Harvard Kennedy School’s Role in the World Today
Remarks delivered to the Dean’s Council on October 9, 2020

We live in a time of great peril and great promise in the public sphere.

The peril is clear. We face an array of public challenges: the challenge of the pandemic; the challenge of managing international conflicts in peaceful ways; the challenge of protecting and extending democracy and human rights; the challenge of increasing economic well-being; the challenge of systemic inequities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics; the challenge of climate change and sustainability; the challenge of building effective governments and other public institutions; and more. 

Indeed, across this country and around the world, many people have lost confidence in their public leaders and their governments because they think our economic, social, and political systems are not serving people well. The rising tide of globalism in economic affairs has left many people behind, and economic policy has done too little to help them. Social changes have been too slow to achieve the more equitable society we seek, and yet fast enough in certain respects to be disorienting for some people. Established political leaders are widely viewed as part of an out-of-touch and self-serving elite. 

These issues represent a peril to our society and a test for Harvard Kennedy School and other schools that focus on solving public problems.

Yet, we also live in a time of great promise. Because of the difficulties in obtaining essential services during the pandemic, many people have a renewed understanding of how dependent they are on people they do not know personally. Because of the differences in outcomes across countries and regions during the pandemic, many people have a renewed understanding of how much we need good governance and public leadership to work together effectively.

This renewal of understanding offers an important opportunity to build a better future—to make governments and other public institutions work better, to meet the many public challenges we face, and to enable people not only to survive but to thrive. We at Harvard Kennedy School need to seize this opportunity, and we are seizing it.

We are seizing the promise in the world today in four broad ways.

First, we are capitalizing on our distinctive strengths as an educational institution committed to excellence.

We have an extraordinarily accomplished faculty, which we are renewing in the face of many retirements. In the past five years, we have hired more than a dozen faculty members who have held very senior positions and had distinguished careers in government and civil society: Ash Carter, Samantha Power, John Holdren, Wendy Sherman, Cornell Brooks, Arthur Brooks, Latanya Sweeney, Jason Furman, Karen Dynan, Nancy Gibbs, and others. Moreover, for our faculty members who focus on scholarship, the distinguishing feature of their research is not that it is published in leading academic journals, although it is, but that it is designed primarily to address significant public problems. Moreover, the research is guided by our ongoing interactions with policymakers and public leaders, and then brought to bear by those practitioners.

We also have passionate and talented students. I have been incredibly impressed by the resilience our students have shown over the past six months. One of our students, Allison Agsten, was recently quoted in the Crimson saying: “Those who said yes [to enrolling for remote learning during the pandemic] care less about the Harvard experience per se and more about changing the world when the world needs it most. … Those are the kind of folks that I want to be around. So I'm glad I made the decision to come to HKS.’” And when I wrote to thank her for her inspiring words, she wrote back: “Every day I feel honored to be a part of this community. I hope I will make it to the Kennedy School before my brief time in the MC/MPA program is over, but I know that even if I do not, I am receiving the education of a lifetime.” 

Our biggest challenge in attracting students like Allison is not remote learning, it is the cost of attendance. As David Ellwood used to say when he was dean, the single most powerful tool for attracting superb students and propelling them into public service is reducing the cost of education. And so, I have continued David’s focus on raising funds for financial aid at the Kennedy School, and I am gratified that so many faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the School have pitched in this year to help.

The Kennedy School has skilled and dedicated staff members, who are both keeping the School running and playing crucial roles in our research and outreach. I am grateful to them for their many contributions.

And we are fortunate to have so many committed and generous alumni and other supporters. Without you and our other supporters, our intentions to make a positive difference in the world would be just as strong but our impact would be much less.

I should also note here what the Kennedy School, as an educational institution, does not do. The School does not make policy; it does not lead governments or protest against governments; it does not advocate for or against specific policy positions, although individual faculty members take positions on specific issues. Instead, the Kennedy School—like other schools at other universities—is a place to develop ideas, gather evidence, and disseminate learning, so that people who do make policies, lead or protest governments, and take policy positions do so in ways that serve society better.

The second crucial part of the Kennedy School’s seizing today’s opportunities is that we are teaching our students to serve the public in ways that are both principled and effective.

Being principled means following high moral standards and holding others accountable for following such standards, even when doing so hinders one’s immediate goals. Being principled is important partly because we all should be good people, but also because without principled public servants, making positive and sustainable changes in societies is ultimately more difficult. Too many leaders turn away from their standards because they think they need to do so in order to remain “relevant” or be re-elected. That approach may or may not lead to better outcomes in certain cases, but the cumulative damage to public life can be very large.

Among the moral standards that I think are most important for public servants, the first is honesty. At a personal level, honesty means speaking the truth, having integrity, and being trustworthy. The official Code of Federal Regulations in the United States begins the section on public service with the statement “Public service is a public trust”; the Nolan Principles in the United Kingdom have the same essence; and similar examples exist in many other countries. At a policy level, honesty means supporting inquiry, knowledge, and analysis, and respecting facts and evidence in making decisions. To be sure, experts can be wrong because of analytic errors, groupthink, and conscious or unconscious bias. But the appropriate response is not to abandon expertise; it is instead for experts with diverse perspectives to learn from each other, act with humility, and collect more evidence and examine it carefully. 

A second crucial moral standard for public servants is a commitment to serving others. That means believing in the worth of each person regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and other characteristics. That belief leads people to empathy and compassion. In his graduation remarks a few years ago, Juan Manuel Santos—Kennedy School alumnus and Nobel Peace Prize laureate—emphasized that empathy is the most important value for any public leader. When we have empathy for others, we grant them freedom to live their lives as they choose, free of attack and oppression, and we also seek inclusion, because we recognize how much people who differ from us can contribute to our lives. When we show compassion for those who are being treated unfairly and left behind, we are not only meeting a moral imperative for those of us who are more fortunate, but also addressing a practical necessity for building cohesive societies.

A third key moral standard for public servants is a belief in civil discourse among people with different views. Rather than dismissing those with whom one disagrees, one should listen to them and try to understand their perspectives. I am not suggesting that people should always compromise or be morally neutral; on the contrary, I think people should make moral judgments and stand by them. But I am suggesting that people should be open to the possibility that their judgments do not represent the full truth—and that the best way to fumble toward a fuller truth is to listen to people who have formed different judgments. Generous listening can take as much courage as brave speaking, because listening to people with whom one thinks one has nothing in common is hard. Yet, displaying such courage is crucial for learning at the Kennedy School and crucial for managing divisions in societies and achieving the unity of purpose we need to make a better world.

A fourth moral standard for public servants that I want to highlight is respect for society’s norms and institutions. I do not mean that one should always adhere to existing norms or comply with existing institutions, but that one should understand their importance and not brush them aside casually, and then work to change them sparingly and deliberately. For example, as I mentioned, principled public servants should hold others accountable for following high moral standards. Such accountability occurs in part when people confront their opponents and allies who violate those standards, but it also is enforced through norms and institutions—including the rule of law, checks and balances between branches and levels of government, transparency fostered by a free and vigorous press, and civil society and businesses committed to public purposes.

We teach and explore these moral standards and others with our students, in classes and in the activities of the School outside of classes. 

In addition to teaching students at the Kennedy School to be principled public servants, we teach them to be effective public servants. That means helping them acquire the tools and knowledge to make a positive difference. Our students arrive here with the intention to do good things, but they realize that they need to learn more in order to achieve that outcome. As someone who has spent most of my career working for government, I saw up close that the gap between intention and outcome is often very large.

Therefore, our students learn how to do rigorous analysis, using logic, data, statistical inference, institutional detail, scientific understanding, social competence, and historical experience. Some students are skeptical that careful, deliberate analysis is the best way to tackle the big problems they see in the world, and our faculty members show them why such analysis is indeed a powerful way to improve outcomes. Our students learn managerial competencies, because most will spend large portions of their careers in, and trying to steer, large and complex organizations—governmental, nonprofit, or for-profit. Our students learn communication, persuasion, and negotiation, because effective public leaders use these skills to understand, serve, and inform people, and to move them forward.

In addition, our students learn that effective political processes need to be structured to respond to people’s needs, and that electoral democracies with a universal adult franchise, free and fair voting, robust participation, mechanisms to limit the role of money in politics, and other features generally meet that standard, while many other political systems do not. Indeed, our students learn about the dangers of authoritarian and wannabe-authoritarian regimes. Our students learn also about the roles and importance of a strong nonprofit sector, a vibrant and responsible private sector, and social movements and associations through which people articulate their interests and work collectively.

To improve our teaching of the tools and knowledge of effective public service, we have created an online mid-career certificate program, and we are using technology to increase our presence around the world. We are also currently overhauling our core MPP curriculum, to better integrate the many disciplinary approaches that we expect our students to draw on.

The third crucial part of the Kennedy School’s seizing today’s opportunities is that we are focusing our teaching, research, and engagement on the most important public challenges.

At the Kennedy School today, our wide range of work can be grouped into six substantive priorities: protecting security and freedom, strengthening democracy, advancing social justice, increasing economic well-being, enhancing sustainability, and improving public leadership and management. These are the central public challenges of our time.

I cannot begin to describe all of the path-breaking, high-impact projects that are underway at the School to advance those priorities, but let me summarize a few.

To begin, the coronavirus pandemic is one of the greatest public challenges in my lifetime—with more than a million deaths around the world and more than 200,000 in the United States alone—and the Kennedy School has been vigorously involved in helping public officials around the world respond. We are offering guidance regarding public management, economic policy, health policy, information and the media, international relations strategy, and more. For example, our program for training mayors around the world, which we run together with Harvard Business School, pivoted immediately in the spring to focus on COVID-19, and every week, hundreds of mayors and their key staff joined a succession of faculty members from Harvard and elsewhere, and important public leaders such as former U.S. presidents, to learn what they needed. Close to the School, we also worked with a Boston-area health care institution to develop a system for managing the flow of patients. And far from the School, we’re working with finance ministers and other senior officials across the globe to help them respond to the combined health and economic stresses. We are capturing some of this work on a dedicated page on our website and sharing it through our regular newsletter.

We are also focusing on combating anti-Black racism and other systemic injustices based on race, ethnicity, caste, and other characteristics. During the past few years, we have hired roughly a dozen faculty members whose work addresses race and some aspect of public policy. For example: Sandra Susan Smith, a distinguished sociologist, is the new director of our Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; Marcy Alsan, a physician and economist, focuses on inequities in access to health care in the United States and developing countries; Cornell Brooks, the former head of the NAACP is working with our students to disseminate research findings to grassroots organizations that are trying to advance social justice; and more. We offer our students about 20 courses and seminars related to race or criminal justice, and this fall we launched a required course for MPP students that provides a grounding on racism and public policy. These efforts, and more, are captured on a new page on our website.

On climate change and sustainability more generally, we have an amazing collection of policy expertise and influence at the Kennedy School. We are responding to the climate crisis and other environmental degradation in multiple ways, all described on a new website called Climate@HKS. We have more than a dozen faculty members centrally engaged with climate change. They offer a number of courses, including two that are new this year, and they lead the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, which has played an important role in international negotiations; an Arctic Initiative that focuses on the fallout of climate change in the Arctic region; a Sustainability Science Program that is pushing back the frontier in thinking about sustainability; and more.

We have an impressive collection of faculty members addressing international relations from many perspectives. Nick Burns is collaborating with other former U.S. Foreign Service Officers on a plan to rebuild the U.S. diplomatic corps after decades of neglect and worse. Meghan O’Sullivan will use her sabbatical next spring to do a deep dive into the geopolitical implications of the ongoing energy transition. And Dani Rodrik and Steve Walt are leading an initiative they modestly call a “New Global Order.” They note that “the existing … order has been ruptured by a number of recent trends” and that “Covid-19 will deepen the fault lines … even more.” Their initiative is examining ways to develop a post-pandemic global system that is stable and peaceful, respects the diversity of institutional arrangements around the world, reaps the gains of cooperation among nations where possible, and remains true to the values of human rights and democracy.

My last example of the Kennedy School’s focusing on the most important public challenges of our time is a multidisciplinary project on the Future of Work. This initiative will address workforce development, the precarious nature of modern service-sector jobs, racial and gender inequality in the labor market, and other pressing problems of the 21st-century workplace. This initiative includes efforts by Iris Bohnet, David Deming, Danny Schneider (a new member of our faculty), and Latanya Sweeney (another new faculty member who is starting a Public Interest Technology Lab).

The fourth crucial part of how the Kennedy School is seizing today’s promise is that we are working to adhere to our principles in the way we operate the School.

“Walking the walk” in this way helps us to understand better the difficulties that others face, and it reduces the risk that we will be viewed as giving hard advice we are not willing to take ourselves. Let me offer some examples. 

I will begin with diversity and inclusion. Achieving true excellence at the School requires us to do much more than just avoid and condemn discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, and other characteristics; achieving true excellence requires us to affirmatively build a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. That is a matter of basic fairness consistent with our core values, and it is also essential to our mission because recruiting and empowering the best people and creating an environment where they can thrive makes us better at what we do, because we learn more from people with different perspectives, and because we work in diverse groups and serve diverse societies. So, in our appointment and promotion of faculty and staff, we have redesigned our procedures for attracting and reviewing candidates; in our admission of students, we have adopted new recruiting and evaluation processes; we are improving the culture of the School through bystander training regarding sexual harassment and a new approach to reports of racial harassment; and more. Moreover, Harvard as a whole is focused on building a diverse and inclusive community where everyone feels they belong, including by mounting a vigorous legal defense of the holistic undergraduate admissions process.

Another important example involves sustainability. We have implemented upgrades to facilities to reduce energy consumption, installed solar panels on our roofs, and developed a comprehensive plan for reducing plastic waste on campus. We are surveying our faculty and staff about their pre-pandemic air travel to inform our behavior once widespread travel is possible again. These actions will contribute to meeting Harvard’s goals of being fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050.

A further example is our commitment to the international exchange of people and ideas. Although many issues arise in immigration policy about which the Kennedy School and Harvard as a whole take no official position, we are doing all we can to attract faculty from outside the United States, invite visitors from other countries to speak here, and encourage students and executive education program participants from around the world to take our courses and spend time here. I’m pleased to say that these efforts continue to be successful, but we do not take the global nature of the School for granted. As you know, Harvard led a successful effort over the summer to turn back a sudden and unfounded shift in U.S. rules about student visas.

On democracy, the Kennedy School is not only conducting teaching, research, and outreach to practitioners, we are also leading a University-wide effort to create a culture of voting. This effort is called the Harvard Votes Challenge, and it has received enthusiastic support from President Bacow. Our goal is to increase participation in civic life on our campus, to collaborate with other universities that have similar efforts underway, and to learn how institutions can create cultures of voting.

My last example of “walking the walk” involves the importance of discussion across differences that I mentioned earlier. We invite visitors with a wide range of views because we think that a robust discussion of those visitors’ words and deeds—not an endorsement of them—can illuminate crucial issues in public policy and leadership. Indeed, our visiting speakers often engender debate, and sometimes also protest and dissent. Unfortunately, inviting visitors inevitably conveys, to some people, positive recognition by the Kennedy School, whether we intend it or not. The effect of that implied recognition—both inside and outside the Kennedy School—adds an additional consideration to the invitation process. Nonetheless, we continue reaching out to visitors with a wide range of views. In particular, I have worked to increase the number of conservative voices at the Kennedy School, and I have said on numerous occasions that doing so is empowering for our conservative students and bracing for our liberal students, and that both groups are better off as a result.

In conclusion

Our mission at Harvard Kennedy School is to improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous. We advance this mission by combining cutting-edge research, the teaching of outstanding students, and direct interaction with practitioners.

With an array of public challenges facing us, that mission has never been more important. But the Kennedy School’s capability for advancing that mission has never been greater, either. Renewed understanding of our connectedness to one another and of our need for good governance and public leadership will help us. And, with the support and engagement of our alumni and other supporters, our faculty, students, and staff will make progress.

Harvard Kennedy School is the world’s leading professional school of governance and public problem-solving. This is our moment to step up. We will rise to the occasion.