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Kennedy School students and professors expressed their concerns about the lack of minority representation at the school at a town hall with the school's recently hired diversity dean Tuesday.
The Kennedy School hired Robbin Chapman as its new Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging per the recommendation of a 2017 report by the Kennedy School’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion. The report, which detailed low percentages of underrepresented minorities at the school, said this new position would “monitor the progress of diversity and inclusion activities across the school.”
Chapman’s first day at the Kennedy School was last week. Students welcomed Chapman at a reception Monday which Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf and Academic Dean Archon Fung—who chaired the task force—attended.
The following day, approximately 50 students crowded into a conference room at the school for the town hall hosted by the HKS student government. During the town hall, students voiced their concerns to Chapman, who took notes, offered comments, and asked questions throughout the meeting.
President of the Kennedy School Student Government Gessika M. Innocent said the town hall was open to all students.
“We have decided to invite Robbin to give her an opportunity to hear about what KSSG works on as well as for students to have an intimate conversation with her,” Innocent wrote in an email Monday.
Certain students were given a few minutes each to express their specific requests and thoughts about the state of diversity and inclusion at the school. Attendees raised concerns ranging from the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in the faculty to insufficient childcare to a need for compensation of students who work on these issues at the school.
Dena H. Elkhatib, a Master in Public Administration student and the co-chair of the school's Diversity Committee, said their presentation to Chapman at the meeting outlined issues which many students face and are speaking out about.
“They are cultural changes that we would like to see the school work on and fix going forward,” Elkhatib said.
Students also presented the new diversity dean with an open letter expressing their concerns and included the need for “accountability and transparency” and “student input” within diversity concerns.
Chapman said she wanted to hear student perspectives, even those who may be critical.
“I do like to hear what people are thinking,” Chapman said. “I rarely take it personally unless it is personal, and I get over it. I’m resilient.”
Chapman also said she “can absolutely agree” that she will “stand [her] ground” when advocating for students.
Professor Khalil G. Muhammad, one of the two African-American tenured professors at the school, attended the meeting. Muhammad said the “retention” of minority faculty at the Kennedy School is an issue the school must address, even if it is not an issue that he said all faculty are “in agreement” over.
He also referred to the departure of Karen Y. Jackson-Weaver, who stepped down from her post as the Kennedy School’s dean of students last spring, as an instance in which the school “erased the past.”
“We’re pretending as if she didn’t actually have students, have an agenda, have a program, and to me, that is not a personnel matter,” Muhammad said at the town hall.
Responding to Muhammad, Chapman said "we have a lot to talk about."
The Kennedy School lost three prominent African-American women leaders in the past year, including Jackson-Weaver. One of the women, Alexandra Martinez, who worked as the assistant dean for the diversity and inclusion office, said she left because of a“lack of support” she received from other school leaders.
Nadia Niven, the student government's vice president for academic affairs, said the meeting was “constructive.” She also said that though Chapman is new, students “have hope” for the future.
“This is a very timely move for Dean Chapman to come,” Niven said. “It’s a huge, huge responsibility that she is undertaking, but I think what will be important is for Dean Chapman to be supported by the administration, by the staff, and by the students because diversity is not a small issue.”
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