A Renewed Understanding
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
May 28, 2020

Hello everyone. I am Doug Elmendorf, the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Welcome to the graduation of the amazing Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2020. This class includes students from 42 U.S. states and 85 countries around the world, so I know that you are joining our celebration at all hours of the day and night. I wish you “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening.”

With the conferring of degrees by President Larry Bacow a few minutes ago, the members of the Class of 2020 are now officially graduates of Harvard Kennedy School. Congratulations! We are proud of you and excited for you. Congratulations as well to the families and friends of the graduates—to the mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, spouses, partners, children, and all of the loved ones who have nurtured and supported today’s graduates and have helped to make this moment possible. The accomplishments of the graduates are your accomplishments too. I ask the members of the Class of 2020 to reflect on the people who have given you support and encouragement, and if they are with you now, please turn to them and give them big hugs and thanks.

On a very different note, I also ask all of you to pause to recognize someone who is being awarded a diploma today but cannot join us. Mark Herzog, MPP 2020 and Harvard MD 2020, lost his life in the mountains of New Zealand in January. We and the world will miss Mark’s passion for improving rural health care, his love for natural places, and his dedication to serving others.

We have gathered for this graduation at a difficult time in the world. Indeed, we have gathered virtually rather than in person because the coronavirus pandemic has made traveling and convening risky to ourselves and to others. The members of the Class of 2020 had to give up part of their planned time together on our physical campus, and I am sorry that had to happen.

The spread of the virus is bringing complications to the lives of nearly everyone, acute challenges to many people, and tragedies in some cases. I offer my deepest sympathy to all who have suffered and will suffer from the direct health effects of Covid-19 and from its terrible social and economic consequences. I also offer my deepest gratitude to all of the health care professionals, first responders, public servants, essential workers, and everyone who is helping others through this crisis and keeping our societies going.

This pandemic is one of the greatest public challenges of my lifetime, and many hard days still lie ahead. But I am very optimistic about the future beyond this pandemic. I see a renewed understanding among many people of how dependent we are on each other, and how much we need good governance and good public leadership to work together effectively.

When Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered all institutions that do not provide essential services to close their facilities in March, the list of services exempted from his order ran for many pages. As I read that list, I was reminded how much our lives depend on other people we do not know personally—on government workers, on people in nonprofit organizations, and on employees in private businesses large and small. Some of these people struggle even in good times and many are hurting now, because they need to leave their homes to work and therefore face exposure to the coronavirus, or because they have more limited buffers against economic downturns. These people are essential to us all, and their success enables ours.

I think the pandemic has reminded all of us how connected we are to each other, as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emphasized in her wonderful speech. Understanding our connectedness fosters empathy—the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes—and empathy is crucial for being good members of our communities. Juan Manuel Santos is the former president of Colombia, a Nobel peace prize winner, and an alumnus of the Kennedy School. In his speech at our graduation last year, he emphasized that the most important characteristic for a public leader is empathy. I would add that this characteristic is important for any public-minded person, leader or follower, in any sector, anywhere in the world.

Empathy has led to the many examples of remarkable selflessness we have seen in the past few months, including the willingness to take precautions to limit the virus’s spread. A video created in Northern Ireland said that when one sees empty streets and parks, one is seeing “love in action.” The video says: “What you are seeing in those empty spaces is how much we care for each other. It isn’t the end of the world; it’s the most remarkable act of global solidarity.”

I realize that not everyone has shown this spirit of solidarity. Out of fear or anger or calculation, some people have turned against others who are different from them in one way or another. But I believe that those divisive voices are a distinct minority and will remain so.

Most of us are being reminded how much we are connected to each other, depend on each other, and care about each other. When we come out of the pandemic, people will remember this.

People will also remember how much we need good governance and good public leadership to accomplish important things together.

Cities, states, and countries that have devoted resources to creating effective systems of public health and health care are faring better than places that have not. Lee Hsien Loong is the prime minister of Singapore and an alumnus of the Kennedy School. On January 31st, he told his country: “We have built up our institutions, our plans, our facilities, our stockpiles, our people, our training … because we knew that one day something like [the 2003 SARS outbreak] would happen again.” Good governance requires such vision and professionalism—the ability to overcome short-term thinking to prepare effectively for the future.

Governments that have followed the guidance of doctors and scientists have saved lives and maintained prosperity compared with governments that have ignored expertise and evidence. Mike DeWine is the governor of the state of Ohio and a long-time government leader. He moved more quickly than most American officials to impose physical distancing. He said later: “When I’ve made decisions that I’ve regretted, … I didn’t have enough facts, I didn’t ask enough questions, I didn’t ask the right people. [Shutting down the first big event in Ohio was] a very gut-wrenching decision. But we made that decision based on the evidence.” Good governance requires such rational decision-making—the ability to overcome individual pressures to advance the common good.

Leaders who have served their people with integrity and compassion have experienced rising approval ratings relative to leaders who have shirked responsibility and not shown concern for others. Jacinda Ardern is the prime minister of New Zealand. She took direct, early action, and she asked her people to “be strong and be kind.” Good public leadership requires such principled and effective behavior—which, in turn, earns good leaders trust and respect.

Indeed, we have seen good public-minded leadership emerge in many places in our societies during the past few months. Some governors and mayors have stepped up. Some college and university presidents, heads of religious faiths, community leaders, and people with authority in a broad range of nonprofit organizations and for-profit firms have stepped up. And some people with no official authority but with good sense and a commitment to serving others have stepped up. When influence is dispersed in a society, confusion can be a result—but so can resilience. We need good public-minded leadership everywhere in our societies.

In sum, the caliber of governance and public leadership throughout our societies has mattered crucially for people’s lives during this pandemic. When we come out of the pandemic, people will remember this as well.

That brings me back to you, the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2020. You are leaving the Kennedy School and going back into a world that is being changed by the coronavirus pandemic—changed in some tragic ways, to be sure, but changed also in some hopeful ways. Renewed understanding of our connectedness to one another and of our need for good governance and public leadership will help you as you take on the public challenges of our time.

There are challenges aplenty—the challenge of managing conflicts in peaceful ways, the challenge of extending democracy and human rights, the challenge of climate change, the challenge of wide differences in opportunity based on circumstances of birth, the challenge of systemic inequities based on gender and race and other characteristics, the challenge of building effective governments and other public institutions, and more.

As you take on public challenges, remember that your fundamental and enduring responsibility as members of the Harvard Kennedy School family is to serve others. In January I visited San Diego, California. On the side of the City and County Administration Building in San Diego are carved the words: “The noblest motive is the public good.” Go forth now from the Kennedy School to advance the public good. Your communities, your countries, and our world need you to put your passion and skills to work for us all. Be healthy and safe, and please stay in touch. Congratulations!