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At Meeting, Kennedy School Students Raise Diversity Concerns

The Harvard Kennedy School.
The Harvard Kennedy School. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Alexandra A. Chaidez, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Kennedy School affiliates raised a number of diversity-related concerns Wednesday at the first meeting of the school’s diversity committee this semester, with some attendees questioning the school’s commitment to change.

The Kennedy School Diversity Committee, commonly known as DivCo,
is a student-run organization that offers students, faculty, and staff at the school the opportunity to raise and address issues of diversity and inclusion. HKS Dean of Students Debra E. Isaacson called the meeting last Friday, according to an email sent by her executive assistant Erin O’Connell Friday.

O'Connell's email came the same day The Crimson published the findings of a Kennedy School task force on diversity and inclusion; those findings highlighted the school’s struggle to recruit minority students. Since 2005, the admissions rate for African-American and Latinx students has remained stagnant, and the yield rate for African-American students has declined.

Some students said they found it concerning that Isaacson called the first meeting of the committee so late in the semester.

“I am a bit disappointed that this is the first meeting of the semester, considering we’re a month away from the end of the school year,” Shaniqua L. McClendon, a second-year Master in Public Policy student and president of the Black Student Union, wrote in an email Thursday. “Considering the great deal of interest in diversity at the Kennedy School these meetings should be held more regularly.”

In recent years, the Kennedy School has grappled with a number of diversity-related issues. HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf convened the task force of students, faculty, and staff in 2016 to research specific areas of the school and recommend initiatives to promote diversity. In May 2017, the group released its draft report, recommending ways to improve the number of U.S.-born minority students and the overall culture of the school.

The group’s main recommendation was to hire an associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and belonging to address and implement diversity initiatives within the school. 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.

Students who attended the meeting—which was off-the-record and lasted for more than an hour—said the committee discussed Chapman’s appointment and questioned whether she would have the necessary clout to enforce new policies.

“There was specifically pushback from students about what kind of teeth will her role have,” Justin E. Galle, a second-year MPP student, said. “Is she going to be able to mandate things?”

“There wasn’t a great response to that,” he added.

Galle also said the meeting included remarks from Academic Dean Archon Fung, who led the meeting along with Isaacson, as well as student questions.

“The way Dean Fung runs these meetings isn’t always conducive to productivity or students feeling welcome to share opinions,” Galles said. “Someone specifically said towards the end of the meeting: ‘You kind of put up a wall when you should be acting like a sponge.’”

In a statement provided by Kennedy School spokesperson Doug Gavel, Fung wrote he works to listen and find common ground among students and other attendees of these meetings.

“We constantly strive to reach common understanding between students, staff, and faculty, and we hope that our practice of shared governance between administrators and students on the Diversity Committee advances that understanding,” Fung wrote.

Several students expressed concern about the timing of the meeting. Administrators held the session at 10:30 a.m.–a time when many Kennedy School students have classes, students said. Nonetheless, McClendon and Galles both said around 30 people attended the event.

“It’s just a middle-of-the-day kind of time when people have things going on,” Amy J. Zhou, a second year student in the MPP program who was not able to attend the meeting, said.

In a statement Thursday, Isaacson wrote she made every effort to schedule these committee meetings at times that are convenient and cognizant of competing time constraints.

“My office worked with the three student co-chairs to find a time suitable for them, while also being mindful of faculty and staff committee members and their availability,” Isaacson wrote. We do our best to stagger the days and times of these meetings throughout the semester, to ensure that everyone in our community has some opportunity to participate in our committee discussions.”

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

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