In the year following a contentious presidential election, it might be expected that the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government would emerge as an institution committed to funneling its graduates towards public service.
But the Kennedy School’s role extends far beyond simply responding to domestic and international politics—it claims to actively play a role in enhancing “public interest.”
At its founding during the Great Depression, the Kennedy School bore a novel responsibility: to prepare college graduates for service in the ranks of government and civil service.
However, in the last several decades, destinations of Kennedy School alumni have dramatically diversified alongside growing diversity of its applicant pool–its student body now represents more than 80 countries, and graduates have traded government ID badges for offices in consulting firms.
With the school’s new global influence comes a major shift away from the traditional government and public sector jobs that most Kennedy School alumni once called home, though administrators say they are not uncomfortable with this trend.
As the Kennedy School’s fundraising efforts continue and the school pours its money into technology and entrepreneurship initiatives, some say the future provides an opportunity to educate future leaders and policymakers, even if that education looks beyond careers in government.
Despite what some might consider a need to place students into politics, the Kennedy School now more broadly attempts to prepare their students for work in both public and private sectors.
Students pursue a wide range of career paths after graduation: According to the school’s survey data, 86 percent of 2016 graduates chose to work at an employer that did not hire anyone else from their class.
Additionally, 54 percent of Kennedy School graduates go into the public sector and work in government and non-profits, while 43 percent find themselves in the private sector. Jobs in consulting drew the second highest percentage of recent alumni, with 20 percent of the Kennedy School’s Class of 2016 joining firms. Prestigious firms McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group alone hired 40 graduates.
Other industries, like education and research, meanwhile drew interest in single digit percentiles.
But Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said he does not believe job sector placement statistics paint a complete picture. He noted that certain jobs that might officially be considered part of for-profit enterprises are “very directly advancing public purpose.”
For Elmendorf, these seemingly differing jobs still reflect a commitment to public good.
“The Financial Times is a company, but if you’re writing for the Financial Times about economic policy around the world, that is 100 percent public service from my perspective,” Elmendorf said. “Moreover, people who go to work for companies like McKinsey will spend part of their careers often advising governments.”
Kennedy School professor Daniel Deming added that he sees public service as having a broader definition outside of traditional government jobs.
“Public service does not just mean working in the public sector, it means working to advance the common good, advancing the idea of promoting the public interest,” he said.
Kennedy School student Vikram Janardhan said his time at the Kennedy School has expanded his conception of public service.
“The Kennedy School does a great job of introducing you to all of the paths by which you can do social good. Paths that you may not have considered,” Janardhan said.
High numbers of private sector alumni does not mean that the school turns its back on traditional political activism.
This activism can be seen in some students’ response to November’s election. Earlier this spring, a group of Kennedy School students created the “Resistance School,” styling themselves off characters from Harry Potter to spread techniques on resisting President Donald Trump’s administration.
Efforts to protest Trump at the Kennedy School have coincided with the arrival of former staffers from former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton’s presidential campaigns. Former United Nations ambassador Samantha J. Power and Jason Furman ’92, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, now find themselves at the school.
Former Democratic staffers helped to launch the Resistance School, and former Obama adviser Sara El-Amine and Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Michael A. Blake spoke to students about tactics for political activism.
“Student activism is central to student life at HKS. I am proud to be part of a community where the norm and expectation is not only to identify problems, but also to try to fix them,” Kennedy School student Kelly L. Clark wrote in an email.
The Kennedy School is committed to promoting the “public good” in any number of spheres, Elmendorf said, adding that he recognizes in a changing international climate, the school may have to amend the way it goes about achieving this goal.
The Kennedy School has recently seen a spike in donations, which Elmendorf attributed in part to donors’ recognition of a need to train public leaders and government officials.
As part of a Harvard-wide capital campaign, the Kennedy School raised $580 million by March, far surpassing a $500 million campaign goal set when it launched in 2014.
A portion of these funds will be used to finance a massive reconstruction of the Kennedy School’s main campus and to expand financial aid offerings to its students. Elmendorf said he hopes the increased financial liberty will enable its graduates to pursue their service-oriented goals in a wider, even if less traditional, range of capacities.
“Our donations come from people who want to solve public problems,” Elmendorf said. “They want a better functioning democracy or they want a media that informs citizens better or they want to see more economic opportunity in this country or others.”
Administrators say that these individuals—many of them with no former ties to the Kennedy School—are motivated to donate because of their connection with the Kennedy School’s mission.
“Sometimes the connection for some of these donors comes from a common set of values and a common commitment to public service and solving public problems, rather than the direct personal experience of having gone to the Kennedy School,” Fung said.
Elmendorf said he sees the Kennedy School’s initiatives as aligning with its broader attempt to prepare their students for service, instead of responding to immediate political events.
In that spirit, he said the Kennedy School will reform its curriculum using capital campaign resources to modernize, and invest more heavily in digital technology.
This year, administrators established a Social Innovation Studio, designed to help students take entrepreneurial steps towards solving global problems.
“Social innovation is another area of growing interest in part because people are frustrated with the slow pace of governance and in part because non profit organization can work with governments in ways that are more effective than they could do alone,” Elmendorf said.
Ferreira described the studio as a “hub for social innovation in the government” with more of a focus on public good than other innovation hubs around. Project-based classes using the lab’s resources have also been created, such as MLD-837: Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Lab for US & Global Health, a course that studies “U.S. and international social change initiatives.”
Elmendorf said HKS is also building a curriculum and faculty in the area of digital technology in governance, recognizing its growing relevance in government issues.
“Digital technology is a tool to administer public services and benefits more effectively. And it’s not a tool that we have taught enough about,” Elmendorf said.
He added that the new infrastructure stems from a deeper desire to adapt with the world, but maintain a decades-long commitment to public service education.
“The Kennedy School needs to keep changing because the world is changing and we need to keep pace and in some ways get ahead of the world,” Elmendorf said. “The core values of the school are not changing, the mission of the school is not changing.”
—Staff writer Edith M. Herwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@edith_herwitz.