Welcome to the spring term
January 27, 2020

To Harvard Kennedy School students, faculty, and staff,

I hope everyone had a good January term, whether you were on campus or off. 

I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a week in Vietnam on behalf of the School. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first graduation from the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), which was developed by our Vietnam Program together with educators in Vietnam to train senior Vietnamese leaders. The FETP has grown into the School of Public Policy and Management, which is the first graduate school of the new, independent Fulbright University Vietnam. I felt incredibly lucky to travel with some Kennedy School colleagues to mark this anniversary; to meet with students, educators, Harvard alumni, and Vietnamese and American government officials; and to hear warm appreciation for the work the Kennedy School has been doing. We remembered the terrible tragedy of the war between our countries, and we planned for a better future together.

The trip was a vivid reminder for me of the remarkable positive influence that we at the Kennedy School can have on public policy and leadership. That positive influence is badly needed. We have watched over the past month intensified conflict between the United States and Iran, unusually fierce fires destroying Australian homes and distinctive fauna and flora, devastating locust swarms in east Africa, anti-Semitic attacks in New York and elsewhere, authoritarian abuses of power by elected and unelected officials in some countries, persistent poverty not only in poor countries but in many communities in rich countries, and more.

Yet, we can also see every day that people with integrity, a passion for public service, and the skills and knowledge to solve public problems make a real difference in the lives of others. As Nicholas Kristof explains in his annual New York Times columns titled “[Last year] was the best year in human history”: Despite all of the problems in the world, we see amazing improvements over time in the rates of hunger, illiteracy, mortality, and other key aspects of human life—and public policy and leadership have played an essential role in those improvements.

Moreover, we have recently celebrated holidays of renewal and hope. The new year has arrived, according to more than one calendar; indeed, in Vietnam, beautiful flowers to celebrate the Tet holiday filled the streets and buildings. And in the United States, we have honored the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote and spoke and organized and protested against racism and other forms of injustice, and whose legacy still serves as a moral beacon more than 50 years since his death. Although systemic racism continues to plague the United States (and other countries), Dr. King’s words and actions have made a difference and continue to inspire us.

When I talk with members of the Kennedy School community, I sometimes hear frustration that too many people are complacent (in contrast with Martin Luther King, Jr.) in the face of moral outrages regarding war, poverty, racism, climate change, attacks on democracy and human rights, and other issues—and sometimes I hear frustration that the Kennedy School itself is not doing more to fix those problems. I worry myself about the complacency that sometimes greets important problems. 

But I came to the Kennedy School after a career spent in government service because members of this community are not complacent. Instead, we recognize social problems and use our passion and knowledge to try to solve them.

We come together here to study, think, and exchange ideas. We open our minds to each other’s experiences and perspectives—sometimes through debate that is vigorous, informed, and respectful. So, as part of our work at the School, we are learning, teaching, researching, and applying research to a wide range of crucial social challenges, with all of the skill and determination we can muster. And in our individual capacities, we are pushing for change in myriad other ways as well.

I want to highlight a few issues that I have discussed recently with members of our community and at which our teaching and research are directed. To be sure, any summary of this sort unavoidably omits many important issues that we address, and I apologize in advance to anyone who feels left out. For all of these issues, the voices of faculty, students, and staff are crucial for setting and carrying out our agenda. And we should not forget the contributions of our many alumni to progress in these areas.

Let me proceed:

War and Peace: Many members of our faculty have devoted all or part of their careers to building effective national defenses and to reducing the use of force to resolve conflicts both between and within nations. Their work has included writing books and papers; serving in governments; and teaching students who have gone on to positions of influence in ministries around the world, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and elsewhere. The insights and perspectives of these faculty members can be seen in myriad courses at the School, at many events, and across the media (in the past few weeks, for example, about the conflict between Iran and the United States).

Climate Change: In the Fall’s Dean’s Discussion Series, we highlighted some of our many faculty members whose teaching, research, and engagement with policymakers address the climate crisis. Looking ahead, we need to maintain an intense focus on this central threat to human lives, ecosystems, and economies, and we are committed to doing so. In addition, we need to continue our efforts on campus to model (on a small scale) some of the responses we need globally. I will send a separate message updating you on those efforts next week.

Racism: I share the view of Michael Gerson (former speechwriter to President George W. Bush and now Washington Post columnist) that “Whether they realize it or not, white people in the United States benefit from centuries of enforced white dominance. And their current indifference helps perpetuate the social and economic advantages that have resulted.” At the Kennedy School, we need to do more teaching and learning about systemic racism, so that people can stand against it more effectively. In the past two years, we have recruited several new faculty members who work on issues of race to join those who were already here. We are currently working to recruit more faculty members with relevant expertise and to build this expertise into our curriculum. We also need to do more to address racial challenges on our own campus, and we will update you on our recent efforts and further steps in the coming weeks.

Economic Growth and Opportunity: While visiting Vietnam, our group talked with students, professors, and public leaders about the challenges of building on the rapid economic growth that Vietnam has experienced since launching policy reforms—both to continue overall growth and to give a broad cross-section of people (including those from ethnic groups that have been marginalized in the past) the opportunity to participate in that growth. Such challenges are not unique to Vietnam, of course, but exist in many countries in different forms. At the Kennedy School, many faculty members direct their courses, scholarship, and interactions with policymakers to these challenges, and various of our research centers—including the Center for International Development, the Wiener Center, and the Mossavar-Rahmani Center—help lead the charge.

Democracy and Rights: Democracies are being shaken by declining confidence in traditional political parties and institutions, demographic pressures, historic levels of socioeconomic inequality, persistent inequities of other sorts, and the rising cacophony and misinformation accompanying the digital media revolution. Through our Ash Center, Shorenstein Center, Taubman Center, Belfer Center, Center for Public Leadership, Carr Center, Women and Public Policy Program, and Institute of Politics, the Kennedy School is working to strengthen democracies. We are helping to foster responsible and engaged citizens, increase the integrity and responsiveness of public leaders, build fair and legitimate political institutions, reduce inequities and abuses, and assist the media in supporting democracy rather than undermining it.

I could go on, but listing all of the important issues being addressed by our community would take dozens more pages.

Before I close, let me mention two upcoming events of note: First, this Spring’s Dean’s Discussion Series will address different avenues for achieving social change. I will send a separate message about timing and participants next week, and I hope you will attend. Second, we are creating a new page for our external website that pulls together the many courses and projects around the Kennedy School that address issues of fairness and justice. We expect that this page will be available sometime in February.

My conclusion is simple: We have much work to do to make a better Kennedy School and to help make a better world—and I thank you for doing that work.

I wish everyone a successful and enjoyable spring semester.


Douglas W. Elmendorf
Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy