- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Legacy of Ash Carter

| Fall 2022

As tributes and memories poured in following the sudden death of Center Director Ash Carter on October 24, it became increasingly clear that his legacy of teaching and serving will live on through the students he taught, colleagues he mentored and worked alongside, and the many individuals whose lives he touched during his work in and out of government. 

Following his service as Secretary of Defense, with intriguing offers from prestigious public and private organizations across the country, Carter chose to return to the Kennedy School and the Belfer Center - his academic and research home for many years. It was here at the Belfer Center he decided he could continue to make the most difference. The Center’s mission was Carter’s mission as well—tackling critical global problems through policy-relevant research and effort, and training future leaders to work toward a more secure, just world. One of his first actions as Center director was to launch the Technology and Public Purpose Project (TAPP) to ensure that the arc of emerging technologies turned toward the good for society. 

Ash Carter in many ways embodied the mission of the Center that he helped build and expand. 

Here, through the words of students, colleagues, government officials, and others, we share something of the incredible impact of this extraordinary man known as “Professor Carter,” “Secretary Carter,” “Sir,” and just “Ash.” 

Following are excerpts from a sampling of many tributes to Ash Carter. Read the wide range of tributes here and student memories here. See Ash Carter in Photos here.


“Integrity. When I think of Ash Carter, I think of a man of extraordinary integrity. Honest. Principled. Guided by a strong, steady moral compass and a vision of using his life for public purpose.”
(See Pres. Biden's full statement here.)


“Ash’s greatest legacy may be the generation of younger leaders he taught, mentored, and inspired to protect our nation and wield power wisely.” (See Pres. Obama's full statement here.)

SAMANTHA POWERAdministrator, U.S. Agency for International Development; former Professor, HKS

“Devastated by the passing of my friend and close colleague Ash Carter. An epic public servant who dedicated his life to making our country safer, he also inspired the next generation at the Kennedy School and the Belfer Center to tackle the world’s hardest problems. An immeasurable loss.”

LAURA HOLGATE, U.S. Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna, Austria; former Project Coordinator, Cooperative Denuclearization, Belfer Center

“As deeply as I feel Ash’s loss, I feel a responsibility — shared, I know, with so many others who he mentored and encouraged — to embody his legacy and to strive for a safer and more secure world. What a leader. What a loss. What a legacy. Rest in peace, Ash. You changed the world, and my world, for the better, and I am eternally grateful.”

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. Ambassador to China; former Director, Future of Diplomacy Project, Belfer Center

“Devastating news about the death of Ash Carter. As secretary of defense, longtime public servant, physicist, and Harvard scholar, he dedicated his life to our country. I will miss my friend of three decades.”

LAWRENCE S. BACOW, President, Harvard University

“Ash Carter was a true patriot. His counsel and service shaped America as we know it today — and made America better for all Americans....We will do our best to honor Ash by remembering his commitment to democracy and by working together toward a more perfect union.”

DOUGLAS ELMENDORF, Dean, Harvard Kennedy School

“I want to offer my gratitude for his insight and wisdom, his unwavering commitment to trying to make the world better, his confidence that the Kennedy School can make an important difference in the world, his generous spirit toward his students and colleagues, and his warm and gracious friendship with me.” (See Dean Elmendorf's complete comments here.)

ERIC ROSENBACHCo-Director, Belfer Center

“As a student at the Kennedy School, Ash Carter mentored me for a career in national security. A decade later in the Pentagon, as his chief of staff, Ash demonstrated to me why we need principled, indefatigable leaders who take on the toughest issues to keep America inclusive and strong. Back at the Kennedy School, he made me realize that people who both teach the next generation and lead the current one are truly unique.”

GRAHAM ALLISONDouglas Dillon Professor of Government; former Director, Belfer Center

“At one o’clock (on the day he died), Ash turned to me and said ‘I have to go teach my class so you run the rest of the session.’ With a twinkle in his eye, he ran to class where the topic of the day was cloning, CRISPR, and the implications for human life. In the afternoon, he met with students and fellows working on his Technology and Public Purpose Project. And he was preparing to go to Washington [the next day] for a meeting at the White House on supply chains.”

JOHN P. HOLDREN, Teresa and John Heinz Research Professor of Environmental Policy; Co-Director, Science, Technology and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center

“It’s of course impossible…to do justice to all that Ash was and did…as scholar, policy analyst, teacher, mentor, builder and leader of institutions, visionary, and pillar of commitment to a better world. Suffice it to say here that he will be sorely missed in all these roles, as well as in the other roles he fulfilled so well — husband, father, and friend.”

ALBERT CARNESALECo-founder, (Belfer) Center for Science and International Affairs; former Dean, Harvard Kennedy School; Chancellor Emeritus, UCLA

“It was 1984 when Ash joined us (at HKS) as an assistant professor. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) had just published his report, ‘Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space,’ in which he examined the potential of the kind of missile defense imagined in President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ speech of the previous year. Based upon his detailed analysis, Ash judged that: ‘The prospect that emerging ‘Star Wars’ technologies, when further developed, will provide a perfect or near-perfect defense system . . is so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectations or national policy about ballistic missile defense (BMD).’ Unsurprisingly, this conclusion was...soon proven to be correct (and it remains valid today).”

MICHÈLE FLOURNOY, Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors; former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction; former Belfer Center Senior Fellow

“In the Pentagon, Ash was all about the mission, be it implementing the Nunn Lugar program and strengthening nuclear deterrence or, later, rapidly fielding capabilities critical to the warfighter in Iraq and Afghanistan, lifting the remaining restrictions on women serving in the military, establishing the Defense Innovation Unit, and creating the international coalition to fight ISIS when it reemerged in Iraq and Syria. And always, always he was about taking care of the men and women who serve and their families.”

LAURENCE BELFER, Member, Belfer Center International Council

“A particularly proud moment for me was in 2016 when Ash, still Secretary of Defense, and my father together received the Business Executives for National Security Eisenhower Award as ‘two deserving leaders who have worked to promote President Eisenhower’s goal of achieving a proper balance between our nation’s security and its liberty, and who share our conviction that national security is everybody’s business…and who want democracy to survive for all generations to come.’”

MATTHEW BUNN, James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Ash helped conceive the radical idea that the former nuclear enemies should cooperate to dismantle and secure the nuclear, chemical, and biological legacies of the Cold War. He helped draft the legislation, and then, as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton years, helped implement that effort. As a result, we ended up with one nuclear power coming from the Soviet Union rather than many, thousands of nuclear weapons retired from missiles, hundreds of missiles, bombers, and submarines destroyed, thousands of tons of chemical weapons eliminated, new security measures put in place for nuclear, chemical, and biological stockpiles, and more. The world is immeasurably safer as a result.

VIDYA NEELAKANTAN, Director for Strategic Planning, National Security Council

“After a brief two-year stint helping him create new classes upon his return to HKS in 2017, I gained not only a mentor and a friend but, as I’ve realized since his passing, an ally who stood by me, quietly pushing me forward every step of the way. Sometimes this took the form of him vouching for me for a new job I was eyeing and reminding me to always reach out because ‘we’re in the same business, you and I, of propelling your career. You guys are my legacy now. I do well if you do well.’”

GEORGE A. KROLAdjunct Professor, Naval War College; former Ambassador; former Asst. to the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for the Newly Independent States (1995-97)

Krol recounts Ash Carter's vital role in securing nuclear weapons in newly independent countries here.

“I admired how well [Ash] could interact with the various personalities in our garden patch — from the likes of Boris Yeltsin, Heydar Aliyev, and Leonid Kravchuk to Nursultan Nazarbayev, Emomali Rahmon and especially the irascible Islom Karimov of Uzbekistan. Ash made a positive impression on all these interlocuters. Years later, when I was ambassador to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and even Belarus, my interlocuters referred to Ash Carter as representing the golden age in their respective security relationships with the U.S. Even the normally dour Karimov smiled warmly when speaking of Ash.”

FRANK DOYLE, Dean, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

“Ash has, from his first day back on campus in 2017, been a true friend, supporter and advocate for SEAS. My personal connections with Ash run further back to the days when he was in DoD and I ran one of the Army UARCs at UCSB. It was abundantly clear at that time that his knowledge and acumen on a range of technological issues ran broad and deep.”

GRACE PARK, HKS Student and Former Military

“Everything changed when Secretary Carter took over the Department of Defense. Amid angry dissent within the ranks, he overturned these sexist and transphobic policies in 2015 and 2016, respectively. On the heel of these historic changes, I proudly commissioned as an Army officer in 2016.”

LAURA MANLEY, Executive Director, Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School; former Director, Technology and Public Purpose Project, Belfer Center

“In the early days of TAPP [Technology and Public Purpose Project, founded by Ash Carter], I remember trying to figure out how to develop programming for him. He would say, it needs to be about ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘truth and trust’ and I would push back and say, ‘But how do you program for that? Not everyone values those things like you do and people have different definitions of what is right and wrong.’ And like clockwork, he would insist that deep down, people knew the ‘right thing to do’ and that we needed to find ways to bring out the best in people.”


“I took Prof. Ash Carter’s class in my first semester at the Kennedy School....He spoke about AI, ML, Algorithms, Social Media, Biotechnology, all with an infectious passion. He was humble in every interaction I had the privilege of having with him, curious and original in every lecture and public address I attended, and deeply genuine in every question he asked himself and his students.”

MARI DUGAS, former Staff Member

“I will remember Ash Carter by the groundbreaking, world-changing things he did in his government career, but more than that, I will remember his commitment to building a team and a community at the Belfer Center and imparting his leadership and wisdom to inspire us all to go out and change the world. He will be missed by us all.”


“As his student, I learned to be curious—always ask questions, always chase new knowledge. Professor Carter encouraged us to never shy away from something we don’t know or understand….He was committed to fostering and teaching us to be empathic and thoughtful leaders. Not only did he take the time to learn about our professional aspirations — his first question during office hours was always, ‘How can I help you?’”

LINDA BILMES, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Finance; Member, Belfer Center Board of Directors

“Five days before he died, I was with Ash at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab), moderating a ‘fireside chat’ with him, the Senior Managers in Government Exec Ed program, and students launching start-ups related to public service. The i-Lab is all about Ash's favorite things — technology, ideas, creativity, energetic students — and there is a giant photo of him (from one of his previous visits) hanging on the wall. Ash was at his best — thoughtful and funny, warm and positive. He wowed the SMG participants by knowing their bios, and stayed nearly an hour longer than planned. He took photos with all of the participants and made the event a success.”

ERICA CHENOWETH, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, Harvard Kennedy School

“He was always extremely kind and encouraging, and he did a remarkable job making the Belfer Center an intellectually vibrant and inclusive place. But one thing that really inspired me about Ash was his enthusiastic support and pursuit of big ideas....It is a great testament to his legacy that he was thinking, organizing, writing, and speaking about this ambitious initiative [civil-military relations] in his final weeks. I greatly admire Ash’s willingness to recognize his power and influence — and to promote principled, constructive ideas — when the country needed it the most.”

GRETCHEN BARTLETT, International & Global Affairs Area Manager, HKS; former Faculty Assistant to Ash Carter 1997-2001; former Associate Director, Preventive Defense Project 2001-2009; and former Senior Associate Director, Technology and Public Purpose Project 2017-2019

“FAREWELL, CHIEF! Marking the seasons and life’s personal and professional milestones together with Ash Carter has been the opportunity and honor of a lifetime.”


“It is no understatement that Professor Carter's class was my favorite and changed how I view academics and innovation and the confidence I can present these topics....He changed my life and so many others during his time - with a smile, professional demeanor, and kindness.”


“Ash Carter taught us by stimulating us with ideas. He challenged our presumptions, he encouraged us to share, he connected us between our classroom and the real world, and he reminded us that as humans, we can do so much more for our future generation.”


“Secretary Carter told his students that we don’t get to shy away from complex, controversial, and scary concepts as policymakers — we have to be willing to continue learning as the world evolves. He pushed us to think critically and to question conventional wisdom.

ZESLENE MAO, Student of IGA505 - Solving Tech's Public Dilemmas

“‘Solving Tech's Public Dilemmas’ is one of the best classes I have taken in Harvard. It is clear that Secretary Carter went to great effort to curate materials, craft the assignments, and engage students, all with a view to equipping us to serve the public good in our own unique and distinct ways....Secretary Carter’s memory will live long in each of us who have had the privilege to be inspired by him, and we shall honour his legacy by advancing his mission of public purpose.”

JEN NAM, HKS Student, Army Veteran

“Sir, the world is a lesser place without you and we are so grateful for your service and commitment to making the Armed Forces and our country stronger and more diverse. We are grateful for your courageous and empathetic leadership. Thank you.”

SAMANTHA HUBNER, Student and Informal Advisee

“I will never forget my first office hours with former Secretary Carter. Almost exactly a year ago today, I walked in and sat down, unsure of what to expect. This was how he broke the ice: ‘My only question to you, Sam, is what can I do to help get you where you’re going. I’m ready to make the calls. What’s the plan?’...In a mere 20 minutes, he had given me a completely revitalized sense of confidence, just by being so vocal in expressing his own vote of confidence in me....The magnitude of his investment in this extended community only further ensures that he is leaving exactly the legacy he had hoped.”


“I recall once roaming the halls of HKS with a friend and running into him as he was probably wrapping up his day. We said good evening Professor and he smiled and asked us what we did…. I don’t know if he had time or made it on the spot, but he was willing to listen to our thoughts, tell us his, and engage in some incredibly insightful conversation (at least for both of us).... He embodied to me the person who always had the beginner’s mind — one in whose mind there are only curious possibilities as opposed to expertly crafted filters and limited options.”

ALEXANDER DE AVILA, HKS Alum and Former Course Assistant

“I never planned on applying to HKS. I thought I would go to law school. But there I found myself one blustery afternoon in JFK Park, touring the campus with my mother. School was out. HKS was empty. We were alone, except for three figures we noticed walking through the park towards us. The two men behind wore long trench coats, and as the group approached, it became clear that they were there to guard the man in front. The man in front was…Ash Carter, the recent Secretary of Defense. As he approached, I introduced myself, said that I was a Marine, and told him that we were checking out the campus to get the feel of the place….After nearly ten full minutes of back-and-forth about my goals, his career, and his return to the Belfer Center, it became clear he needed to continue on his way. He paused before turning, though, and looked me right in the eyes. ‘You know what, Alex, I think this is where you belong. I really think you should consider applying to the Kennedy School’.…I applied, got accepted, and in my first year as an MPP student enrolled in Secretary Carter's class. Eventually in my final year, Secretary Carter hired me to serve as his course assistant for ‘Leading the National Security Enterprise.’ He would then write the letter of recommendation that helped me get hired as a John McCain Fellow at the Department of Defense, where I still work now. It is amazing to consider how impactful a simple ten-minute interaction can be.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wilke, Sharon. The Legacy of Ash Carter .” (Fall 2022).

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