Douglas W. Elmendorf, A.M. ’85, Ph.D. ’89, announced on Thursday that he will step down as dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government at the end of the 2023-24 academic year. Elmendorf, a prominent economist and public servant, will remain on the School’s faculty and engage in teaching and research.
“Being dean of Harvard Kennedy School has been even more enlightening, challenging, and rewarding than I imagined when I accepted the position in June 2015,” he wrote in a message to the Kennedy School community. “But I decided during the summer that it will soon be time for the next chapter for the Kennedy School and for me. I plan to step down as dean in June 2024, after which I look forward to playing a different role here — that of a faculty member — and to having much more time to learn and teach about economic policy.”
In a message to the Kennedy School community, Harvard President Claudine Gay noted Elmendorf’s “boundless grace, good humor, and an unwavering commitment to rigorous scholarship for the betterment of society.”
“Drawing on his own impressive record of public service,” she wrote, “he has been a champion for principled, effective public policy and leadership in the face of considerable challenges to those ideals. Under his guidance, HKS has expanded its engagement across Harvard and beyond, helping researchers and practitioners translate knowledge into policy and impact.”
Gay said she and Provost Alan M. Garber will share information in the weeks ahead about the search for Elmendorf’s successor.
In the eight years since he was appointed dean, Elmendorf has worked with colleagues to develop and pursue priorities that have transformed the Kennedy School’s campus and strengthened its efforts to improve public policy and leadership through teaching, research, and practice. He has reaffirmed the School’s commitment to principled and effective public leadership at a time when increased inequality, threats to democracy, conflicts between and within nations, the COVID pandemic, and other forces have heightened global challenges.
“Doug has worked tirelessly to ensure that HKS will be a force for more effective public leadership and public policy in the U.S. and abroad,” said Garber. “The mission of HKS often situates it in the middle of some of the most contentious issues facing society today, and Doug has not shied away from this challenge. At the same time, he has worked to extend the academic excellence of HKS, through the disruptions of the pandemic and its aftermath. The School will continue to benefit from the foundation he has laid for years to come.”
Elmendorf and his colleagues have renewed the Kennedy School’s faculty, recruiting top scholars and practitioners focused on social policy, democracy, race and public policy, public management and leadership, technology and governance, international relations, economic growth and development, and civil society. During his tenure, roughly 40 new faculty members have joined HKS, including recipients of numerous academic awards and former government leaders. Working together with the faculty and staff, Elmendorf has brought more emphasis on professional competencies to the curriculum and expanded field-based learning opportunities for students.
David Deming, academic dean of the Kennedy School and Isabelle and Scott Black Professor of Political Economy, said, “Doug’s wise stewardship of the School during a global pandemic and his extraordinary efforts to build our faculty have put the School in a much stronger position than before he began as dean. It has been a privilege to work with Doug, and our community is grateful for his dedication and leadership.”
Student financial aid has been a top priority during Elmendorf’s time as dean, and a cornerstone of the School’s conversations with alumni and supporters. Over the past five years, unrestricted funds going to financial aid have increased by roughly 50 percent. The Kennedy School is now launching an ambitious initiative to significantly expand financial aid by the time the School celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2026.
Elmendorf, who received his doctoral and master’s degrees in economics at Harvard, returned in 2015 to serve as Kennedy School dean after completing his term as director of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Elmendorf was appointed CBO director by both Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress, and he led the office for six years. During that time, the CBO provided rigorous and objective analysis of budget and economic issues, including health care policy, macroeconomic stabilization, immigration, climate policy, and government deficits and debt. In addition to his leadership of the CBO, Elmendorf served in a number of senior posts at the Federal Reserve Board, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and the Department of the Treasury before being appointed dean of HKS by then-Harvard President Drew Faust. His extensive experience in the U.S. government informed his perspective on the skills and knowledge that can serve students well after they graduate and go on to pursue lives of public purpose. Before moving to Washington, Elmendorf taught Harvard College students as an assistant professor of economics.
During Elmendorf’s tenure, the Kennedy School strengthened its commitment to public management, expanding its research and practice footprint in this arena as well as its teaching. For example, with a $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2021, the University launched the Bloomberg Center for Cities, which brings together expertise focused on cities across disciplines to train leaders from around the world and produce relevant and timely research. The center is a University-wide collaboration led and housed at HKS. Earlier this year, the Kennedy School received more than $15 million to fund an expansion of the Project on Indigenous Governance and Development, which aims to understand and foster the conditions under which self-determined social and economic development is achieved by Native communities and nations. In addition, the School has recruited more faculty members with expertise in management of government agencies and civil society organizations, and it has established new courses that draw on that expertise.
Under Elmendorf’s leadership, the School developed and implemented a comprehensive strategy to foster a more diverse and inclusive community. In 2016, he charged a committee of faculty, staff, and students to deliver recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion at HKS, and in 2018, Elmendorf established the School’s first Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, appointing a new associate dean to his leadership team. HKS’s diversity, equity, and anti-racism work has targeted five action areas: culture and training, community, teaching, research, and outreach. The School community has devoted considerable attention to all of these areas, including adding roughly 10 faculty members whose teaching and research address race and public policy.
Throughout a time of global tumult, Elmendorf affirmed the Kennedy School’s important role in tackling and developing solutions to public challenges, urging students, faculty, staff, and alumni to use their talents and energy to advance the common good. In a recent report on the School’s progress on substantive topics, including peace and security, prosperity, equity, democracy, sustainability, and public management and leadership, he also reminded the community of the challenges and opportunities ahead. “By combining cutting-edge research, the teaching of outstanding students, and direct interaction with practitioners, we have an impact on solving public problems that no other institution can match,” he said.
Elmendorf is looking forward to remaining an active member of the Kennedy School community after stepping down from the deanship. He said, “The hard and skilled work of Harvard Kennedy School’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends are helping people across this country and around the world to benefit from more evidence-based public policies, better management of public institutions, and more principled and effective public leadership … I am excited to see what our community will do in the future.”