Ban Ki-moon reflects on "the golden years of his life" at HKS.

By Mari Megias
July 26, 2017

When Ban Ki-moon MC/MPA 1984 was a student at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) in the early 1980s, he took a class that included a mock White House National Security Council session. He was assigned the role of vice president, a position that was held then by George H. W. Bush. Little did he know that he would one day become secretary-general of the United Nations where he would put the lessons he learned at the Kennedy School to good use.

Ban Ki-moon at Harvard Kennedy School.

“At the Kennedy School, I learned a lot about soft power, hard power, and leadership,” he says. “As secretary-general, I later invited Professor Ron Heifetz”—who was a new faculty member when Ban was a student at the School—“to speak about leadership to senior UN staff. It wasn’t a formal lecture, but an exchange of views. Professor Graham Allison used to come to the UN as well [Allison was dean of the Kennedy School when Ban attended], and I’d learned a lot from Professor Joseph Nye,” he says.

He says his education at the Kennedy School gave him new confidence. “I filled my brain with intellectual nutrition,” he says. “The study was very hard. I still regard those days as the golden years of my life. After graduation, I was a very different Ban Ki-moon. I felt I’d be able to discuss anything and debate anyone.”

After he graduated from HKS, Ban became an active member of the alumni community in South Korea. “I’ve often said to my staff and friends that I’m very much impressed with the effective networking of Harvard alumni,” he says. Ban is very proud of his affiliation with HKS and Harvard. He says he felt tremendously honored when he was selected to receive the Harvard Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2014. “This was a great recognition of my contributions as a Harvard alumnus,” he says.

Now, Ban is wrapping up a three-month fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School, where he served as the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow. During this time, he enriched himself intellectually. “I’ve learned from world-renowned professors, and have met with young students and doctoral candidates who’ve been working very hard. They’ve all brought new ideas and new directions,” he says.

As he reflects on his time leading the UN, he is increasingly concerned about rising nationalism. “This is the most difficult thing, because it creates divisions among people. If the UN isn’t united, it cannot deliver necessary assistance and help many people who need lifesaving support.”

Today, Ban is particularly interested in the importance of education to global peace and prosperity. “This is the essence of development,” he says. “Institutions like Harvard should take a very important role in this effort. That’s why I launched, in 2010, the UN Academic Impact—UNAI.” UNAI serves as a hub where academic institutions from all corners of the world can connect on ways to achieve the goals of the UN, particularly sustainable development. Says Ban, “UNAI includes 1,500 universities around the world. I hope Harvard will join.”