Kennedy School Professor on Short List for Defense Secretary

UPDATED: December 31, 2012, at 2:15 a.m.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Ashton B. Carter is on President Barack Obama’s short list to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, according to a report in The Boston Globe this week.

Carter, who from 1990 to 1993 led what is now the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, currently serves as Deputy Secretary of Defense while on leave from his professorship at the Kennedy School.

Carter’s candidacy for the top job at the Department of Defense has been boosted by praise from Washington insiders.

“[Carter] is supremely qualified.... He is very well respected in the Congress on both sides of the aisle,” former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry told the Boston Globe.


Despite widespread admiration, media reports suggest that Carter’s nomination is far from certain.

Unlike others on the short list, Carter is not a member of Obama’s inner circle. Candidates with close ties to the Obama administration include Michele A. Flournoy ’83, a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy who is also a former Kennedy School researcher.

Still, cracks in former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s candidacy have created an opening. Though many political observers expected Hagel to receive the nomination, his chances have dimmed as a result of opposition from pro-Israel lobbyists and gay rights supporters. In the end, Hagel’s loss may be Carter’s gain.

“If Chuck Hagel goes down Ash is going to be on the shortest of short lists as a successor for Panetta,” Kennedy School professor David Gergen told the Globe.

Through his spokesperson, Carter declined to comment on the prospect of being vetted for a cabinet position.

“[He] more than anything, is focused on the job at hand,” said James Swartout, Carter’s spokesperson.

Carter is known in the Pentagon for his sharp intellect and ability to comprehend information that is both policy-oriented and highly technical. These skills, coupled with his physics background, have also led to speculation that he may be a possible candidate for the Secretary of Energy nomination, according to the Globe's report.

Carter came to Harvard in 1984 as an assistant professor. When he left Harvard for the Pentagon in 2009, he was working with Perry to co-direct the Preventive Defense Project, a collaborative research program between Harvard and Stanford.

—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at

—Check for updates.