Universities in Today’s Political Environment
December 3, 2018

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be here and to have this chance to talk with all of you.

As you know, I am an economist and not an expert on human rights. But Mathias Risse and Sushma Raman persuaded me that some of the issues I wrestle with as dean of Harvard Kennedy School would be of interest to this group. And for my part, I know that when I wrestle with difficult issues, I benefit greatly from conversations with faculty, students, and staff members. So I said I would be happy to speak to you, and I am very interested in hearing your perspectives.

I have chosen to refine my assigned topic of universities in today’s environment to be about universities in today’s political environment. Many other aspects of today’s environment are important for universities as well. At the Kennedy School, for example, we need to respond to the ways that technology is changing governance, the rapidly increasing importance of China in global economic and political affairs, demographic changes in this country and others, and much more. Indeed, the great majority of my time is spent dealing with issues that are not related to the political environment. However, the topics that are related to today’s politics seem relevant, and sufficient, fodder for today’s conversation.

I will focus on the political environment in the United States and the implications for Harvard and the Kennedy School, but the application to other situations will be clear. For example, Central European University—which is led by Michael Ignatieff, who previously served as director of the Carr Center among other roles—is leaving Hungary, in response to developments that are more dramatic versions of some developments in this country.

By political environment, I mean the views of citizens and public leaders about the role of universities in society—views about what universities are doing and should be doing.

Unfortunately, those views seem to be shifting in directions that concern me greatly. Some survey results for the United States show much greater doubt of late about whether universities play a positive role in the country, doubt that has particularly increased among people on the right of American politics. Those survey results are consistent with my anecdotal sense as well.

Maybe we should not be surprised. Many universities are—by design—elite, globalist, driven by expertise, striving to become more broadly inclusive, and committed to civil discourse. Yet, many people in this country are increasingly angry at elites, opposed to globalism, skeptical of expertise, accepting of public bigotry, and sorted and polarized so that constructive disagreement is rare. Therefore, maybe we should not be surprised that many Americans seem to view universities as serving their own interests more than serving the interests of society more broadly.

These reactions are a problem for us at Harvard and for people at other universities. They are a problem in part because we need support from society. If our fellow citizens do not think we are serving them but only serving ourselves, we are more susceptible to endowment taxes, cutbacks in research funding, challenges to our admissions policies, investigations of tuition increases, and so on. The reactions are also a problem because society needs what we can offer it, including the expansion of knowledge, the application of that knowledge to address social problems, and the opportunity for improved well-being for many members of our society. A drop in confidence in universities endangers our ability to serve society in those ways. For example, declining confidence in higher education could make public policy less effective by reducing the attention paid to evidence and skilled analysts.

I do not mean to suggest that these issues are totally new. They certainly are not. But I believe they are more prominent in this country today than at any previous point in my lifetime.

What should universities—in particular, Harvard and the Kennedy School—do in this political environment?

I think there is a two-part answer. Partly we need to recognize that people have legitimate concerns about aspects of our society in which we are implicated. People have legitimate reasons for thinking that many members of the elite are promoting their own well-being rather than pursuing the common good, that globalism has served narrow interests better than broad ones, and that experts are often wrong. We need to respond by being sure that we are using our elite talent to advance public (rather than private) purposes, that globalism is being harnessed for everyone, and that experts have appropriate humility about their wisdom. That means listening to people outside our bubble, trying to understand their perspectives, and looking for ways to work across differences.

At the same time, we need to stand up proudly for our principles. Excellence and expertise are good, not bad, when used appropriately. The talent gathered here at Harvard is making a powerful positive difference across this country and around the world. Being open to people who are unlike us—because of their nationality, race, gender, or other characteristics—is a profound strength as well as a moral imperative, and we will not give up the progress we have made or turn aside from the further progress we can achieve. Engaging in a civil and constructive way with people with whom one vehemently disagrees is hard but can help us learn much more than we would learn otherwise, and our goal is to keep learning.

Thus, we should both respond to many people’s legitimate concerns and stick with our core values and explain why those values are so important. Unfortunately, that approach is much easier to enunciate conceptually than to implement consistently—
which is one of the key challenges of being dean of the Kennedy School today. In the rest of my time, I want to talk briefly about five aspects of implementing this approach that I have been working on.

First, we should focus relentlessly on how we can be most effective at achieving our mission.

The mission of the Kennedy School is to improve public policy and public leadership in the United States and around the world in order to make people’s lives better. That mission matters. Good public policy and leadership have led to downward trends in extreme poverty, infant mortality, and deaths in wars around the world. At the same time, bad public policy and leadership have terrible consequences.

Therefore, our ability to carry out our mission at a very high level has real consequences for the country and the world. We need to focus on work that will have the greatest positive impact. I spend most of my time trying to increase our impact by strengthening the school’s research, teaching, and practice that complements the research and teaching.

We also need to get the word out about the work we are doing. Indeed, public policy schools can be especially useful in demonstrating that universities are serving their societies and not just themselves. Consider the map and associated text that we have recently posted on our website showing the Kennedy School’s projects across the United States. The information underlying the map was compiled to help with job placements and policy analysis exercises, but we realized that it also provided a good overview of parts of our work. Indeed, we are now creating a similar map for our work in the rest of the world.

A second aspect of implementing the broad approach I outlined is that we should encourage civil and constructive discourse between people with different views—while also encouraging people to stand up for their values.

I discussed a mindset for doing both in my remarks at Commencement in May and my remarks to welcome students in September. Let me read you an excerpt:

“Sometimes you must find the courage to stand up—to stand up for something or stand up against something. I hope and expect that you will have the courage to stand up for truth and integrity, and against dishonesty and corruption. For knowledge and evidence, and against ignorance and fabrications. 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 effective governance, and against attacks on those institutions. For freedom, and against oppression. For excellence, and against prejudice and injustice.”

“But courage is not just about standing up for what you 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 reflected an understanding of their perspectives. We saw this idea in the recent report on diversity and inclusion at Harvard that urged us all to “speak bravely and listen generously.” Generous listening can take as much courage as brave speaking, because listening to people with whom you strongly 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 ... praised the brave acts of those who 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 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, have the courage also to search for the error in your truth.”

Harvard president Larry Bacow took a similar perspective in his inaugural address in October. He said: “We need to teach our students to be quick to understand, and slow to judge. And as faculty, we owe this duty to each other, as well.”

We are trying to build these good habits among members of the Kennedy School community. Our efforts include greater emphasis on civil discourse in student orientation, in certain classes, in events in the Forum, in the Dean’s Discussion Series this fall, and elsewhere. Our efforts also include increasing the intellectual diversity that we experience here by having more speakers and aiming to ultimately have more faculty members who offer conservative views. I have said on many occasions that if we had more strong conservative voices at the Kennedy School, our conservative students would find it empowering, our liberal students would find it bracing, and both groups would be better off as a result. Building a more robust competition of ideas at the Kennedy School would also help to rebut one criticism of higher education, namely that we are pushing a particular political view on our students.

Third, I think it is important I follow this same approach -- of standing up for core values while encouraging discourse -- in my own communications with the Kennedy School community. This could be viewed as a subset of my previous point, but I think it is worth some elaboration.

I have been surprised by how much some members of our community want me to speak about public issues of the day. I have resisted that pressure, for three reasons: First, the primary responsibility of a dean is managerial, and people who want to be led on specific substantive causes or who want a pastoral leader should mostly look to individual faculty members and spiritual leaders. Second, I do not find a pastoral role very natural, personally. After all, I am an economist, and we are not generally known for our inspiring or comforting rhetoric. Third, commenting on issues of the day could easily lead to my pushing my personal views about public policies, which is not appropriate, or to my being totally banal, which is not very appealing either.

Nonetheless, despite those arguments, I do speak sometimes about current issues. Here is why: First, we strive to be a community, not just a collection of people working in the same place. When people in a community are concerned, seeing concern expressed by the leader of the community helps to bind the group together. And at a school of public policy and leadership—with students, faculty, and staff members so deeply engaged in what is happening around them in the world—having a dean who seemed disengaged would be odd. Second, the core values held by many members of the Kennedy School community over many years are being challenged today in ways they have not been previously in my lifetime. Not every incident is an existential threat in the way that some people perceive, and I think that treating each incident as if it was an existential threat is a key problem with our politics today. However, some members of our community have good reason to be very concerned and to feel personally affected in a deep way by some current developments. Having a dean who seemed disengaged at this time would be especially odd. And third, I think it is important for public leaders to stand up for values, as I said in the Commencement remarks I just quoted to you. As dean, I am one of the people who should be standing up.

However, I am also one of the people who should be listening. Therefore, when I speak to issues of the day, I do so sparingly and try to do so in ways that express sympathy for members of our community and that tie the issues back to core values and activities of the Kennedy School rather than holding forth about my specific policy views.

A fourth aspect of what we should do in today’s political environment is to continue to invite visitors who have significantly influenced events in the world even if their actions or words seem to conflict with the values of Harvard Kennedy School itself—but we should recognize that our invitations convey some positive recognition whether we wish it or not, and we should keep that effect in mind when we offer invitations.

One key reason to invite visitors with a wide range of views is that a vigorous discussion of their actions and words can illuminate crucial issues in public policy and leadership, and thereby improve policy and leadership over time. Another key reason to invite visitors with a wide range of views is that the values of our community, and assessments of who is living up those values or not, are often matters of debate themselves.

At the same time, inviting visitors inevitably conveys, to at least some people, positive recognition by Harvard Kennedy School, whether we intend it or not. That positive recognition is greater for visitors who receive a particular title or honor, such as giving a named lecture or becoming a “Fellow.” We should not ignore the effects of such recognition in inviting visitors or choosing visitors to give named lectures or become Fellows. I learned this lesson the hard way. As a consequence of my learning, we are now adopting a set of standards and processes for naming Fellows, including the ideas that people proposing the appointment of a Fellow should affirm that the candidate has a professional record consistent with the values of public service to which the Kennedy School aspires, and that the dean may ask an ad hoc faculty committee to evaluate a proposed Fellow.

Fifth, we should consider carefully what governments we work with and accept donations from.

At the Kennedy School, we often seek out people and institutions with money because they can support our research, teaching, and practice. In addition, we often seek out people and institutions with power because they can serve as useful case studies for our analyses and can help to put our work into effect in the world. But of course there are risks in these approaches. One risk is allying ourselves with people or institutions whose past or current behavior is at odds with our values as a school.

This problem is not unique to Harvard or to universities as a whole. The New York Times wrote on March 4th: “The question of what cultural institutions should do with money offered to them by individuals whose beliefs are often contrary to those of their directors and audiences is again the subject of intense discussion. On one side are those who argue that all money is tainted, so why make a fuss? And on the other are those who believe that we should not allow certain unpalatable rich people to use museums as whitewashing tools, as mechanisms for ingratiating themselves with factions of the liberal and cultural ruling class and rehabilitating an unpopular image.”

We face these challenges here. One particular manifestation of this challenge involves foreign governments. In the past three years, I have received messages from students, faculty, alumni, and others questioning our work with, or acceptance of donations from, a range of foreign governments. The latest prominent example is our significant involvement with the government of Saudi Arabia.

I recently gave a statement to the Crimson that reads as follows: “The Kennedy School has accepted money from Saudi Arabia for various research projects and teaching activities, in the same way that we have accepted support from governments, organizations, and individuals in many countries around the world. Our principal standards for such work are whether it maintains our tradition of scholarly excellence, whether it can be conducted without donors’ attempting to influence the conclusions of our scholarship, and whether it has positive effects on people in the societies where we are engaged. We believe that our work in Saudi Arabia meets those standards and have made no changes in that work at this point.”

An important word in that statement is “principal,” which leaves the door open for additional standards to be invoked under some circumstances. In particular, working with a government or accepting money from the government inevitably conveys, to at least some people, positive recognition by Harvard Kennedy School, whether we intend it or not. This means that our choices of activities and funders have other effects in the world beyond the ones that follow directly from our research, teaching, and practice. As I suggested a few minutes ago regarding invitations to speakers and Fellows, we need to take these broader effects into account. How to apply this approach to prospective activities with the governments of Saudi Arabia and other countries today is an ongoing challenge for us.

Let me stop here. Today’s political environment poses significant challenges for the Kennedy School, for Harvard as a whole, and for many other universities in this country and elsewhere. I have offered you my perspective on five specific ways in which we are trying to respond to those challenges here. I look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Thank you.