Perry World House Q&A with Incoming Executive Director Marie Harf

January 18, 2024
By Perry World House

Marie Harf headshot


On January 16, 2024, Perry World House (PWH) at the University of Pennsylvania announced the hire of Marie Harf as incoming Executive Director. Marie comes to PWH from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she was the executive director of external relations and marketing. Previously she worked in different positions in the U.S. government, including as a senior advisor and deputy spokesperson for then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as the foreign policy director on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, as the executive director of political organization Serve America, and as a Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Marie sat down with the Perry World House team and answered a few questions as she prepares to formally come on board at Penn. 

PWH: We are thrilled that you have joined Perry World House as the executive director as well as the broader Penn community. What made you choose this role and this university?

Harf:  I was lucky to have the opportunity to co-teach a course at Penn previously with a longtime friend and mentor, Steve Weitzman, on religion and the global future. (I first met Steve when he was one of my professors in Indiana University’s Jewish Studies Program, where I did my undergraduate work.) Ever since, it’s been clear to me that Penn is a special place. I’ve greatly admired Perry World House’s mission to operate at the intersection of deep intellectual rigor and practical policy impact — something not done enough in the academy. As a result, PWH has already, in its short tenure, established itself as a premier institute for global affairs, one that’s tackling some of the world’s toughest challenges through its programming and research. As PWH approaches its tenth anniversary – and at this global moment filled with such instability and uncertainty – I can’t imagine a more rewarding role than that of executive director, leading PWH’s staff as they grow in their work and their careers, while at the same time helping the Penn community navigate this moment in thoughtful ways. 

PWH: What are you most looking forward to doing when you arrive at Perry World House?

Harf: I am a joiner by nature and take pride in the intense loyalty I feel toward institutions of which I’m a part. So first and foremost, I am looking forward to joining what is clearly an outstanding staff at Perry World House, getting to know the team, and diving into the really great work that’s happening every day at PWH. At a time when there are infinite issues we could cover, I’m looking forward to helping refine what our competitive advantage is and building out a well-defined set of thematic foci for PWH. I’m also excited to immerse myself in the Penn campus, culture, and community. As folks get to know me, it will become clear very quickly that I like broadening and developing networks beyond the immediate setting in which I work – essentially making more people into believers in what we’re doing. I want to help PWH grow its impact, both on campus and beyond, and I’m looking forward to building the relationships that will help us do so. Last but certainly not least, I can’t wait to come to work every day in our beautiful building – a space dedicated to community and dialogue that is pretty wonderful to look at as well. 

PWH: You have spent a number of years in Washington, both in the government and in academia. What lessons will you carry with you from the Beltway to Perry World House and Penn?

Harf: Over my 18 years in Washington, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that the best ideas don’t always necessarily win out in some idealized Mill-ian marketplace – and they certainly don’t win out by default or without a concerted effort to convince key constituencies of their validity. Having good, well-founded ideas is necessary but not sufficient. In order to influence policy or public opinion, you need to understand how to utilize tools of narrative and persuasion, and you have to appreciate how policymakers and the public consume and digest information (as much as you have to master the nitty-gritty details of the information itself). Relatedly, DC can be very insular and self-focused, and I’ve learned how important it is for good policymaking to be exposed to the work being done today in higher education – but also how difficult it can be to break through the noise of the daily news cycle. Those are skills I’ve honed in DC, especially in my work bridging the policy world and the academy, and I look forward to bringing them to Penn. 

PWH: What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Harf: I was fortunate to be a part of the U.S. team that negotiated with Iran and our international partners over Tehran’s nuclear program, managing the public aspects of those talks. I am most proud of playing a role in the landmark agreement that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and introduced unprecedented inspections and transparency into it, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, because it demonstrated that it is possible to address serious national security threats through diplomacy. It also modeled a template for how to negotiate with a country where there are deep-seated, diametrically-opposed narratives and myths on both sides about the other – in this case, the U.S. and Iran – and showed how we can protect our national interests while talking to a country many Americans believe is an enemy. Too much of U.S. foreign policy is dictated by inertia; in order to solve big problems, you have to be willing to break some of those molds that helped entrench these challenges to begin with – and that’s what we did. 

PWH: What is the single most important piece of career advice you would share with  anyone looking for a job in the policy world?

Harf: Exercise humility and don’t believe your own hype. Working in the policy world often exposes people to the very heights of power at relatively young ages or early in their careers. Too often, that proximity to influence and success can lead people to believe in their own righteousness – to think they have a monopoly on wisdom or good ideas and that they have nothing to learn from people with different perspectives. Be proud of what you accomplish, to be sure, but never forget who you are and where you came from, and never abandon the idea that there is always something more to learn or another nuance to consider.

PWH: Final question: If you had to pick only one to cheer on, would it be the 76ers, Eagles, Flyers, or Phillies? 

Harf: I’m a huge football fan – usually it’s college football cheering for my hometown Ohio State Buckeyes—but I am looking forward to finally having an NFL team. I want to root for in the Eagles!