Seeing the World through a “Moral Lens”

In gratitude for her Fletcher education, Lisbeth Tarlow makes a generous gift in support of a critical priority, financial aid
Lisbeth Tarlow

During what would turn out to be the waning years of the Soviet Union, Lisbeth Tarlow, F84, F97, chose to pursue a doctorate in international politics and Soviet foreign policy at The Fletcher School because of its renowned strength in security and regional studies. What she had not anticipated was gaining a far broader perspective on international relations. Now chair of the school’s Board of Advisors, she has made a generous gift for financial aid to help ensure that future generations have access to such a life-changing education.

Tarlow named the new scholarship at Fletcher in honor of her parents, Alma and Merton Tarlow, whom she credits as role models for lifelong learning and community engagement. She grew up in Boston’s southern suburb of Brockton, where her father owned a small company that manufactured shoe components. His passion was community involvement. Known unofficially as “the mayor of Brockton,” he devoted himself to civic causes, including serving as president of the board of the local credit union.

Tarlow’s parents also were avid international travelers, and world affairs were often at the heart of family discussions. It was her mother who fatefully suggested she take a summer course in Russian history when she was a teen. Tarlow fell in love with the subject, especially “the intrigue and the complexities of Russian history and culture, and the mysteries behind the closed society of the Soviet Union.”

She got her first opportunity to enter that sealed world as a junior at Smith College, when she participated in a State Department study program organized under the auspices of Dartmouth College. It was 1969, during the height of the Cold War. She remembers huddling with her American colleagues around a TV in the lounge of their Leningrad University dormitory to witness Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. She recalls that the next day the official Soviet newspaper Pravda buried the story on an inside page. It was a time when foreign visitors, along with the population as a whole, were closely monitored. The day before her group left Leningrad, a confused technical team appeared in their dormitory rooms, a day early, to remove listening devices from the ceiling. “It was an ironic glimpse of a totalitarian state’s effort at complete control,” she said.

Tarlow’s studies at Smith, and later at Dartmouth and Harvard, gave her a foundation for understanding Russia, but Fletcher provided the broader experience. “Fletcher’s underlying culture of dedication to improving the world, coupled with a student body that brings diverse international perspectives, helped orient me to look at the world through a moral lens as much as an empirical or theoretical one,” she said. 

That breadth would serve Tarlow well for nearly two decades at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. Previously the executive director, she is now an associate and member of the center’s advisory board.

Tarlow is particularly proud of Fletcher today for supporting women faculty, students, and alumnae. One of the first among its peers to introduce a gender and international affairs concentration, “Fletcher commits resources and programs to help women students and graduates pursue top positions in international affairs,” she said. It also has made significant strides in promoting more women faculty to tenure positions. She is especially pleased by the appointment of Rachel Kyte, F02, an exceptional leader and expert in sustainable energy and climate change, as Fletcher’s first female dean.

Tarlow acknowledges, however, that Fletcher faces significant challenges. Among the most pressing is the prohibitively high cost of higher education, which makes it difficult to continue attracting and retaining the best students.

She believes financial aid has never been more important to keep Fletcher’s doors open to a diverse population of talented young people. Her generous gift—divided between endowed and current spending—will help make a Fletcher education more affordable now and in the future.

“I hope that my gift will inspire others to raise the bar on their own giving and focus on financial aid,” she said. “It’s critical.”