As part of ongoing efforts to promote greater diversity and inclusivity at the Harvard Kennedy School, student activists recently launched a petition demanding more faculty of color and more attention to issues of race and racism in curriculum.
Addressed to the Kennedy School administration, the petition calls for the addition of at least three new tenure-track faculty of color and three new courses that discuss policy issues through the lens of race and racism. As of Thursday afternoon, it had garnered 275 signatures according to Janice S. Tolbert, a Kennedy School student involved who helped organize the petition. The petition was first made available April 5, coinciding with the Kennedy School’s admitted students day.
The petition also urges administrators to continue offering Professor Khalil G. Muhammad’s course DPI 391: “Race, Inequality and American Democracy” – or a course similar to it – while he is on sabbatical. Many students who initially organized the petition said they were inspired by the course, which examines constructs of racial identity and ideology in American history.
Tolbert took the class last semester and referred to it in an email as “by far the most powerful and transformative course” of her academic career.
“Many students walked away from Professor Muhammad's Race, Inequality, and American Democracy course asking why this type of conversation was not taking place elsewhere,” Tolbert wrote.
Kennedy School Black Student Union president Akina E. Younge was a course assistant for Muhammad during her first year at the Kennedy School. She said the readings for his class – which included works by black intellectuals and organizers like W.E.B. Du Bois – differed markedly from her Master in Public Policy core classes.
“That’s not a content that is woven yet into the MPP core, even though it very easily could be woven into every single part of our MPP core,” Younge said.
Younge said when she first came to the Kennedy School, she was struck by the lack of discourse about racial equity issues.
“I was very surprised at the lack of conversations about institutional and structural racism at a place like the Kennedy School, where people are going to be making policies for the world,” Younge said.
During her first semester at the Kennedy School last fall, Tolbert had a similar experience. She said many classes failed to thoroughly explore racial disparities.
“When we are talking about any kind of policy area – like health policy or economic policy – there should be a conversation on racial disparities, but I also think that there should also be a discussion on how those disparities came about,” Tolbert said. “I don’t really hear a lot of that taking place.”
In addition to demanding new courses that explicitly address race and racism, students are pressuring the Kennedy School to amp up recruitment efforts for faculty of color.
Only one professor identified as Hispanic or Latinx and only two professors identified as Black or African American, according to a diversity report released by the Kennedy School last October,
Younge said this lack of racial representation among faculty is worrying for many reasons, one being that it limits “true pluralistic conversation.”
Tolbert said while everyone can benefit from a diverse faculty, racial representation among faculty is especially important for students of color.
“It’s an opportunity to connect and to build mentoring relationships, or to secure future advocates for the journey ahead,” Tolbert said.
The students also took issue with broader diversity efforts among Kennedy School administrators and staff in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Younge said though the administration has supported racial equity efforts in theory, they have not taken sufficient action.
“I’ve been here for two years, I haven’t seen any significant results,” Younge said. “I don’t feel like the culture of this place has changed, and where it has changed has been all student-led.”
Gail Chalef, a spokesperson for the Kennedy School, declined to comment on the petition and students’ statements.
— Staff writer Jania J. Tumey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.