This welcome letter was sent to the faculty, staff, and students of Harvard Kennedy School at the start of the 2018–2019 academic year.
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
August 27, 2018
To the Harvard Kennedy School Community:
Welcome to another academic year at the Kennedy School! For those of you who are returning, I hope you had an interesting and restorative summer. For those who are new here, we are delighted to have you join us.
Larry Bacow, the new president of Harvard, is a graduate of the Kennedy School. At a recent gathering of Harvard students and alumni focused on public service, he said: “It’s our responsibility to engage. It’s our responsibility to work on behalf of others less fortunate. It’s our responsibility to carry a mantle of public service which was so eloquently stated by the president for whom [the Kennedy School] is named.”
What are we doing to carry that mantle? Our mission at the Kennedy School is to improve public policy and public leadership across the United States and around the world, through a combination of research, teaching, and direct interaction with practitioners. The Kennedy School’s faculty, students, staff, and alumni are addressing a wide range of specific challenges, and I have had the privilege to observe many of these initiatives first-hand. As just one example, I met this summer with recent graduates working with Professor Jeff Liebman in the Taubman Center for State and Local Government’s Government Performance Lab to help U.S. public servants make their governments’ operations more effective. I have seen many other examples of our work in projects focused elsewhere in the United States and in my travels as dean to China, the Middle East, Mexico, India, and other places.
The profound impact of public policy and leadership—for better and for worse—is why our mission is so important. Through good policy and leadership, people can lead safer, freer, and more prosperous lives—but bad policy and leadership can easily hurt people. Therefore, in all of our research, teaching, and practice, we need to choose our activities wisely and achieve excellence in those activities. By doing the right sorts of work in the right ways, we can ensure that the Kennedy School is a powerful force for good in the world.
In this message, I describe some of the challenges to public policy and leadership that I see today and a few of the ways the Kennedy School is addressing those challenges. I also touch on how we are striving to strengthen our own community and make the School even better. Of course, we are engaged in many other important activities that I do not have room to describe here; this message covers only some of our efforts to improve the School and the world.
Addressing Public Challenges in the United States and Around the World
In the past few years we have seen a growing crisis of confidence in public leaders and institutions in the United States and many other countries. Many voters have rejected their political establishments and criticize people they view as elite for being out of touch and self-serving. Many citizens believe that their leaders are choosing public policies that serve narrow interests rather than broad ones, or that policies have been designed or implemented poorly. And many societies suffer from increasingly stark divisions along social, economic, and political lines.
These challenges are big, but they can be addressed—and the skills and passion of the Kennedy School community can make a crucial difference. To seize this opportunity, and accept this responsibility, we are focused on a number of strategic priorities.
Making Democracy Count and Improving Public Services
First, we are addressing the challenges to political systems in the United States and around the world by making democracy count and improving public services. Both elements are important: Governments need to pursue policies that respond to people’s needs, and governments need to implement those policies effectively.
We have a number of initiatives underway to strengthen democracy and make governments more responsive. For example, this past spring we held a symposium on increasing voter turnout, and this year we will be overseeing the Harvard Votes Challenge—a University-wide competition that is part of an effort by a number of universities to increase voter registration among eligible students. The Kennedy School aims to have 90 percent of students eligible to vote in the United States registered to vote, and we will use TurboVote, a tool developed by alumni Seth Flaxman MPP 2011 and Kathryn Peters MPP 2011, to help with this effort. As other examples, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is researching ways to keep traditional media viable and make emerging media accountable, and Defending Digital Democracy, a project run by our Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is developing ways to protect electoral processes from cyber and information attacks. In addition, a number of courses at the Kennedy School teach students how democracies function and how to be more-engaged participants in democracy. For example, Scott Mainwaring teaches about the conditions that allow democracies to arise and remain stable as well as the conditions that can cause them to break down, and Marshall Ganz teaches about organizing for social change and developing public narratives to help guide that change.
To help governments improve public services, the digitalHKS initiative is creating new courses and case studies that help our students learn the perspectives and tools to thrive in a digital age, and the Data-Smart City Solutions project is helping governments use digital technology and big data for effective governance. In addition, Linda Bilmes, Jorrit de Jong, and Mark Fagan teach field courses that send students into local governments to get hands-on experience addressing policy challenges. Also, our Social Innovation and Change Initiative conducts research and mentors students to spark innovation and collaboration with a public purpose across sectors, and the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative trains mayors and their senior teams to improve their cities in path-breaking ways.
Expanding Economic Opportunity
A second priority for the Kennedy School is to reduce systemic obstacles to broad economic opportunity. Many people in many countries feel left behind in economic terms, and we are researching and teaching ways to empower these people and expand their opportunities. At our Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy is a nexus for work across the University and launched the inaugural Stone Lecture on Economic Inequality this past spring.
In addition to our efforts to expand economic opportunity in the United States, the School is working to do so in many other countries as well. Our faculty teach courses, conduct research, and engage directly with policymakers to achieve this goal. For example, at our Center for International Development, the Growth Lab has created an online tool called the Atlas of Economic Complexity to present visualizations of data on productivity and employment to inform effective policies for economic development, and an Evidence for Policy Design project is bringing together researchers and policymakers to create better labor-market opportunities for women and young people in Saudi Arabia. These projects, and many others, are improving people’s lives now and strengthening governments’ capacity to improve lives further over time.
Enhancing Global Security and Human Rights
A third priority for the Kennedy School is to respond to challenges to people’s safety and freedom by enhancing global security and human rights. The many faculty, staff, students, and visitors at the Belfer Center work to create a safer and freer world by addressing challenges in the realms of national security, diplomacy and international relations, public policy related to science and technology, climate change, energy policy, and more. In addition, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation is home to the School’s China programs, which produce research on China’s growing role in the world, provide training and workshops, and host fellows from American and Chinese universities.
Our Carr Center for Human Rights is focused on humanitarian crises, migration, corruption, and other aspects of human rights. This year the center will mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a series of events. The center also has a robust fellows program; as an example, one of this year’s new fellows will be Salil Shetty, who was most recently secretary-general of Amnesty International.
Strengthening Public Leadership
A fourth priority for the School is to create more principled and effective public leaders, and many aspects of our curriculum and co-curricular activities are designed to foster such leadership. A number of courses in our Management, Leadership, and Decision Sciences area are among the most popular courses in degree programs and executive education. Our Center for Public Leadership offers a collection of co-curricular leadership development activities, and its affiliated faculty conduct research on leadership and decision making. Our Institute of Politics plays an essential role in nurturing public leadership by providing opportunities for Harvard College students along with Kennedy School students to engage with political figures and public leaders.
Strengthening the School’s Capacity to Address Public Challenges
To increase the Kennedy School’s capacity to advance the common good, we are working hard to attract and retain excellent faculty, staff, and students; to innovate in our teaching and learning; to make our community more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming; to encourage civil discourse and civility at the School; and to steward our resources effectively and responsibly.
The Kennedy School’s extraordinary faculty are distinguished through their path-breaking research in a broad range of fields, their dedicated teaching in degree programs and executive education courses, and their extensive interaction with policymakers and public leaders. As just two among many examples of recent accolades received by our faculty, David Eaves was named to a list of the world’s 100 most influential people in digital government, and Jenny Mansbridge won the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science, the most prestigious global prize in the field.
Every school faces the continual challenge of renewing its faculty. Four long-time members of our faculty retired at the end of last year—Marie Danziger, Frances Kamm, Lant Pritchett, and Bob Putnam. As we start this year, we are excited to be joined by several new faculty members who were not here a year ago: Desmond Ang works on labor, behavioral, and political economics; Michela Carlana focuses on the economics of education, gender, and immigration; Erica Chenoweth is an authority on political violence and civil resistance; Nancy Gibbs was the editor in chief of Time and will teach here on the media and politics; Zoe Marks studies violence, gender relations, and post-conflict development in Africa; and Benjamin Schneer analyzes political communication, Congress, and electoral institutions. We are still recruiting several other faculty members who were selected in searches last year.
Archon Fung has stepped down from the role of academic dean after four years of outstanding service to the School. I am tremendously grateful for his dedication and partnership in leading the School. The new academic dean is Iris Bohnet. She is known around the world for her research on gender equity and was academic dean from 2011 to 2014. I am delighted that she has agreed to return to this role.
The enthusiasm and excellence of the staff of the Kennedy School are crucial to our ability to make our community stronger and the world better. A number of the outstanding people leading our staff today were not in those positions—or not at the School at all—at this time last year. Janney Wilson, who had been our chief financial and administrative officer, is now our executive dean. Debbie Isaacson, an alumna of the Kennedy School, is now our senior associate dean for degree programs and student affairs, having served previously in other roles in this department. We have also created the vital new position of associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging; Robbin Chapman has joined us in this position after filling related positions at Wellesley College and MIT. I am very pleased that Janney, Debbie, and Robbin have accepted these important leadership roles, and I am excited to see the wonderful things that our entire staff will achieve this coming year and beyond.
The Kennedy School’s success depends a great deal, of course, on the talented and passionate students we attract—students who change this place during their time here just as they are changed by being here. This year roughly 620 outstanding new degree program students have joined us in our MPP and MPA programs. We also expect to provide training to roughly 4000 participants in our executive education programs—people who are committed to serving the public interest and who come from all over the United States and 140 other countries.
Teaching and Learning
To serve the public interest most effectively, students at the Kennedy School learn to apply practical skills and hone values needed to solve public problems. To make this process as effective as possible, we continue to innovate in our teaching. We are currently developing changes to the core MPP curriculum to incorporate new material on decision science, public management, data analytics, and more. We are also creating an online path into our MC/MPA program through a set of new courses that will complement the existing online elements of our executive education programs and degree courses. More information on both of these efforts will be forthcoming over time. And, as an additional example, our faculty member Dan Levy was recently awarded a grant by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching to build out Teachly, a tool that he and a former teaching assistant developed to track classroom participation in order to create a more personalized learning experience.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging
One of the core values of the Kennedy School community is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their race, gender, political views, religion, sexual orientation, disability status, national origin, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Including fully in our community people with a diversity of backgrounds and characteristics is important in its own right, as a matter of fairness. It is also important to our ability to improve public policy and leadership, because we benefit from drawing the best people to join us, because we learn more from people with different perspectives, and because we want to serve diverse societies and work in diverse groups. In order to increase the diversity of our community and create a stronger sense of belonging for everyone, we are continuing to improve our recruiting approach for students and search process for faculty and staff, to adjust our curriculum and pedagogy (including new courses this year on LGBTQ issues and on gender and employment policy), and to make other changes recommended by a School task force in 2017.
Civil Discourse and Civility
To make the Kennedy School the best possible learning environment and the most welcoming personal environment, we need to let members of our community speak up about their views and be heard, even—in fact, especially—if they disagree with one another. Rather than dismiss or ignore those with whom we disagree, we should listen to them, try to understand their perspectives, vigorously advocate our own views—and then look for ways to work across differences that do not require us to abandon our principles but do allow us to move forward. Both our lives at the School and our ability to address public challenges outside the School are improved by an ability to have respectful and thoughtful interactions with people with different perspectives. Accordingly, we will continue to invite as guests of the Kennedy School people with a wide range of views, we will arrange some opportunities to discuss approaches to civil discourse, and we will continue to expect civil discourse and civility between members of our community.
We recently concluded the seven-year Campaign for Harvard Kennedy School, significantly exceeding the original fundraising goal and ultimately raising more than $700 million. The Campaign has positioned the Kennedy School to play an even more significant role in improving public policy and leadership in the United States and around the world. Some of the funds have been used to expand and transform our campus. As we settle into the new spaces, you will see additional moves of some groups. In addition, we have installed solar panels on the roofs of the new buildings to enhance the sustainability of the School’s activities, and a committee will soon recommend artwork and other decorative features for our common spaces that will reflect our mission, values, activities, and community. Of the funds that were not dedicated to the campus transformation, roughly three-quarters are being used currently for student financial aid and for a variety of projects involving research and practice, while roughly one-quarter are bolstering our endowment and will benefit the School in various ways in perpetuity. We are incredibly grateful to the many generous donors who are passionate about our mission and have confidence in our ability to achieve that mission. We are so fortunate to have these remarkable people at our side.
Thanks to the success of the fundraising campaign and to our disciplined spending, the Kennedy School is in a strong financial position today. However, we should not be sanguine about the financial outlook. Asset returns in the coming years probably will be lower than in the past, which will constrain the payout from the endowment, and tuition (at the Kennedy School and across higher education) has outpaced many people’s incomes in recent years, which means that we need to keep future increases in check. Therefore, we will continue to use our resources in a disciplined way, and I will continue to spend a good deal of my time, together with our development team and others at the School, seeking additional financial support.
Let me conclude by noting again that even this long message has left out many important ways that the Kennedy School is addressing public challenges today and strengthening our capacity to address challenges in the future. I am very proud of all the amazing research, teaching, and practice being done by our faculty, staff, students, and alumni to improve public policy and leadership—across the United States and around the world.
But we cannot rest on our past accomplishments and reputation. We have a responsibility to put our passion and skills to work, to maintain the excellence for which the Kennedy School is known, and to make a positive difference in the lives of people everywhere.
With my best wishes to all of you for the year ahead,