A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

Welcome to a new academic year!

Every year at this time, I am excited about the year we are embarking on. Despite the current circumstances, this year is no exception. Indeed, the many challenges we face in the world have made me even more eager to get started on our teaching, learning, research, and public service. We are reminded every day in the news how better public policy and leadership can make a tremendous difference in people’s lives—and at the Kennedy School, we make public policy and leadership better through our teaching, research, and engagement with practitioners.

To be sure, this year will be different from past years. When we dispersed from campus suddenly in March, we did not know how long we would be physically apart, and it has turned out to be a long time indeed. As you know, to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff, and of the Greater Boston community, our faculty and students will be teaching and learning remotely for the fall semester, and most of our staff will keep working remotely.

I realize that the combination of new professional demands, unexpected personal obligations, worries about the state of the world, and other concerns are weighing heavily on many people at the Kennedy School (and beyond). I am pleased by the continuing commitment to each other that I see in our staff, students, and faculty, and I hope we can keep helping each other cope with these unusual burdens by treating each other with particular understanding and generosity during the year ahead.

Creating a “virtual Kennedy School” is far from easy. I am gratified by how our faculty, staff, and students have risen to this challenge. Through imagination and hard work, we have rebuilt our degree-program courses to use technology well, crafted new executive-education programs with new pedagogies, developed new ways to interact outside of class and away from our offices, held innumerable Zoom encounters with each other and with guests and far-flung members of our community, and much more. We do not pretend to have everything figured out, and we will need everyone’s ideas and creativity in the coming months. But I am confident that our students, faculty members, and staff members will have exceptional experiences this fall.

Our goal in these efforts is not to replicate the in-person experience of learning and working, but instead to create different ways of achieving our mission. In this way, we are building a better Kennedy School not just for now but for the years to come. Before the pandemic, our staff and faculty spent many hours commuting to and from campus, we accommodated about a thousand degree-program students and a few thousand executive-education participants on campus per year, and long-distance travel generated substantial economic and environmental costs. Thanks to everyone’s efforts, we are now able to engage much more effectively with people at short and long distances than we could six months ago. After the pandemic, I believe, we will both be together in person on campus and be engaging effectively with more people at a distance.

With these enhancements, the future Kennedy School will be able to make an even greater positive difference in the world. We face many profound public challenges—the challenge of the pandemic; the challenge of systemic inequities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics; the challenge of managing international conflicts in peaceful ways; the challenge of protecting and extending democracy and human rights; the challenge of increasing economic well-being; the challenge of climate change and environmental sustainability; the challenge of building effective governments and other public institutions; and more. Our faculty, staff, and students are addressing all of these issues and seizing the opportunities they present—because better public policy and management can truly help people live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous.

In the coming weeks, I will be sending messages to our community about a number of specific issues. But let me touch briefly on several points here:

Spring semester: As I wrote in early June, we hope to be teaching and learning on campus in the spring but cannot commit to that plan yet given the uncertainties about the pandemic. We continue to monitor conditions closely, and we are exploring plans for a possible return to campus. We will make announcements about the mode of teaching and learning for January term and for the spring semester as soon as we can. In any case, as I wrote in June, we will offer instruction remotely for the remainder of the academic year for students who remain unable to travel to campus.

New faculty members: We are thrilled to welcome the new members of our faculty—Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, Yanilda González, Kimberlyn Leary, Gautam Nair, David Pedulla (an FAS faculty member with an appointment also at the Kennedy School), Daniel Schneider, Sandra Susan Smith, and Latanya Sweeney. These distinguished individuals teach, conduct research, and engage with practitioners on race and public policy, technology and society, urban poverty, criminal justice, democratic citizenship, economic insecurity, the future of work, leadership and negotiation, and other crucial topics. I am delighted that we were able to attract such outstanding new faculty members, and I look forward to all they will contribute to the Kennedy School community and to our impact in the world.

Diversity, inclusion, belonging, and racism: At the Kennedy School, fostering a diverse and inclusive community where everyone feels they belong is a matter of basic fairness consistent with our moral values. It is also essential to our mission—because recruiting and empowering the best people helps to improve public policy and leadership, because we learn more from people with different perspectives, and because we serve diverse societies and work in diverse groups. In particular, we need to do more to overcome anti-Black racism and other systemic injustices based on race, ethnicity, and other characteristics—here at the Kennedy School and out in the world. The recent shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and elsewhere emphasize how central and urgent these challenges are, and I will send a message at the beginning of next week with detail about the steps we are taking regarding anti-racism and inclusivity.

Sexual harassment: The Kennedy School should be a working and learning environment in which everyone can thrive, so we take harassment of any kind very seriously. For sexual harassment and misconduct, our approach is guided by the rules and infrastructure established under federal law, including new requirements stemming from Department of Education regulations. I will write with more information soon about Harvard’s policies (building on President Bacow’s message from a few weeks ago) and about the people and resources at the Kennedy School that help to fulfill our commitment to ensure a school that is safe for all.

Climate change and sustainability: Climate change and other environmental degradation threaten human lives, destabilize ecosystems, accelerate biodiversity loss, and damage economies. The Kennedy School is responding to the climate crisis through our research, teaching, and engagement with the world—and also through waste reduction, energy savings, and other aspects of our campus operations. I will update you about this important work soon as well.

Alumni: Around the globe, more than 20,000 alumni of our degree programs and more than 50,000 alumni of our executive education courses are responding with vigor and skill to current public challenges. For example, close to home, Alister Martin MPP/MD 2015 started the VotER initiative, which helps patients, visitors, and staff at Massachusetts General Hospital register to vote. With a focus on the Global South, Diana Samarasan MC/MPA 2004 is advocating for the rights of people with disabilities during coronavirus relief efforts. And mayors from across the United States and around the world have gained new skills through our Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative for tackling the fallout from the pandemic in their cities.

Following our research and outreach: Every day, the Kennedy School is bringing its expertise to bear on public challenges across the United States and around the world. Indeed, so much good research and outreach are happening at the Kennedy School that keeping up is difficult. To stay apprised of some of this important work, please subscribe to our newsletter (launched just last winter), sign up for HKS in the News, check out our public web site, and follow the School on social media.

In closing, let me thank you for all you are doing—and will do—to make a better Kennedy School and a better world.

Wishing you the best for the year ahead,


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