August 21, 2023

Hello, everyone, and welcome. I am Doug Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard Kennedy School. It is wonderful to have you all here. 

I know this is a time of transition for you. Some of you have moved around the world to be here, bringing your families and possessions with you. Others of you have traveled less far or more lightly. But for all of you, starting graduate school means leaving jobs and friends, and having the courage to take steps into the unknown. I am so glad you have that courage, and I hope the transition is going smoothly so far. I and all my colleagues on our faculty and staff are looking forward eagerly to teaching you, advising you, and supporting your learning and growth during the coming year. 

I came to the Kennedy School myself eight years ago. I had become interested in economic policy when I was in college, and I earned a PhD in economics here at Harvard. I met my wife in graduate school; she is also an economist and also focused on economic policy. So, we moved to Washington, DC, and each worked in various parts of the U.S. government for almost 25 years.

Then I had the unexpected opportunity to become dean of the Kennedy School. I seized the opportunity because I was excited to learn about aspects of public policy and leadership beyond my previous scope and because I thought that helping to make the Kennedy School even better would be a good way to contribute to the world. My wife had an excellent work opportunity in Boston as well, so we moved back. I sometimes miss my direct involvement in policymaking, but I feel lucky to be working with our students and staff and faculty. And I feel lucky to have spent my career in public service in different forms.

Now you have decided to come to the Kennedy School, and, by doing so, you are helping to grow a remarkable community. You will be among roughly a thousand students in our degree programs this year, hailing from more than three-quarters of U.S. states and nearly 100 other countries. Four thousand other students will participate this year in executive education here. We have a little over 100 full-time faculty members and others serving in adjunct roles, and we have more than 600 staff members, some engaged in the core operations of the School and others working on specific projects of research and outreach. In addition, the Kennedy School community includes tens of thousands of alumni, who are living and working across this country and around the world. As you settle in here, you can learn much more about what is happening on our campus and within our community more broadly.

Members of the Kennedy School community are working in different sectors of society, focusing on different issues, and holding different views about many topics. So, what unites us, what do we have in common? The answer is that we are committed to solving public problems—problems that require collective actions by our communities, our countries, our world. 

Identifying public problems is not especially hard, and complaining about them on social media or in real life is not that hard either. But solving problems—or at least making them smaller—is hard. How do we do that?

Let me suggest four aspects of behavior that I think are most important—for you, for me, for all of us in the Kennedy School community.

First, we need to care. We need to care about other people. We need to care about people who live near us and people who do not; people who are like us and people who are different; people who agree with us and people who do not. We need to care especially about those who have not had the opportunities and good fortune in life that we have received ourselves. 

In his speech at the Kennedy School’s graduation in 2019, former Colombian president and Kennedy School alumnus Juan Manuel Santos said that the most important trait for a public leader is empathy—the ability to share the feelings of others. When we have empathy, we treat others with respect and kindness. We feel good when they thrive. We are forgiving of their mistakes and compassionate toward them when they suffer. 

This generosity of spirit can inspire us to try to act with public purpose, and I trust that you have and will keep that generosity. But trying is not enough. To truly advance public purpose, we also need to understand others. 

Therefore, the second aspect of behavior that is crucial is that we need to listen. We need to listen to other people and strive to understand how they see the world. Striving to understand other people’s perspectives does not mean abandoning our own or necessarily accepting any particular compromise of perspectives. But it does mean being curious and tolerant and having the humility to truly hear what others are saying. 

That is not always easy. But we need to hear others for both moral and practical reasons: Moral, because hearing others is part of how we can treat them with dignity and respect their humanity. Practical, because hearing others is how we can be more effective at advancing our own causes in a diverse world. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote something in the New York Times a few years ago that has stuck with me: “Democracy falters not when we disagree about things but when we lose interest in trying to make sense of the other person’s point of view.”

So, listen to others, even when that is difficult. 

Beyond caring and listening, the third crucial aspect of behavior to advance public purpose is to learn. Good intentions are not enough; leaders also need to understand how to make a positive difference. During my years working in the U.S. government, while I saw many effective leaders, I saw other leaders with good intentions not make the difference they sought because they had not learned enough: They did not understand the true nature of public problems; they did not recognize some likely consequences of policies they advocated; they did not know how to persuade others to work together for a common cause; they did not appreciate their own strengths and how to use them, or their own weaknesses and how to compensate for them.

Learning how to make a positive difference is, of course, why you have come to the Kennedy School. In your time with us, you will increase your knowledge, sharpen your skills, and add to your understanding of yourselves.

And every day after you leave here will bring opportunities to learn more, and I urge you to seize those opportunities. In her speech at the Kennedy School’s graduation in 2022, Moldovan president and Kennedy School alumna Maia Sandu explained how much she had learned in her various public roles over the past decade, and how that learning was making her a better president today. The more that you view learning as a lifelong pursuit, the better you will be able to serve others.

The fourth crucial aspect of behavior to advance the public purpose is to hope. Sometimes, as one learns more about public problems, one can feel overwhelmed by the difficulty of fixing them. And there are some hard, hard problems in the world, so I am not suggesting ungrounded optimism that everything will naturally be fine. But hope is different from optimism: Hope is not confidence that everything will turn out well, but rather a belief that one can make a positive difference in how things turn out. And we have very good reasons to be hopeful.

For all the problems in the world today, many wonderful things are happening as well. They are happening not just by chance, although good luck is always nice, but because people are making them happen. Good public policy and public leadership are changing our societies in positive ways. Principled and effective policymakers and public leaders are pushing the world toward greater peace, prosperity, fairness, democracy, and sustainability. They are working with hope in their minds and hearts, and they are fostering hope across their communities, their countries, and our shared planet.

So, I urge you to act with hope in whatever you do.

You can help to solve public problems. You can help to bring peace in place of war, prosperity in place of want, freedom in place of repression, fairness in place of injustice, sustainability in place of degradation. 

Do not be daunted by the public problems you see. You can make an important positive difference in people’s lives. You are joining now a community of tens of thousands of people who are making a difference. Welcome to Harvard Kennedy School!