Leland Cheung, an MBA/MPA student at MIT Sloan School of Business and Harvard Kennedy School of Government, was elected to the nine-member Cambridge City Council in November last year and is currently serving a two year term. In addition to being the first student to be elected to a seat on the council, Cheung is also the council’s first Asian-American member.
During his campaign, which he ran while a full-time student, Leland emphasized job creation by directing attention to his prior experience as a venture capitalist and highlighted the benefits of bridging the gap between students and the Cambridge community through encouraging student involvement. In an article published last October, The Cambridge Chronicle, a local newspaper, predicted that “Cheung’s goal of strengthening ties between town and gown would be an asset to Cambridge.” In an interview with The Tech last Wednesday, Cheung talked about his experiences serving on the council and his plans for the future.
The Tech: What has the experience of being on the council been like so far?
Leland Cheung: I love it so far. A lot of people talk about wanting to grow up and make a difference in the world and have a impact. I get to go to work everyday and actually do that. A lot of people have an inspiration to make a tangible difference in the world...Especially around here, a lot of people talk about progressivism and democratic ideals...I get to go to work and do something about it everyday. It’s really fulfilling work and it’s also very interesting and very challenging. There are constantly issues being thrown at you. One hour I’m talking about how to support businesses in Central Square...The next minute I’m at a seminar with President Hockfield on the future of manufacturing in the U.S. In terms of the diversity of work and the different issues you need to be versed in, it’s really a lot of fun.
TT: How does your perspective as a student set you apart?
LC: I think everyone on the council brings a different perspective and certainly my perspective as a student is that there are communities which we represent on the council that are not necessarily always the ones that are there and vocal in front of the council. People talk about how you live in a bubble when you’re in college and it’s a very similar thing with the city council. Because you’re so busy, a lot of the stuff that breaks through and gets your attention tends to be a small minority of the issues out there...You have a small group of people who are very adamant about their issues...and so in trying to be a good and responsible representative you try and take up their cause. Because there is so much going on, it’s easy to just respond to things especially given the fact that I’m still in school and have this whole other set of requirements. Being a student allows me to step back and get the big picture and maintain it on a regular basis.
As for school, I ended up switching to a part-time program...I’m [in] a dual degree program with the Harvard Kennedy School and they make their elected officials go part time...which really lets me balance out my workload a lot better.
TT: Do you think you’ve learned anything from being at MIT Sloan or Harvard Kennedy School that has really helped you serve as a city councilor?
LC: MIT Sloan is a great education in terms of economics, finance, accounting, marketing, [and] everything that goes into making a business successful. A lot of those skills are very transferable to what the city is trying to do. We have a budget. We have small businesses that we are trying to support...We’re trying to promote ourselves as a city and market ourselves to other communities and other people. A lot of the skills I’ve learned at MIT Sloan are very transferable to the challenges we’re facing as a city.
Most of the coursework there [at Harvard Kennedy School] is focused on the theory of democratic government and the practical challenges to implementing it. For example I just took a course at the Kennedy School on the difference between public sector and private sector budgeting and accounting. Combined with a course I took here on private sector accounting and my experience in the private sector doing that kind of work, it gives me a good foundation to...better analyze the budget and make decisions about it.
TT: When you were running for City Council, you based your campaign on job creation, education, affordable housing, university/community relations, and transparent government. What have you done to address those issues?
LC: So in terms of job creation, I lobbied hard to become chair of the economic development committee. Committees were just announced last week and I’m in the process now of working with my other committee members to set up our priorities and goals and hearing scheduled for the next few months. We’re going to bring a lot of stakeholders from across the committee to figure out what resources we have and how we can tackle that challenge.
In terms of education, the person I supported for mayor, David Maher, has a strong record of supporting families in need and serving on the School Committee...The most important thing a member of the City Council can do is to decide who they vote for...I’ve also been taking the time to go and talk to parents...In my role as a city councilor I’ve been stressing that fact that it is a great opportunity to get involved...
For affordable housing, I have a meeting coming up that I’ve organized between the police commissioner, the Cambridge housing authorities, and neighborhood groups to get together and talk about some of the issues on affordable housing...
[For] university relations, I also lobbied hard to become chair of the university relations committee...Because we took a longer than average time to pick our mayor, it set back the committee work and so we’re kind of rushing into that right now.
As for transparent government, I’ve put in a bunch of orders on how the city can better use technology to open up government and make it more transparent. There was an issues where we were streaming a video online in Windows Media format and I suggested that we stream it in flash so that Macs can play it too and they’re started working on that solution.
TT: Specifically, you spoke a lot about the importance of student involvement during your campaign. Are you doing anything to promote that?
LC: There are a couple things coming up that I’m working on. The biggest thing is that I posted for interns here at MIT and I would highly recommend that people find me...if they’re interested in interning. We have a certain amount of budget for staff and I set aside a portion of that budget to bring students on from universities.
TT: What has been the hardest thing about being on the council?
LC: The hardest thing is really that there is so much to do on City Council that you really need to prioritize. There are a lot of things that I would love to do that I can’t do because I can only be in two places at once, max.
TT: Is there anything else that you would like to say?
LC: The biggest thing that I think people should do right now is fill out the census. Every single person is quantifiable in terms of dollars and services that the city can give back to students, [especially] with 20% of the people who live here being students. You still use tap water, you still use the T, you still go out at night and expect the police to keep you safe when you’re out clubbing... All of those things get federal funding and if students don’t register in their census and say that they live here, we don’t get funding, which translates into us not being able to provide as good services to students...It’s 10 questions, you can do it in a like a minute. That’s the most important thing that everyone should do right now.