Greeting to New Students
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
August 26, 2019

Hello, I’m Doug Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard Kennedy School. Welcome to the Kennedy School! You are beginning what I hope will be a marvelous adventure and an incredible learning opportunity. Your beginning is also a new beginning for me and all of the faculty and staff of the Kennedy School—a new journey of getting to know you and work with you. Each May, when students graduate, I start missing them. But I console myself with the knowledge that wonderful new students will be joining us—and here you are! I am delighted to have this chance to greet you.

Let me start by telling you how I ended up here at the Kennedy School. I became interested in economics in college because the way economists think appealed to me intellectually and because economics seemed to be a powerful tool for understanding the world and making it better. I ended up earning a PhD in economics at Harvard. I went on to spend most of my career in Washington, DC, working for the U.S. government on a range of policy issues—from budget policy to health care policy to monetary policy and more. My wife is also an economist and also focused on economic policy, so living and working in Washington suited us both well. Our daughters would tell you that we talked about economic policy at the dinner table far too often. That may be true; they both survived, but neither one wants to become an economist.

Then, four years ago, my predecessor as dean stepped down after many years in the job, and I had the amazing opportunity to come back to Harvard. Fortunately, my wife had an excellent professional opportunity at Harvard as well. So, we seized the moment, and now we happily work and live here in Cambridge.

That is how I came to the Kennedy School. Each of you has your own story—and many of your stories are probably more interesting and dramatic than mine. I look forward to learning your stories over the coming year.

I want to welcome each one of you. We spent a lot of time deciding whom to admit and have here with us, and we are excited that you decided that you wanted to be here. 

I want to offer a special welcome to those of you who have come from outside the United States. The Kennedy School has trained public leaders from around the world for more than 70 years. Those students added immeasurably to the richness of the School while they were here, by bringing their experiences and perspectives. And they made invaluable contributions to the world after they left—as heads of state, public officials, and members of civil society. So, to our current students from outside this country, we are looking forward to the energy you will add to the School now and to the contributions to the world you will make after you leave.

Of course, I also want to offer a warm welcome to our students from the United States. You come from many walks of life and bring your own diverse experiences and interests that will contribute so much to the life of the School. I am thrilled that you have chosen a school focused on public policy and public leadership in these challenging times for the public sector. Our country needs you—working in governments at the federal, state or local level, or working outside of governments advancing the public interest.

We have displayed around the Forum the flags of all nations represented among our incoming students—more than 90 in total—to emphasize how pleased we are that you are all here.

I also want to offer a special welcome to anyone who is wondering whether you truly belong here, perhaps because Harvard’s status as an elite institution can be intimidating or because your race or ethnicity or ideological views or other identities put you in a minority among your classmates. Let me emphasize: You do belong here, because the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives at the Kennedy School is one of our great and enduring strengths. For most of my life, I have been part of organizations in which the dominant voices have been people who are like me in many ways. I realize that my colleagues with different characteristics or backgrounds often have had more challenging experiences as a result. Here at the Kennedy School, we all need to be focused—the dean, the students, the faculty, and the staff—on making this community as welcoming as possible to everyone. As we continue working to create a more diverse and inclusive environment at the Kennedy School, we will become an even stronger force for good in the world.

I have talked so far about our individual stories and some of our potential differences. But the real theme of my remarks today is what unites us. We are united by our commitment to advancing the public interest—to improving public policy and public leadership so people can be safer, freer, and more prosperous. That is why we admitted you and why you chose to come.

As we look across this country and around the world today, we can see profound challenges to safety, freedom, and prosperity. We mourn the many people in this country and elsewhere who have died from gun violence; we are deeply distressed about the millions of people around the world who have had to leave their homes because of wars or economic crises; we are greatly concerned about the degradation of the natural world; we are profoundly troubled about people who are suffering from hatred or bigotry or persecution. These and many other challenges sometimes keep me awake at night, and maybe they do that for you too.

But we have come together in a place where, in the words of an old expression, we can light a candle and not just curse the darkness. Indeed, at the Kennedy School, we are lighting candles to dispel darkness in so many ways. 

We are conducting research that is intellectually path-breaking and immediately useful in solving public problems. By searching for truths about how societies work and can be changed, we are giving public officials the knowledge and tools they need to provide better leadership, enact better policies, and implement policies more effectively.

In addition to our research, we are engaging directly with practitioners. We are not only publishing research papers and hosting academic conferences, we are reaching out vigorously to the people who are on the front lines of public service, to share with them what we know and to hear from them what they need us to figure out. 

And beyond our research and practice, of course, we teach and learn both inside and outside our classrooms. From our faculty members and from each other, you will learn values and skills that will help you become more effective at solving public problems.

We undertake all of our activities—research, practice, and teaching and learning—with an insistence on excellence. We insist on excellence because that is how we can do the most to make a better world. If our research were not excellent—if our analysis were not innovative and rigorous and accurate—we would be misleading rather than helping the public servants we mean to help. If our engagement with practitioners were not excellent—if we did not convey clearly what we know and listen carefully to their perspectives—we would be wasting their time and ours. If our teaching and learning were not excellent—if our faculty did not teach the most valuable material and you did not apply yourselves to understand it—we would be squandering such valuable opportunities. 

So, all of us at Harvard Kennedy School are united by our commitment to advancing the public interest—and to do so most effectively, we pursue research, practice, and teaching and learning with an insistence on excellence.

Let me be more specific now about what I hope you will learn while you are here. I hope you will both hone your values and strengthen your analytical and practical skills, because you will need both the right values and the right skills to solve public problems.

The right values for public leaders like us begin with a commitment to serving others rather than serving ourselves. That means being trustworthy—meeting high standards of honesty and integrity, in what we say and what we do. It means serving all others and not just people who are like us in their demographic characteristics or ideological views. So, public leaders should not promote division, but should build connection; they should not inflame hostility and encourage violence against people who are different in some way, but should instill understanding and encourage respect of others. Indeed, our alumnus Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia and Nobel peace prize winner, said in his remarks at our graduation last year that the most important value for any public leader is empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. 

The right values for public leaders also include engaging in civil discourse with people with whom you disagree, even if those disagreements seem insurmountable. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “It is not only important, but mentally invigorating, to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own … This can be an invaluable check on your own ideas.” I am not suggesting that you should always compromise or be morally neutral, and Eleanor Roosevelt was not suggesting that either. On the contrary, I believe that public leaders should make moral judgments. But I am suggesting that you should be open to the possibility that different judgments from yours have value as well. One day this summer when I was running at Fresh Pond with my wife and our dog, another car in the parking lot had a bumper sticker that said “Don’t believe everything you think.” That is good advice: Don’t believe everything you think.

Let me make one more point about values. I think that public leaders like us should not only hold ourselves accountable for meeting certain standards but should hold other public leaders accountable as well. To be sure, no leader is perfect, and the world presents many tradeoffs, so when public leaders violate our standards, deciding how to respond can be challenging. In addition, some people occupy positions in which speaking directly about other public leaders is not appropriate. But whenever a public leader violates our standards and we are inclined to avert our eyes, we should at least stop and think twice. 

As I said a few minutes ago, solving public problems requires not only the right values but also the right skills. The history of governance is littered with examples of good intentions producing bad outcomes because public leaders who were trying to accomplish a worthy goal did not know how to achieve it. In my own years in public service, I watched over and over as people with a passion for solving public problems failed to do so because they did not have the needed skills.

Some of those skills involve factual knowledge and rigorous analysis: Logic, data, institutional detail, and historical experience are crucial because introspection and intuition do not provide sufficient understanding of our complex world, let alone of how to change it. Other needed skills involve management and administration, because most public officials spend their careers in large and complex organizations. Effective leaders also need skills such as communication, decision-making, and negotiation, in order to understand people and move them forward. And still other needed skills are more personal—the skills of self-understanding and self-discipline.

During your time here, you will have many opportunities to build your analytical and practical skills—and to achieve excellence in them. I do not want to scare you away: Not every person needs to be excellent at all of the skills I have mentioned, and very few of us are. But if you want to solve public problems and not just bemoan them, you will need to collaborate with other people who can bring excellence in the skills you cannot. I learned that lesson firsthand 20 years ago, when I brought my skills in economic analysis to government working groups that included people who did not know economics but knew a lot of other things I did not. We were much more effective together than any of us would have been individually. And as a bonus, we had a lot more fun collaborating too.

I will stop in a minute and take your questions. But let me comment first on one other issue. As you spend time here, and learn how the Kennedy School works, you may develop ideas for how you think we can pursue our mission more successfully. That is a good thing. To become the best possible version of the Kennedy School, we need people in our community—our students, staff, faculty, alumni, and friends—to offer ideas for how we can improve. For example, I gave a talk here last year in which I wrestled with some of the challenges that universities face in today’s political environment. I gave that talk to organize my thinking, but more importantly, to get feedback from our community in order to refine my thinking. By the way, the text of that talk is posted on my page on our website, like all of my prepared remarks, if you are interested. 

When you see opportunities for us to make improvements, I encourage you to talk with the faculty or staff members who are undertaking that aspect of our work. Tell them what you are thinking, and ask to hear their perspectives. Engage with them to see what they can learn from you and what you can learn from them. Civil discourse between people with different views is crucial not only in the world of public leadership, but at the Kennedy School and at Harvard more broadly. 

You will have many opportunities here to exchange views—with your amazing classmates, your distinguished professors, and our outstanding staff members. Take full advantage of those opportunities. We have all come together at Harvard Kennedy School because of our shared passion for improving public policy and public leadership to make the world better. We are united in that commitment, and learning and working together, we can make a positive difference. I hope you have a wonderful year! Thank you.