Welcome (Back) to Harvard Kennedy School

Remarks to Incoming and Returning Students
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
August 30, 2017

Hello everyone. It is so wonderful to see all of you. For those of you who are returning to the Kennedy School, welcome back! It was too quiet this summer without you here. For those of you who are new to the Kennedy School, I want to offer my warm welcome. I hope your time here changes your lives, like that of so many students who have come before you. There is so much here for you to learn—in class and outside of class; on topics familiar to you and topics unknown to you now; and from your wonderful fellow students, our incredible staff, our unparalleled 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 problems and personal challenges you already recognize. There is also so much to make you aware of other problems and challenges that need your attention. So, I hope your time here changes your lives in both ways you expect and ways you do not. Even more, I hope the things you learn and the people you meet here enable you to change other people’s lives for the better as well.

I am a fairly 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. Then I spent most of my career in Washington, D.C., working on economic policy at the Federal Reserve Board, the Treasury Department, the Congressional Budget Office, and elsewhere. As director of the Congressional Budget Office, for example, I worked intensively on policies to boost the economy after the financial crisis, approaches for raising long-term economic growth, and the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act. About two years ago, David Ellwood stepped down as dean after 11 years in the job—he is now Director of our Wiener Center for Social Policy—and I ended up with the amazing opportunity to join the Kennedy School. I seized the opportunity and have loved being here.

I want to begin today by acknowledging that, as we sit here dry and comfortable, many people in Houston are struggling to survive high water and save their homes and possessions, and more than a thousand people have died in flooding in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by these tragedies. I also want to mention that Lina Hidalgo, in the MPP2 class, has taken a leave from the School to run for office in Houston, for a position in charge of flood control and emergency management. She says that people who are looking for ways to help should consider donating to the Red Cross or the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund, and she can provide more information if you reach out to her.

Harvard Kennedy School is a community committed to helping people lead lives that are safer, freer, and more prosperous by improving public policy and leadership around the world. We pursue that mission through a dazzling variety of activities that aim to change the policies of governments or the actions of nonprofit or for-profit organizations. From reducing violent conflict to increasing economic opportunity to building more responsive political systems and so much more, we each work on issues we are passionate about.

Underlying all of those different activities, though, should be a shared set of values. Indeed, I hope that everyone, in or out of the Kennedy School, who is trying to advance the public interest could agree on certain values. Values are not positions on particular policies, about which we will naturally disagree. Values are more fundamental: They are moral principles or standards that we should hold ourselves to, even when doing so works against particular policies we favor.Moral principles need no further justification. But I believe strongly that by choosing the right values and living up to them consistently, citizens and leaders can be much more effective at solving public problems and making people’s lives better. This fall at the Kennedy School we will have a series of discussions about values, and you will be part of those discussions. To start that process, let me offer my personal views about the values that public leaders—and people who aspire to be public leaders—should hold.

One value that I think should guide us is the importance of truth and knowledge. Harvard’s motto is Veritas, or “truth” in Latin, and the indispensable role of all universities is generating and disseminating knowledge. Believing in truth and knowledge has implications for both personal behavior and public policy. On the personal side, we should be honest when we speak and write, and we should not secretly take advantage of public positions for private gain – that is, we should be people of integrity. On the policy side, we should support inquiry and analysis, and respect evidence and expertise in making decisions. During your time at the Kennedy School, you will learn a lot about doing analysis and evaluating evidence.

A second crucial value is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their race, gender, religion, political views, socioeconomic status, national origin, sexual orientation, and other distinguishing characteristics. This value implies both freedom and inclusion. We should believe in the right of each person to live life as they choose—free of attack, oppression, disparagement, and interference in personal choices. We should also believe in full inclusion of people with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. When I became dean, I asked a task force of faculty, staff, and students to explore ways of enhancing diversity, inclusion, and belonging at the Kennedy School. The task force issued a draft report in May, and we made progress over the summer in responding to the recommendations. But we have much more to do, and that is a high priority for this year.

A third value that should guide us is the importance of civil discourse and compromise. Rather than dismiss those with whom we disagree, we should listen to them, try to understand their perspectives, vigorously advocate our own views—and look for ways to work together without abandoning our principles. The Kennedy School’s longstanding approach to visiting speakers is to invite some people who have significantly influenced events in the world even if they do not share our values and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community. We do this not to endorse those actions or legitimize those words, but because engaging with people who have fundamentally different worldviews can help us to be better public leaders.

A fourth crucial value for public leaders is making governments and civic institutions act effectively in the public interest. To fulfill that value, leaders should deliver excellent public administration. They should build political processes that reflect the will of the people. And they should support robust civic institutions including the rule of law, strong social movements and associations, and a free, vigorous, and accurate media. Fostering such public administration, political processes, and civic institutions is a key activity of the Kennedy School.

A fifth core value, from my perspective, is focusing attention on those who have been disadvantaged in economic or social terms so they have a fair chance to succeed. Speaking and acting on behalf of people who are being treated unfairly or left behind, and empowering those people to speak and act on their own behalf, is both a moral imperative for those of us who are more fortunate and a practical necessity for building cohesive societies. When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize last year, Juan Manuel Santos, who is an alumnus of the Kennedy School, said that whenever he was discouraged in his efforts to end the Colombian civil war, he would talk with the victims because they gave him “the push and strength to keep ... going.”

Those are the values that I think public leaders should hold. I encourage you to think about what values you would identify and emphasize. Adhering consistently to values can be difficult. But even allowing for the difficulties of putting values into action, I am disappointed and worried that many public leaders around the world do not take the values I have described more seriously.

I avoid criticizing individual public leaders because I think I can usually serve the mission of the Kennedy School best by describing the values I believe in and helping to create an environment in which you and other members of our community can make your own assessments of individual leaders. But I think that teaching about public leadership sometimes means being explicit about individual leaders who do not fully honor the values one believes in. With that in mind, I think I need to speak explicitly about an important public leader who is not a good role model for public leadership in my view, and that is President Trump. Unfortunately, I think President Trump has failed to live up to the values of good public leadership.

I say this not because I think the president is too conservative, too populist, or too anti-globalist in his policy positions. My own policy positions are not relevant to my role as dean, and I want you to engage at the Kennedy School with a wide range of positions on policy issues, including many I may disagree with myself. As director of the Congressional Budget Office, I worked closely with both Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders, and I learned from the diversity of perspectives I heard. So, I have worked to increase the number of conservative speakers at the Kennedy School because I think that achieving a more representative balance between conservative and liberal voices would enhance the education you each receive regardless of your political views. And we have more work to do to achieve that representative balance.

My view of President Trump involves something more fundamental than policy positions, and it is not a partisan view: I think President Trump has not led the country with sufficient integrity, attention to evidence, respect for the worth of each person, belief in civil discourse, regard for important civic institutions, and other values that are crucial for good public leadership regardless of one’s policy positions or political views. The president’s response to the racist and anti-Semitic protest and violence in Charlottesville is just one example. I think that, by behaving in ways that are inconsistent with the values I have put forward, President Trump is hurting the country’s ability to have constructive discussions about the merits of conservatism, populism, and anti-globalism, and he is damaging the United States’ government, political system, and social fabric.

I want to be clear that I am not accusing everyone who works for the president of disregarding the values of good public leadership. Indeed, I have actively encouraged people to join this administration and work in the executive branch in order to serve the country. Moreover, I am not accusing everyone who supports the president of disregarding those core values. I believe and have stated publicly many times that criticisms of our elite establishment as out of touch and self-serving are right in important ways and that many Americans are legitimately frustrated that our economic and political system is not serving them well. People who support President Trump because of these legitimate frustrations deserve leaders who respond to their concerns by applying the values of good public leadership rather than rejecting those values.

Indeed, many people in a number of countries today are legitimately unhappy about their economic and political systems. Too many leaders, both in and out of governments, who have the power and privilege to make decisions that affect the lives of others have failed their countrymen and women by denying basic rights, reducing economic opportunity, and undermining effective governance.

We at Harvard Kennedy School can do something about that. We need to do something about that. And you have an important role to play. 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. If more people offer principled leadership of the sort I have described, we can make real progress in addressing the public problems 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 will stop shortly to take your questions, but before I do, let me introduce a few people who will be important resources for you here and then summarize a few of the priorities I see for the Kennedy School in the year ahead.

For the introductions, I know you have met Deb Isaacson and her terrific team in the Office of Degree Programs and Student Affairs. They should be your first stop when you have questions or concerns because they can address many issues themselves and know whom to turn to for additional help. I am very grateful for their many contributions to the life of the Kennedy School. I also want to introduce Thoko Moyo, who is our new associate dean of communications and public affairs. Thoko grew up in Zimbabwe and worked for the BBC in London, the World Bank in Washington, and the Ford Foundation in New York. Her group’s work is important in getting the word out about all of the great people and activities here at the Kennedy School, and we are so excited to have her with us. We will also announce in a few days a new executive dean for the Kennedy School. You may not see the executive dean very often, but our teaching and research would be impossible without the executive dean and their team. John Haigh, our current executive dean, has decided to step aside after a dozen years in that demanding role, and his successor will oversee our finances, facilities, IT, executive education, and other key parts of the School. Other people who can be helpful if you feel stuck in resolving some problem include academic deans Archon Fung and Suzanne Cooper and my chief of staff Sarah Wald. All these folks have my ear, and we will do our best to help you.

Now for some of our priorities. First, as I have mentioned already, we will be working to implement the recommendations of the School’s task force on diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and to expand on those recommendations as needed. That effort will involve participation by students, staff, and faculty, and you will hear more about it as the year goes on.

Second, we will be completing the exciting transformation of our campus. The new buildings should be fully open by December, and we will celebrate then as a community. I look forward to enjoying our new spaces with you—spaces that will enable more active learning, encourage collaboration, and make our activities more environmentally sustainable. We will also have the opportunity to shift some people and activities into better space for their purposes, and that chain of moves will unfold throughout the year.

Third, there are many projects underway around the School that we group under the label “making democracy work,” which is a critical challenge in many countries today. You can hear a number of faculty members offer their perspectives on threats to democracy here in the Forum next Tuesday, and I hope you come to that event and then take their classes and read their books and articles. At our Ash Center for Democratic Governance, we are connecting our intellectual resources with practitioners, including a large group of state and local government officials, and hosting visiting fellows with expertise in how technology affects democracy. The Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy has visiting fellows who will examine the impact of social media algorithms, the intersection between race and the media, and much more. The Institute of Politics has resident fellows from the Republican and Democratic sides of elected politics as well as the press. And our Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is leading a bipartisan initiative to protect the electoral process from cyberattacks.

Fourth, we are vigorously building on the School’s distinguished history of strengthening security and increasing economic well-being around the world. Our faculty, staff, and students are engaged in projects in dozens of countries—from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa to South America to East Asia. Through those projects, we are helping to make people’s lives safer, reduce poverty and bolster economic opportunity, improve the functioning of democratic political processes, make global economic activities more environmentally sustainable, and much more.

And fifth, we are expanding our efforts in areas where the Kennedy School has not been quite as strong traditionally. For example, we have launched a major initiative to improve the use of digital technology in governance and another major initiative to help you identify the sector or sectors through which you can best achieve the social innovation and change you are seeking.

As you can see, we have a tremendous array of important and fascinating activities going on. We are so excited that you have come, or come back, to the Kennedy School for this year. We have a great year ahead. Thank you, and I am happy to try to answer your questions.