01 Jun 2006

A Capital Asset

With years of stellar service in key government and nonprofit posts, Bonnie Cohen is highly esteemed in Washington and beyond as a manager who gets things done.
by Garry Emmons


At Around 4 a.m. on August 7, 1998, a telephone wakens Bonnie Cohen in her Washington, D.C., home. It’s not the bedside phone but the secure phone upstairs in her home office…not a good sign. A young operations officer reports that America’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have been bombed, almost simultaneously. Coordinated international strikes against U.S. interests, Cohen knows, can only mean one thing: “Terrorism,” she thinks as she throws on some clothes. She tells her husband what’s happened and hurries downstairs. Driving fast through empty streets to the State Department, she thinks, “God, don’t let there be more.”

That day’s events signaled for Cohen, the Undersecretary of State for Management, and for other State Department employees, that the world had changed. The two embassy attacks killed more than 220 people, including 12 Americans, and injured almost 5,000 other people. When Cohen visited Nairobi to survey the damage, she found the embassy site a “tangled, chaotic mess,” with stairs that ended in midair and entire floors blown open to the elements. SaysCohen, “The bombings were horrific. The stunning thing was that it happened in Africa. That meant we needed tight security worldwide. There could be no soft targets anywhere. That was the wake-up call.”

Bonnie Rubenstein Cohen (MBA ’67) grew up in the blue-collar “Shoe City” of Brockton, Massachusetts. Her father, Harold Rubenstein (MBA ’40), ran a wholesale liquor business, an enterprise her grandfather had founded “about an hour or two after Prohibition ended, so I’m told,” Cohen says with a smile. After graduating from Smith College in 1964, she spent a year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education before enrolling at HBS, much to her father’s delight. “The key thing at HBS was that I was married — there were 11 women and 700 men in my class, and I’m not sure what my priorities would have been otherwise,” Cohen laughs. More seriously, she recalls, “One of my male classmates invited me early on to join his study group. That outreach was important to me because, like other female students at HBS, I had classmates inform me I was depriving a man of a spot at the School.”

When her husband, Louis Cohen, finished his studies at Harvard Law School and was offered a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice John Harlan, Cohen wrote some fifty letters seeking jobs in Washington. She received just eleven responses and landed three interviews. “It was,” she says, “a searing experience because I felt it was totally directed at women.” Two job offers came from government — OMB and Defense — but Cohen opted for a private-sector consulting firm. After several years of consulting, followed by a five-year stint managing the multibillion dollar United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds, Cohen was tapped by National Trust for Historic Preservation head Michael Ainslie (MBA ’68) to be the nonprofit’s senior financial officer and later its de facto COO. The job was rewarding, and its reasonable hours allowed Cohen time to raise her children, Amanda (now a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council) and Eli (JD/MBA ’06). During her NTHP tenure, from 1980 to 1993, she focused on developing programs to preserve historic homes, buildings, and other cultural landmarks and collaborating with local preservation groups. “I loved going to different parts of the country and learning how important a sense of local place and culture is to people,” Cohen says.

Cohen had served on the finance team for former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt during his short-livedcampaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. When Babbitt became Secretary of the Interior in the first Clinton administration, he asked Cohen to be his Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget. In this role, she significantly increased funding for national parks and wildlife areas. One innovation was the introduction of user fees, an idea sparked in part by a spate of climbing mishaps on Mount McKinley in Alaska’s Denali National Park that had sent rescue and recovery costs soaring. (Recalls Cohen: “Hard-core climbers told me, ‘Forget the climbing fee. Don’t rescue people. Leave the bodies up there.’ We ignored that advice.”)

Cohen is also proud of her part in effecting the transfer of authority over remote Midway Island from the Navy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For decades, the Navy had restricted access to the World War II battle site, producing “an unbelievable nature preserve and perhaps the most pristine marine area in the world,” Cohen notes. But collecting that gem of the Pacific would be trumped by her lead role in a Florida swampland deal: the landmark agreement designed to restore the Everglades to its natural state. Financed by the settlement of a twenty-year federal pollution suit against sugar growers and a $7.8 billion bill signed by President Clinton, the project, said to be the most ambitious such effort in U.S. history, involves buying land around the Everglades and undoing canals constructed decades ago by the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s still early in its implementation and a process of two steps forward and one step back,” Cohen cautions. “Development pressures are huge,so we keep our fingers crossed.”

In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Cohen to be her Undersecretary of State for Management, in effect the agency’s COO. Explains Cohen, “The department was underfunded, its buildings overseas were not in good shape, it couldn’t even communicate by open Internet overseas, and the personnel system needed changes. It turned out to be a 24/7 commitment for four years.” Her position involved direct oversight of a dozen department bureaus and offices, including all matters related to worldwide embassy operations, security, consular affairs, personnel, and finance. In addition, Cohen secured congressional funding for and directed an overseas embassy-building program involving $10 billion in real estate worldwide.

“About six months after I started at State, the security chief resigned,” Cohen says. “That post typically had been held by career foreign-service officers, who I think are terrific. But for that job in these times, I insisted we hire a security professional. Then came the bombings. We spent the next three years upgrading security, getting special appropriations, and generally professionalizing the security operation.”

Cohen’s efforts and effectiveness enabled the diplomatic corps to better focus on doing its job, says Secretary Albright. “Bonnie came to State from Interior with a solid reputation for cutting through bureaucracy and red tape, and for getting things done,” Albright observes. “She is a dependable, no-nonsense person with excellent ideas, great determination, and incredible follow-through. Bonnie was a wonderful colleague — I would always enjoy it when she’d come to my office — and we’re still friends.”

Since leaving the Department of State in 2000, Cohen stays busy and involved. She is the principal of BR Cohen & Associates, which provides logistical and technical advice to U.S. organizations launching projects overseas. A lead director of Cohen & Steers Capital Management, a $20 billion family of mutual funds, she is also a board member of other for-profit and nonprofit entities. Among them is the Global Heritage Fund, which Cohen chairs, an organization that advises Third World countries how to restore and maintain heritage sites and market them for tourism. But perhaps her favorite role is that of grandmother to her three-year-old grandson, Zach.

Now watching from the sidelines, Cohen is disturbed by the direction the country is going and by the heightened partisanship that she sees consuming Washington. Asked what has been the fallout from decades of politicians building up their careers by tearing down Washington and belittling civil servants, she replies, “When people who run against government arrive here, they undermine preparedness and professionalism by underfunding government operations and by making the wrong appointments. If you don’t value the job, you don’t think talent and experience are necessary. The Katrina aftermath is a perfect example of that.

“Nonetheless,” she adds, “goodpeople still want to enter government. I’m constantly impressed by how hard and how well people here work, and by their eagerness to address difficult problems and big issues. But they do need to be supported. As the old proverb says, ‘We all drink from wells we didn’t dig.’ Americans should understand that what these people and their agencies quietly do every day is vital to the health of our civil society and our nation.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1967, Section B

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