A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

Hello everyone,

I hope that you are healthy and safe, and that, despite the challenges we are facing, you were able to enjoy time away from work and with your families and friends around the turn of the year. As we start the second semester, I want to welcome you and update you on the important work of the Kennedy School.

My wish for the world for 2021 is for less suffering and more joy than in 2020. I am profoundly grateful to the health care professionals and other essential workers who have been risking their own safety and doing all they can to keep people healthy and societies functioning during the pandemic. I also appreciate the critical work done by many others to respond to wars and violence, racial and ethnic injustice, attacks on democracy, economic breakdowns, and other scourges we have experienced. Moreover, I am indebted to the scientists and public and private organizations that are producing and delivering new coronavirus vaccines. The skill and dedication of those on the front lines of the past year’s calamities set an example for us all.

That example also points the way to better days ahead. The pandemic and other crises of 2020 highlighted longstanding failures of governance and persistent fissures in our societies. We can, and must, act to overcome those failures and fissures by understanding our connection to one another and working together more fairly and effectively.

Bob Putnam (an emeritus professor at the Kennedy School) and Shaylyn Romney Garrett close their new book The Upswing by quoting Theodore Roosevelt: “The fundamental rule of our national life … is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.” I would broaden Roosevelt’s excellent sentiment by saying this is “the fundamental rule of our global life.” And I look forward to the role that we at Harvard Kennedy School can play in helping everyone “go up … together.”

Let me touch on a few specific issues.

Personal Challenges

Life during the COVID pandemic remains hard for many people, including many members of the Kennedy School community. My heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones and suffered in other personal ways. For almost everyone, communicating with colleagues only virtually, working in unusual spaces and sometimes in isolation, teaching and caring for other household members, and worrying about loved ones further away have made getting our work done especially challenging. I am very grateful for how well you have responded to these challenges.

We should be encouraged by the beginning of coronavirus vaccinations but recognize that a long road still lies ahead until vaccinations are widespread. We need to keep taking care of each other—in our families, at the Kennedy School, and in the local and global community.

To help, a group of staff and faculty members stepped up last Fall to formulate norms for our virtual work environment, and I encourage you to re-read the norms if you have not done so recently. With these norms, we all pledge to be empathetic, respectful, and flexible.

If you feel particularly stressed, please have an open conversation with your manager (for staff), area chair (for faculty), or program director (for students) about how to balance your personal needs and work responsibilities. Please also communicate unexpected disruptions or issues when they arise. The University’s coronavirus web pages include advice for working remotely and enhanced workplace policies for staff and faculty; please reach out if you have further questions. With compassion for each other, we can get through this hard period together.


The students, staff, and faculty of the Kennedy School rose to last Fall’s challenges in a very impressive way: Even though we remained almost entirely off campus, we had a busy and successful Fall semester. Our faculty and staff redesigned courses to be more effective online. Our students Zoomed into their class sessions at all hours of the day and night, depending on where they were living, and found creative ways to build and celebrate community online. Our staff created new ways to keep the School operating. Our faculty and staff continued their research and outreach to public officials through online meetings, webinars, and other virtual events, for which we had high attendance.

But being resilient in these ways took a toll. Many people told me that the Fall semester was the hardest one they could remember. I often felt that way myself. I know also that many of us greatly missed the informal interactions that occur when we are on campus, bumping into people in the hallways or dining area, sharing ideas, and making connections. So, I am deeply appreciative of everyone who pitched in to make the best of unprecedented and difficult circumstances.

The Kennedy School community is working especially hard to use its expertise to help public officials respond to the pandemic and other current crises. From local public management to communications to economic policy to misinformation to health care policy and more, we keep offering insights and proposals to make a positive difference in people’s lives. The School community is also looking beyond current problems to longer-term imperatives. We have groups here who are focused on strengthening democracy, understanding the future of work, designing new relationships between nations, slowing climate change, renovating communities, and so much more.

Importantly, I want to highlight our ongoing commitment to working to overcome anti-Black racism and other injustices, here at the School and in the world. Our faculty, students, and staff are engaged in teaching, learning, outreach, and many other activities to advance equity and inclusion. You can read a summary in my message from the Fall, learn more on Knet, and see highlights on our public website. If you would like to discuss further, learn more, or seek community, please reach out to anyone involved in this work or to our Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.

I am tempted in messages of this sort to summarize the School’s work, but because we are a community of roughly two thousand people addressing myriad public issues, forming an adequate, short summary is nearly impossible. Trying to include the accomplishments of the tens of thousands of our alumni would make the task truly impossible. So, let me instead encourage you to wander around the School’s web pages, subscribe to the School’s newsletter and to the newsletters of various research centers and initiatives, listen to the School’s podcast, and attend events on topics that interest you.

School Finances

Because of the pandemic, the Kennedy School is suffering a very large and ongoing financial shortfall. We estimate that the foregone executive-education revenue and degree-program tuition, together with extra expenses we are incurring and some other factors, will amount to about $30 million between early 2020 and mid-2021. That amount equals nearly 20 percent of a year’s spending by the core of the School.

In response, we have temporarily deferred capital investments, frozen salaries, limited hiring, restructured some departments and job responsibilities, and given up some desirable activities in the School’s core and research centers to focus our resources on the most pressing needs. It is unfortunate that we had to take these hard steps, but trying to ignore the financial shortfall now would have led to even more painful disruptions later. In addition, the University has made some temporary changes in the distribution of funds from the endowment that have helped the School.

Still, we are drawing down the School’s cash reserves substantially, and those reserves will need to be rebuilt in coming years. Moreover, returns on investments probably will be lower (on average) in the future than they have been in the past, and therefore annual endowment payouts probably will rise more slowly than in the past and more slowly than our expenses would grow without continued vigilance. The Kennedy School is fortunate to have substantial endowments, but all of our current endowment payouts are being used to provide financial aid, pay faculty salaries, and otherwise advance our mission (depending on the terms of the original gifts of those endowments)—so slower growth of those payouts will constrain what we can do.

We expect that the cost savings we have implemented, intense efforts being made to rebuild our executive education program, continued generosity of our alumni and other donors, and our other efforts to limit spending, taken together, put us back close to a sustainable financial path—barring new adverse developments. I am grateful for your recognition of the difficult choices facing us and for your support as we have made those choices.

Return to Campus

For the Spring semester, our goal remains to bring students back to campus in targeted ways as much as possible while protecting the health of the Kennedy School community and doing our part to help protect the health of the Greater Boston community. I am grateful to the faculty and staff members who have prepared the campus for this gradual return and are working on campus now—and to our colleagues who have been coming to campus since last March to maintain and secure our facilities and to provide essential services.

Let me remind you that all members of the Kennedy School community who come to campus during the Spring semester will need to agree formally to the health protocols and other aspects of our new Community Compact and will need to abide strictly by that Compact or risk losing access to campus. Each of us can help to minimize the chance of rollbacks in campus access and can help to protect others in the Boston area by adhering to the Compact and staying safe both on-campus and off-campus. I hope we can show our commitment to public service and to each other by doing so.

Here’s to a good Spring semester.

Best wishes,