HKS Struggles to Recruit Minority Students

Per statistics laid out in a draft version of an internal report, the Kennedy School has struggled to admit and attract minority students for years.
By Alexandra A. Chaidez

By Katherine E. Wang

UPDATED: March 30, 2018 at 3:45 p.m.

This article is the first in a two-part series on diversity at the Harvard Kennedy School. Read the second installment here.

Shaniqua L. McClendon has often been one of the only black women in the room. Still, her first day at the Harvard Kennedy School sticks out in her memory.

Now a second-year Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student, McClendon remembers an icebreaker activity during her orientation in the fall of 2016. Students anonymously filled out questionnaires about their race, gender, and family life, shuffled the papers around, and then stood up based on the information from the paper given to them.

She said she thought this exercise was “fine enough” until she realized she was one of only two black students in her cohort and the only black woman.

“For everyone else, this was probably a great exercise, but for me and for this other student, all I had to do was look to see what the gender and race are on this piece of paper and now they know everything I was supposed to contribute anonymously,” McClendon said. “They just kind of know my whole life now.”

“I've been in places that didn't have a ton of black people or black women but this was just starkly different from my other experiences,” McClendon, who is now the president of the school’s Black Student Union, added.

The Kennedy School has struggled with diversity for years. The school established its Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion in 2012, formed a mandatory orientation program about race and gender in the classroom, and created a blog to give students the opportunity to “share their stories and experiences” involving identity at the school.

“I regularly feel uncomfortable speaking up about issues that impact people of color and low-income communities because of my identity as a woman of color,” one anonymous blog post from 2014 reads.

Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf convened a task force on diversity and inclusion in Jan. 2016 comprising students, staff and faculty. In May 2017, that group completed a draft report outlining demographic statistics and recommendations to increase diversity and improve the environment for students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Students and alumni said the statistics confirmed what they already knew: the school has struggled to admit and attract minority students for years, and the numbers were not rising.

According to the draft report, in the two-year Masters in Public Policy program—the largest degree program offered at HKS—African-American students represented 9 percent of students in 2005 and 4 percent in 2015. Hispanic-Americans represented 12 percent of students in 2005 and 7 percent of students in 2015, and Asian-Americans represented 10 percent of students in 2005 and 7 percent of students in 2015.

In the 10 months since its completion, the draft report has galvanized students of color at the school to demand greater and faster change. The group did not publicly release the report but provided the document to "people who have been interested in our community," Elmendorf said. He added "many other people" at the Kennedy School have also seen the draft report because "we're trying to be transparent about what we're doing."

The school’s mission—“to train public leaders and improve public policy”—only adds to the urgency of the issue, McClendon said.

“It’s important to also have people of color who are from this country going back to into their own communities,” she said. “When those are the people that are not getting into this institution, I think that we're doing a disservice to what this institution's mission says it is and what they claim they are focused [on doing].”


The Kennedy School’s diversity problem begins even before students step foot on campus, the report shows.

The number of minority applicants has increased since 2005 across all racial and ethnic groups represented in the report. The number of admits across groups, though, has plateaued over the past decade—and the percentage of admitted African-American and Latino students who ultimately choose to attend the school has declined.

From 2005 to 2015, the yield rate of African-American students dropped from 85 to 66 percent, according to the report. For students identified as Latinx, the yield dropped 92 to 71 percent in 2015. Asian-Americans saw their yield rate increase, from 67 in 2005 to 77 to 2015.

Kennedy School spokesperson Thoko Moyo declined to share more up-to-date admissions statistics with The Crimson. She also declined to comment on minority admissions and matriculation trends.

Money may play a role; the task force report specifically mentions the impact of financial aid on yield rates.

“While financial aid isn’t the only factor upon which students base their decision to join the HKS community, it clearly has some influence on that decision making,” the report reads. “There is a clear increase in yield rates between the (i) “no aid” group and the (ii) group receiving some aid.”

But Mark I. Lewis, who graduated from the Kennedy School in 2000 and currently runs an admissions consulting firm, said racial and ethnic demographics also matter. He said he has seen African-American students at both the undergraduate and graduate level apply to schools that “feel more supportive,” including historically black colleges and universities.

"The bottom line with this kind of environment is that nobody wants to be one of the rare few African-American voices,” Lewis said. “They want to be in an a place where there is a critical mass—all things being equal—but the money does play a role."

Alexandra Martinez, former Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Kennedy School, said alumni from underrepresented minority groups sometimes actively discourage admitted students from attending the school.

“I've met so many alums who have really advised others not to come to the Kennedy School over the years,” Martinez said.

Lauren R. Powell, a 2017 graduate of the Kennedy School and a former co-chair of the school’s student-run diversity committee, said conversations around diversity and inclusion at the school are not new, which she said is disheartening to both alumni and students.

“I’m talking now to black alums from the black alumni group that are like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been having the same conversations for a while now,’” Powell said.


Natara Gray, the assistant director of Student Diversity and Inclusion, said Kennedy School affiliates are broadly aware the number of African-American students is declining, a trend she called “unfortunate.”

“Many of the students have expressed concerns about what has been going on at the Kennedy School and its diversity, and they want it to change,” she said. “In that mindset, they were concerned about asking or telling other people to come and so word of mouth is sometimes a way to get the word out.”

In response to concerns from members of the Kennedy School community about the unfavorable admissions rates, the admissions office has partnered with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the Kennedy School to develop recruitment strategies tailored towards students of color.

“We are reworking our recruiting strategy to direct more attention to colleges and parts of this country where we think we can increase the number of people from underrepresented groups at this school,” Elmendorf said.

As part of these efforts, Gray travels around the country to recruit students of color and hosts an annual conference specifically for prospective minority students. Over the past year, she has specifically focused on recruiting from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) over the past year in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia, she said.

“I had an opportunity to work with some colleagues and peers where I decided to essentially run specific and targeted HBCU recruitment,” Gray said.

But limited funding and manpower have posed challenges; the Office of Diversity and Inclusion currently only consists of Gray and one part-time staffer.

“You have to kind of think about what you can do in a year's time frame, not just financially but also with resources of people, as you know the office right now is completely myself and the part-time person,” Gray said. “That’s been a bit of a challenge.”

One of the main recommendations of the task force report called on the school to hire an “Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging” who will be charged with facilitating conversations about diversity, developing strategies to improve the school’s climate, and report on issues around diversity and inclusion at HKS. After an eight-month search process, Robbin Chapman, now an associate provost at Wellesley College, will start as the new associate dean for diversity in April.

The task force report also recommended collaborating with programs that identify “top talent from underrepresented communities”—such as Posse and New York City Urban Fellows—asking faculty to communicate with top admits via email or phone, and connecting prospective students to current students based on shared interests or identities.

Sasha Ramani, a current student ambassador with the HKS admissions office, said the database used to connect prospective students to current students now allows students to specify they are a “self-identifying person of color.”

According to Meredith Sandberg, another current student ambassador, the ambassadors’ role in the office is mainly on a volunteer basis and is focused on providing information about HKS to prospective students.

“Occasionally, the prospective students request to be connected with current students of specific backgrounds (demographic, professional, policy interest, etc) and we make our best effort to find a student who meets that request as nearly as possible and has the time to add it to their busy on campus schedule,” Sandberg wrote in an email Thursday.

The dean said the school began implementing more of the task force’s recommendations over the past year for the Class of 2019.

Gray said the dean and administrators “wholeheartedly” support initiatives to increase minority recruitment.

“We'll continue having conversations, and we'll continue to recruit and continue to be out there finding the unheard voices and bringing them to the Kennedy School,” she said.


For the relatively few minority students who do make the decision to come to Cambridge, the dearth of students who share their racial or ethnic identity can translate into uncomfortable experiences in the classroom.

Meredith D. Tavera, a second year Masters in Public Policy student and a co-chair of the Latinx Caucus at the Kennedy School, said the Latinx population—both in the caucus and the school in general—is “quite small.”

“I think most of us feel that we can count on our hands the number of Latinx people at the school,” Tavera said.

M.P.P. student Claris J. Chang said she saw the lack of diversity at the school when she was placed into her cohort. At the Kennedy School, students are placed in cohorts of about 60 people each, Chang said, and hers included four Asian American women.

“I was noting that Asian Americans in our classes were noticeably quieter and less folded into the overarching culture,” Chang, who is Taiwanese-American, said.

This effect is especially noticeable, she said, at a school focused on politics and social change.

“We're here at a school that talks about what we can do, but we forget to ask who we're doing it for and what their needs are,” she said. “It's so important that we actually have those perspectives that are being shared in the classroom and we have conversations about what those perspectives are that are missing.”

In the wake of the task force report, those conversations have multiplied—particularly within student affinity and advocacy groups. Students are calling for better recruitment outreach, support, and programming for minority students at the Kennedy School.

The Black Student Union at the Harvard Kennedy School sent Elmendorf an official response to the report, laying out their own recommendations for the Kennedy School to adopt.

“As you embark on a final set of recommendations, we hope that you will proactively engage black students, faculty, and staff who can candidly speak to our experiences and provide the necessary context to guide your decision making,” the response reads. “Additionally, we hope that the final report includes more detailed recommendations with measurable goals and a timeline for implementation.”

BSU leaders, including McClendon, met with the dean several times to speak about initiatives the group hopes to implement, including additional events centered around diverse speakers and a “formalized” recruitment and outreach strategy for students of color.

“Part of the reason I wanted to be the BSU President was specifically to work on this work,” McClendon said. “It's really important to me that as I leave and graduate that whatever students come after me have a good experience and have a better experience than I have had.”

Powell, who described the task force report as “very elementary,” said the student-run Diversity Committee has led many discussions around diversity-related concerns at the school, and that she thinks the report did not do enough to address these concerns.

“It’s really, for me, another exercise of checking the box to say that the school is committed to diversity without actually committing to action,” Powell said.

Elmendorf said he and other administrators are actively working to make changes at the school.

“We are proceeding to implement the recommendations of the task force. It is a priority of mine and of the other leaders of the Kennedy School to create a more diverse and inclusive environment,” Elmendorf said. “I think to make these changes, in the way that should be made, took a longer time than I or other members of our community would like.”

The pace of change remains slow in part because of frequent student turnover, Powell said. Most of the Kennedy School’s degree programs do not last longer than two years, so sustaining student activism can prove challenging. Powell said that, while she headed the Diversity Committee, she often heard students voice concerns that diversity initiatives tend to get caught in bureaucratic limbo.

“The committee loses momentum but… the quick turnover of students work[s] in the favor of the administration because the students who are really fired up about diversity will eventually leave soon or later because their program is at maximum two years,” Powell said.

“It works in their favor to beat around the bush and to push things off as long as they can and as long as they need to,” she added.

Elmendorf said successfully addressing issues related to diversity and inclusion requires a lengthy process.

“I share the frustration of members that we are not making faster progress, but doing the sorts of changes that we need to do right takes time,” he said.

The task force report bluntly acknowledges in its introduction that making strides on diversity will not be easy.

“The Kennedy School should be a place where every student, staff person, and faculty member feels that they belong,” the report reads. “But creating that sense of belonging and the reality of inclusion is hard work.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: March 29, 2018

A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated none of the Kennedy School's degree programs last longer than two years. In fact, most of the Kennedy School's degree programs do not last longer than two years.

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