A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

I was terribly saddened and angered to read about the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of someone charged with protecting the public. With the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the racist treatment of Christian Cooper, and a Covid-19 mortality rate for black Americans that is more than double that for white Americans, we are reminded—yet again—of the scourge of racism in American society and of the imperative to change. I know that many of you have felt fear and grief in the wake of these events as well.

Tim Walz, the governor of Minnesota, said that the protests that have followed George Floyd’s killing stem from “generations of pain, of anguish, unheard.” Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr., said many years ago that “a riot is the language of the unheard”—and also said “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”

I hope that everyone in this country can hear that pain, understand it, and take action now. We at the Kennedy School need to do our part, and to do so with a sense of urgency.

One of our core values at the School is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their race and other characteristics. We must hold true to that value in everything we do—as we work with and learn from each other, and as we apply our skills and knowledge to make a more just society.

In my remarks for graduation, taped before George Floyd’s death, I expressed the hope that our graduates would take on the challenge of systemic inequities. I am gratified that so many of our students are recognizing the urgency of this challenge and taking it on before they graduate, through their learning about racism and their advocacy and organizing for racial justice.

We have worked hard in the past few years to appoint more faculty members who are actively engaged in teaching, research, and practice on many aspects of racial inequity, including health, education, democracy, policing and criminal justice, and more. As these faculty members—some of whom will be starting next month—offer courses, conduct research, and build programs at the Kennedy School, all of us at the School and people outside the School can gain a better understanding of the broad, deep, and enduring impacts of racism, and, crucially, of actions we can take to overcome racism.

Despite the horrible events we have seen in Minneapolis and elsewhere, I believe that progress is possible and is possible right now, not just at some hoped-for future time. Bryan Stevenson, who was a speaker in last week’s virtual graduation, is one of the most important and impressive alumni of the Kennedy School and of Harvard Law School. As part of his lifelong fight for justice, he recently led the creation of a national lynching memorial—which is described as “a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.” Such truth-telling and reflection—at the Kennedy School and elsewhere at Harvard and in the world—can inspire us and direct us to action. We can make a crucial difference and can do so now. That is our responsibility and our opportunity.

If you seek support at this hard time, please reach out to your friends and colleagues at the Kennedy School—including those in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, in the Office of Degree Programs and Student Affairs, and in the Office of Human Resources—and elsewhere at Harvard—including those described here.


Douglas W. Elmendorf
Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy