Above and Beyond
Despite humble beginnings, Massachusetts’ first female Senate majority leader grew up believing “Unlimited” was her middle name
“This is one of the best classes I’ve ever had,” Linda Melconian announces to her 10 students, noting that all of the papers she is handing back are of a very high level and that four received an A-plus. Yet it is quickly clear that this assistant professor in the business law and ethics department and lecturer in the Institute for Public Service, a 22-year veteran of the Massachusetts Senate and the first female majority leader in the state’s history, is no easy mark. “As you are graduate students,” she says, “I expect excellence.”
Students know that every course they take with her “will be a different experience, but each filled with that same unwavering exuberance she brings when she walks through the door.”
Shauna Denise Bramble MPA ’17 later echoes the sentiment. While she would “definitely tell a friend to take the class,” Bramble confides that she would also counsel them to “be prepared to read an abundant amount of information . . . at least three times to fully understand it and be prepared to talk about it.”
Prepared they are. These students, primarily current and future public administrators in state and federal agencies, have clearly internalized the copious reading, knowing that they will engage in conversation about the cases. They work first as a class, and then in small groups that give Melconian a chance to talk with students one on one.
This is the second class that Stephen J. Davis BS ’12, who is pursuing his master’s degree in political science and public administration, has taken with Melconian. Davis, who “has in the past and will continue to recommend Professor Melconian to my peers,” says that she “encourages student engagement, works to ensure the material is clear and accessible, and complements the material with case studies to provide real-world application.
”Today, they discuss groundbreaking rulings and legislation, from Bob Jones University v. United States to the Endangered Species Act. They talk about Article III of the U.S. Constitution and the concept of standing in the judicial system, with Melconian observing, “If the court really doesn’t want to decide on something, they fall back on standing.” She often draws on her legislative experience to challenge conventional wisdom. “As a state senator, I loved earmarks,” she says, further explaining that “when you’re coming from an area where you’re concerned you’ll be short-changed,” this legislative maneuver protected the interests of her constituents.
The area Melconian comes from is Springfield, which, despite being the third most populous city in Massachusetts often exists in the shadow of smaller municipalities in the eastern region of the state. This is where she grew up, the only child of a machinist father who loved history and politics and a homemaker mother who appreciated English and Irish literature but never had the opportunity to attend college. “[My mother] lived vicariously through me, taught me to be unlimited,” Melconian recalls. “I used to say, ‘I am Linda Jean Melconian, unlimited,’ and repeated it so many times I really began to believe it.”
That sense of confidence was bolstered by an academic foundation that includes an undergraduate degree from Mount Holyoke College, an MA from George Washington University’s School of Public and International Affairs, and a JD from George Mason University.
In 1971, Melconian went to work as chief legislative assistant to Congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. When O’Neill became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977, Melconian became his assistant counsel. For Melconian, her experience with the iconic political figure was a transformative 10-year tenure.
“I got the bug to run for political office when I was working for Tip O’Neill,” she explains. “I had to leave his office, come home to take care of my mother, who was ill—I was an only child; my father had passed away. She died a few months later, and I had to make a decision . . . go back to Washington or run for the state senate office which had just opened up.” She ran and won in 1983 (“by 200 votes with a recount!”) and became the first female majority leader of the Massachusetts Senate in 1999. After serving for 20 years, Melconian ran for Senate president. “I made a promise to myself that it was either up or out,” she recalls. It was 2005, but “the Senate members weren’t ready to elect a woman and especially a woman from western Mass. I served [the] last term to which I had been elected and did not run again. It was time to leave.
”When Sawyer Business School Dean William O’Neill, Jr. JD ’74 offered Melconian a full-time faculty position, she “decided to take it while I figured out what my next political career move was going to be. I was not really thinking of an academic career.” Over a decade later, Melconian’s role has only grown (she is also a senior fellow at the Moakley Center for Public Management) and, as Bramble says, students know that every course they take with her “will be a different experience, but each filled with that same unwavering exuberance she brings when she walks through the door.”