Remarks given at the start of the academic year
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
September 5, 2018

Hello everyone. It is wonderful to see all of you. For those of you who are returning to the Kennedy School, welcome back; it was too quiet here this summer without you. For those of you who are new to the Kennedy School, I want to offer my warmest welcome to our community. 

The beginning of the academic year is always an exciting time. I was delighted to see two references to the beginning of the Kennedy School’s academic year in the new issue of Harvard Magazine. One reference was in a feature called “Yesterday’s News,” where the Magazine quotes itself from 1938: “The Graduate School of Public Administration [which was the forerunner of the Kennedy School] opens its first regular session with 15 students.” We’ve made a few changes since then. The other reference was in the opening message from the new Harvard president, Larry Bacow, who describes his concerns and his thrills when he arrived at the Kennedy School as a new student in 1972. You may be feeling both the concerns and the thrills yourselves, so that has not changed.

Larry explains how coming to the Kennedy School did change his life—and I hope your time here changes your lives as well. You will learn from your fellow students, our incredible staff, our amazing faculty, and the broader Harvard community of which the Kennedy School is a part. There is so much here to make you more effective at addressing the public challenges and personal challenges you already recognize, and there is so much to make you aware of other challenges that need your attention. As the Kennedy School changes your lives, it will enable you to do even more to change other people’s lives for the better. Many people around the world are striving to change their lives and their neighbors’ lives for the better under personal and societal conditions that are far harder than what most of us are facing. We can help them to achieve that goal. That is why we are all here.

I am a somewhat recent arrival at the Kennedy School myself. I received my PhD in economics from Harvard and taught as an assistant professor for a few years. But that was a while ago. I have spent most of my career in Washington, D.C., working on economic policy for the U.S. government. For example, I have worked intensively on policies to boost the economy after the financial crisis, on the Affordable Care Act and alternative ways to change this country’s health insurance and health care systems, and on myriad changes to other government programs. Then, about three years ago, I got the wonderful opportunity to come to the Kennedy School as dean. Being at the School has changed my life, because of what I have learned from the faculty, staff, and students, and I have loved being here. 

Harvard Kennedy School is a community committed to helping people lead lives that are safer, freer, and more prosperous by improving public policy and public leadership across this country and around the world. We are passionate about that mission of serving the common good, and in order to make the greatest positive difference, we insist on excellence in our research, our teaching and learning, and our direct interaction with practitioners. As you know, we cover a dazzling variety of specific topics, from reducing conflict between nations to increasing economic opportunity to expanding human rights to building more responsive political systems and much more. Indeed, part of what I have loved about being at the Kennedy School myself is that my field of view has become much wider: I have become involved in a much broader range of public challenges and a much broader range of approaches for addressing those challenges.

For example, I recently received letters from the mayors of Revere and Newburyport—two nearby towns—and the city manager of Phoenix, Arizona. The three letters thanked the Kennedy School for sending our faculty and students, as part of some of our courses, to help them learn to manage their cities more effectively. In fact, we have a new map on our website showing the dozens of places across this country where we are working with local public leaders, and of course we are working with many national leaders in Washington. But the footprint of the School covers nearly the entire world. In an average entering class at the Kennedy School, roughly 90 countries are represented, and we can see around us the wonderful array of flags for this year’s class. On behalf of those of us from the United States, I want to say to those of you from outside this country how honored and delighted we are that you have chosen to come here for this stage of your lives. The Kennedy School has alumni in roughly 200 countries and territories, conducts research about public problems all over the world, and works with public leaders in many, many places. Just in my own travels as dean in the past few years, I have met people we work with in China, India, the Middle East, Mexico, and elsewhere. I am looking forward to traveling more and meeting more people the School has reached in the years ahead. 

As you join this amazing Kennedy School community—or as you come back to the School after a summer away—I would like to offer some advice. The advice is about courage. Some forms of courage are physical. Abdi Ismail Isse of the class of 2017 does humanitarian work for the Red Cross that has brought him to war-ravaged countries, where bombs have fallen around him and where he has been beaten and threatened with execution. He has incredible physical courage that should move us all. But I want to talk today about other forms of courage.
Sometimes you will need the intellectual and moral courage to stand up for something or to stand up against something. That view brings us immediately to values: What are the moral principles or standards that will guide your decisions to stand up? What are the principles you will stand up for even when doing so conflicts with an immediate objective of yours? What are the values you share with other members of the Kennedy School community? I encourage you to think about what values you would choose. Last year on this occasion I spoke about the fundamental values that I believe public leaders—and people who aspire to be public leaders—should hold.

The first of those values is the importance of truth and knowledge, which should be self-evident at a university, and especially a university whose motto is Veritas. So, we should be honest when we speak and write, we should act with integrity, and we should support inquiry and respect evidence in making decisions about public policy. A second crucial value is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political views, disability status, national origin, ethnicity, and socioeconomic standing. This value implies that each person should be able to live free of oppression and disparagement, and each person should feel that they belong in the community. A third value is the importance of civil discourse, of listening to people with whom we disagree. I will come back to this value in a moment. A fourth value I highlighted is making governments and civic institutions act effectively in the public interest. This means that leaders should deliver outstanding public administration, build political processes that reflect the will of the people, and support robust civic institutions. And the fifth core value I discussed is empowering people who have been disadvantaged in economic or social terms so they have a fair chance to succeed. In my view, this is both a moral imperative for those of us who are more fortunate and a practical necessity for building cohesive societies.

In brief, those are the fundamental values that I think public leaders should hold. What does believing in those values imply about what people should have the courage to stand up for or stand up against? It means that we should stand up for truth and integrity, and stand up against lies and corruption. For knowledge and evidence, and against ignorance and fabrications. For excellence and a professional approach to governance, and against indifference and incompetence. For freedom and human rights, and against oppression and brutality. For people who are being left behind or left out, and against concentrations of power and fortune for the benefit of self-serving elites. For the rule of law and a free press and a strong civil society, and against autocrats who attack and undermine those institutions. 
But courage is not just about standing up for what you believe and against what you do not believe. Sometimes courage is about sitting down and listening to what you may not initially believe. David Hempton, the dean of Harvard Divinity School, once told me that “deans need to have a generosity of spirit.” David did not define what he meant; like a good sermon, his comment required reflection. But I took him to mean that I should try to see issues through the eyes of others and to act in ways that reflect an understanding of their perspectives. We saw this idea in last year’s university-wide report on diversity and inclusion that urged us all to “speak bravely and listen generously.” As I said in my remarks at Commencement here in May, generous listening can take as much courage as brave speaking, because listening to people with whom you vehemently disagree or with whom you think you have nothing in common is hard. But understanding others’ perspectives and acting on that understanding is crucial for making a better world.
To be clear, listening and understanding do not always mean agreeing and compromising. When we look back on past public policies and leaders, we should not look equally fondly on the different sides of every issue or wish we had always just split the difference between one side and another. On the contrary, we need to make moral judgments. In a recent lecture, Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and now back here as a member of our faculty, praised the brave acts of those who have resisted injustices over the course of American history, saying that their acts are “bright spots … [that] shine light in the darkness.” I urge you to follow your moral principles and create such bright spots. But I also urge you to recognize that your assessment of light and dark at any point in time may not be completely right. It is too easy for each of us to view ourselves as being on the side of the angels. And thus, our visiting faculty member E.J. Dionne gave a lecture last year in which he quoted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saying “It’s always wise to seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.” As you have the courage to stand up for what you think is right and against what you think is wrong, have the courage also to search for the error in your truth.

At the Kennedy School this year, we will spend some time working on civil discourse and civility. To make this School the best possible learning environment and the most welcoming personal environment, we need to let all members of our community talk about their views and be heard. Rather than dismiss or ignore those with whom we disagree, we will practice listening to them, trying to understand their perspectives, vigorously advocating our own views—and then looking for ways to work across differences that do not require us to abandon our principles but do allow us to move forward. This can be difficult for me, and maybe for you too. But our lives at the Kennedy School and our ability to address public challenges outside the School are improved by an ability to have thoughtful and constructive interactions with people with very different perspectives. 

Let me finish by emphasizing how important your contributions to the world can be. I saw, in my years in Washington, tremendously talented, dedicated, and principled people—with a wide range of political views—improve public policy and leadership, and make people’s lives better. I see that every day at the Kennedy School, as our students, faculty, and staff strive to make the biggest positive difference in the world they can. I hope that you will work for governments or commit to public service in other ways to advance this crucial mission. If more people offer principled and effective public leadership, we can make real progress in addressing the public challenges we face. We can restore people’s confidence in their leaders, their countries, and their lives. That is why we need you at the Kennedy School, and why I am so optimistic about the future.

I look forward to hearing your perspectives about the public challenges we face in the world and how the Kennedy School can best help to meet those challenges. You will get faster and better answers to many of your specific questions by talking with Debbie Isaacson and Amy Davies and their terrific colleagues in Degree Programs and Student Affairs, but I want to hear your concerns and ideas as well. So, please stop me and say hello when we cross paths in the Forum or the dining area or the hallways. I will be at some Quorum Calls, at the Public Service Day on Saturday, and of course at other events at the School. I also have breakfasts with small groups of students, and I encourage you to sign up by emailing me or my assistant Lisa Cohen. 

Let me stop there and see what is on your minds. Thank you.