UPDATED: December 14, 2016, at 2:43 p.m.
In the aftermath of a presidential election that many have heralded as signalling a new era for American politics, Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said his faculty will continue to analyze policies and produce evidence with a steadfast belief in their process.
“I think we can’t ever presume that other people have made up their minds so much that they are impervious to evidence,” Elmendorf said in an interview Monday. “It doesn’t mean that every research result from every paper can or should change people’s minds, but I think an accumulation of evidence does change minds, and that’s the business that we’re in.”
However, Elmendorf said the election underscored for him a new need for public leaders to craft a “compelling narrative” about their political aims, citing the example set by Donald Trump’s strength of vision that allowed him to connect with many voters.
“[W]e teach our students not just how to do analysis but how to communicate that work, how to talk about the policies they support and how to bring other people along to support those policies in the way that public leaders need to,” Elmendorf added. “I understand better now than I did a year ago how important that communication is for effective public leaders.”
Elmendorf, who directed the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to 2015, also responded directly to criticism aimed at the Kennedy School for inviting President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist and former campaign CEO Stephen K. Bannon for a conference on the 2016 presidential campaign.
The two-day event, held after every election by the Institute of Politics, was entitled the “Campaign for President, the Managers Look at 2016,” and featured Hillary Clinton and Trump’s campaign managers, in addition to a host of other political and media figures.
Harvard affiliates have criticized Bannon for the white-nationalist, anti-feminist, and anti-immigrant beliefs associated with the media outlet he formerly ran, Breitbart News. About 1,000 people responded to the protest’s Facebook event, but Bannon canceled his appearance the day before he was supposed to attend.
Though Elmendorf alluded to the criticism in his opening remarks published before the event, he went further in depth in Monday's interview, saying that the Kennedy School’s policy is to invite significant public figures regardless of how divisive their actions or words may be .
“I think it was right for the Kennedy School to invite Steve Bannon, it’s not an endorsement of his views by the Kennedy School or by me, but his words and actions have mattered importantly for what has happened to this country, and are likely to matter going forward,” Elmendorf said. “The right test is not whether I agree, or whether any particular person agrees, it is whether they have mattered in the world.”
The featured event of the program was a discussion between Trump and Clinton campaign managers Kellyanne Conway and Robby Mook, respectively, moderated by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. The event marked the end of two days of panels—some of which grew contentious. Elmendorf said sparring between Conway and Mook, which made national news, was not a shock but “illuminating.”
“I’m new at the Kennedy School and I have not been here for any of the previous meetings of campaign managers. As a newcomer I was kind of surprised that that these past meetings have generally been quite sedate, because, in fact, these are people who have contended each other with every fiber of their being for months on end,” Elmendorf said.
As the Kennedy School prepares to adjust to life under a new presidential administration, Elmendorf said he does not think the White House transition will affect the way faculty engage with policy.
Rather, he said individual faculty members “will continue to weigh in on public policy as they see fit, based on the results of their research and their analysis.”
One effect of the transition may be a shift in personnel at the Kennedy School. Elmendorf said the school has been in conversation with officials from the Obama administration and that “some of them may come [to the Kennedy School] as faculty or fellows or speakers.”
—Staff writer Julia E. DeBenedictis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julia_debene.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:
CLARIFICATION: December 14, 2016
A previous version of this article indicated that Kennedy School of Government Douglas W. Elmendorf served in the Obama Administration. To clarify, Elmendorf served as the Director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to 2015.