointed University Fellow for Public Life. In his new role, he will be teaching and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students on public policy matters, urban affairs, and legislation.

“To me, it’s like coming home,” says DeLeo of his new post. “It just seemed like a natural fit.”

At the College of Professional Studies, DeLeo will be teaching undergraduate and graduate students about what it takes to get legislation and policy passed.

“Hopefully what I’ll bring to them, if you count my work in local government, is 40 years of experience in how things get done. How things become law,” says DeLeo.

In the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, he’ll also teach and mentor students in the undergraduate and master’s programs of the Political Science Department and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, including the Law and Policy minor. In addition, he will be collaborating with the director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy on public programs, such as the Myra Kraft Open Classroom series.

“As many of our students aspire to acquire pragmatic state government experience, having direct access to a legislative leader will bring invaluable mentoring, advising, and consulting opportunities with distinctive advantages for the university,” said Ted Landsmark, distinguished professor of practice in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. “Our public programming and community outreach will benefit from Speaker DeLeo’s knowledge of state and municipal officials, and from his contacts in the public sector. He is a welcome addition to our School of Public Policy research, service, and public policy initiatives.”

DeLeo’s transition from head of the Commonwealth’s 160-member House chamber to head of the class on Northeastern’s Boston campus shouldn’t be too surprising. The often-understated leader spoke fondly of the university throughout his legislative career and credited the co-op program with inspiring him to go to law school.

“I was just a kid from East Boston and Winthrop. I spent a lot of my childhood in a three decker,” says DeLeo. “But because of my education at Northeastern, I was able to compete with anyone,” says DeLeo. The longtime Democrat worked with attorneys at Liberty Mutual during his undergraduate co-op program.

“That’s what is really so important about a Northeastern education. It gives students the opportunity to work in the real world,” he says.

The former Speaker maintained close ties with his alma mater. He warmly welcomed dozens of Northeastern students into his wood-paneled Speaker’s office as they lobbied for higher education funding. He donned a Hockey East championship t-shirt in 2017 as he dropped the puck before a Huskies game. And he forged a friendship with Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.

“Experience is the essence of a Northeastern education,” said President Aoun. “Speaker DeLeo’s experience and leadership in public service is without parallel. The lessons of his life and career will provide Northeastern students with insights that will last a lifetime. I am thrilled to welcome him home to Northeastern.”

The North Shore legislator had kind words for President Aoun at an International Institute of New England event in 2019, where  Aoun was honored with a Golden Door Award for his accomplishments as a global citizen.

“He has brought his experiences of living in Lebanon, France, and other places to Northeastern by emphasizing that we should not be living in our own bubble in the U.S.,” DeLeo said at the event. “We all have something to learn from each other’s backgrounds and experiences.”

DeLeo brings plenty of experience to the classroom, having served as a state lawmaker for 30 years. He took control of the House during a politically rocky period in 2009. During his tenure, he spearheaded criminal justice reforms and major gun safety legislation, reaching out for advice from two Northeastern faculty members: former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Roderick Ireland, distinguished professor of criminology and criminal justice; and Jack McDevitt, professor of the practice in criminology and criminal justice, and director of the Institute on Race and Justice.

“Professor McDevitt gave me 44 recommendations in all, and I took all of those recommendations and made them part of our new gun law,” DeLeo says. The sweeping reforms, passed in 2014, increased state record-keeping to further curb gun trafficking and allowed local police chiefs to reject a firearm identification card (FID) if an applicant poses a threat to public safety.

DeLeo consistently emphasized education, calling it “the great equalizer.” And the devoted hockey fan of the Huskies has enjoyed interacting with Northeastern students over the years, something he’ll have plenty of time to do now that he’s back on campus.

“I just want to be part of the upward momentum that continues here at Northeastern,” says DeLeo. “We are educating the leaders of tomorrow.”

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