By Nina M. Riccio, m.a.’09
This is a story for all those history majors who were ever asked, “And just what will you do with a degree in history?”
Katie Lapp ’78, now executive vice president at Harvard, followed her three older brothers to Fairfield and opted to major in history, though she admits that there was a time when she questioned that decision.
“I was particularly drawn to the business history classes taught by Dr. (Matthew) McCarthy – the railroad tycoons and how they shaped the country, that sort of thing. I thought that, say, economics might be a better fit, but whenever I considered switching, Fr. (James McClain) Murphy would engage me, telling me that history informs both the present and the future.”
It’s clear now that Fr. Murphy was right, as Lapp acknowledges that much of the know-how she has drawn upon in her career had roots in her study of the business history she learned at Fairfield.
Lapp’s career has followed a trajectory she could have little imagined when she marched up the steps of Bellarmine Hall to receive her diploma. First stop: law school at Hofstra University, then a clerkship with an appellate judge in New York. “It was fascinating,” she recalled. “There were no litigants, so in a way it was like being in an ivory tower. I would help write decisions and bench memos for the judge so when attorneys went before him he would have both a memo and a recommendation.” Thanks to all those history papers, “I drew on sound analytical skills as to what makes a good argument, and had solid writing skills as well.”
When the judge she worked for went into city government, Lapp went with him, which was her introduction to how government worked. “I was exposed to all the budgetary stuff for the police, fire, and corrections departments, and coordinated the police with the district attorney’s office and the jail system. I had no formal training, but my legal background and time in the courthouse were my guideposts for how to look at issues. And I learned that a lot of business decisions are based on facts and intuition.”
In 2002, she took over the running of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City – no small feat in the wake of 9/11, when bridges, tunnels, and subways were considered especially vulnerable to attack. It was a job that combined security, finance, and real estate, and “it required an ability to think through different problems, reflect, talk to people who know more than you do, analyze, and then make the best decisions possible.”
Success at the MTA brought Lapp to the attention of the University of California, which sought her out as their executive vice president for business operations. She was brought on board to streamline the inefficient organizational structure of the 10 campuses within the system, but soon after her move to California the worst financial crisis in years hit the country – and the state – and she had to help the university weather a whopping 25 percent budget cut.
“The only way to absorb a reduction of that size in a short amount of time was through layoffs, salary reductions, and furloughs. Now student fees are climbing,” she said. “Other states have dealt with budget shortfalls by increasing the enrollment of out-of-state residents, but California has resisted that so far. I think it’s something they’ll have to reconsider.”
Her two-plus years of sound fiscal management in California didn’t go unnoticed by Harvard, which was reeling from an endowment shortfall of $11 billion, and a financial crisis unlike any the storied university had seen in its almost-400 year history. Today, Harvard’s projected $1.2 billion, cutting-edge science complex has been paused, budget cuts that have been labeled draconian are in effect, layoffs are a necessity, and class sizes are likely to get larger.
Yet when the Ivy League university asked her to sign on as executive vice president, Lapp agreed. Tackling a very public mega-mess like this one is not for the faint of heart; clearly, Lapp relishes a challenge. “It’s been very difficult for the institution,” Lapp acknowledged. “But they’re doing a good job. We need to reassess our capital resources – maybe create some sort of partnership agreement with industry or a hospital for the science complex. Whatever we do will have to complement our academic vision.”
Her move back east did come with some benefits. “I grew up in New York, and I’ve always been an East Coast person. Even when I was in California, I kept my Manhattan apartment,” she said. Now, she feels she’s back among her people … literally. “I’m from a family of 10. You can’t go more than a few miles in any direction on the East Coast without bumping into a Lapp.” And the former history major – who describes herself as a homebody who loves to garden – is loving the colonial feel of Boston, the culture that comes with being in a college town. “Walking to work is such a luxury,” she added.
So what does Lapp consider the most important thing she learned at Fairfield? “I’m a strong believer in the liberal arts,” she said emphatically. “It’s about breadth of experience, being a rounded person as you tackle and make decisions. Writing, analytical skills, and understanding the context of the issue when making a decision are all very important. So is thinking through the pros and cons of both sides. Even in finance, it’s not just about the bottom line. It’s my ability to understand that has allowed me to walk through different topic areas.” She must have learned a thing or two about the beauty of working for the benefit of others, too. “Working in higher education is the closest I’ve been to working in public service. My job here is to support the great faculty and staff so we can teach future leaders.”