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Harvard Kennedy School Affiliates Petition HKS Dean Elmendorf for School Holiday on Election Day

A group of Harvard Kennedy School students, alumni, faculty and staff sent HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf an open letter Friday requesting he designate Election Day a school holiday.
A group of Harvard Kennedy School students, alumni, faculty and staff sent HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf an open letter Friday requesting he designate Election Day a school holiday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Raquel Coronell Uribe, Crimson Staff Writer

A group of Harvard Kennedy School students, alumni, faculty and staff sent HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf an open letter Friday requesting he designate Election Day a school holiday.

The letter, which 169 signatories have currently endorsed, asked that the school deem Nov. 3 a holiday to “encourage students, faculty, and staff to be active participants in our democracy.” It emphasized the need for civic engagement beyond voting, citing how the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for poll workers because the virus poses a higher risk to older volunteers from past cycles.

The open letter quoted an email Dean Elmendorf sent in 2018. At the time he wrote that “days on which voting occurs—in this country and others—are important moments for public service,” and that “fulfilling your civic responsibility is compatible with fulfilling your responsibilities to the School.”

The open letter urged the dean to “inspire” students, staff, and faculty at the Kennedy School to engage civically and called on Elmendorf to “set an example” for other universities and organizations across the country. Harvard affiliates have also called on University President Lawrence S. Bacow to make Election Day a Harvard-wide holiday.

HKS spokesperson James F. Smith did not respond to a request for comment on the petition.

The open letter comes on the heels of a private petition sent to the dean on October 8 by a group of student leaders at the Kennedy School.

The petition, a bipartisan effort, was co-signed by the chairs of the school’s Republican and Democratic Caucuses, Kennedy School Student Government representatives, and organizers from the Harvard Votes Challenge. Lauren M. Lombardo, the Republican Caucus co-chair, said having Election Day off is an important way to encourage all forms of civic engagement.

“I mostly think it's important that students, faculty and staff should be able to engage in the electoral process however they choose to. And for some people, that's going to include wanting to work on campaigns or work on nonpartisan ‘get out the vote’ efforts or work as poll workers. And I think that we should encourage as many people as are inclined to do that work, to be involved in the process in that way,” Lombardo said.

The private petition cited a report on student voting rates from Tufts University, which noted that only 40.1 percent of eligible Harvard graduate students voted in the 2016 election.

Elmendorf denied the students’ request in a response to their letter, though he said he recognized the importance of voting.

“Whether the Kennedy School, or the University as a whole, should declare U.S. Election Day as a holiday is a question that has received attention for some time, as you note,” Elmendorf wrote. “However, the country has not made that change, and neither has the University, and the Kennedy School will not this year either.”

The Kennedy School Student Government expressed disappointment with the administration’s decision in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

“While current federal policy does not make Election Day a holiday, we believe that an institution with the Harvard Kennedy School’s power and privilege can be a strong voice and lead to making it a national holiday. While we disagree with this decision we will continue to work with the administration to ensure that professors are encouraged to excuse absences for students participating in voting or serving as election volunteers,” the statement reads.

Elmendorf also referenced the Kennedy School’s online semester, writing that the virtual nature of classes provides more flexibility for students to carry out voting-related tasks on Election Day.

“For students and faculty, the virtual nature of classes hopefully provides additional flexibility for their voting and other election-related activities on that day. Moreover, with so much early and absentee voting now in the country, I expect that some members of our community are engaging in Election Day-type activities already,” Elmendorf wrote.

However, some students said they are skeptical that virtual classes truly allow students more flexibility. Alina M. Clough, the co-chair of the Republican Caucus, expressed that virtual learning is more time-intensive than Elmendorf thinks.

“I think there's this idea that because you're doing virtual learning, that absolutely everyone is sitting at home between classes on the couch eating Cheetos,” she said. “I think the perception that we have a lot of free time is much different than the reality for many students, especially those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds or who don't necessarily have the economic freedom to be focusing entirely on school and absolutely nothing else.”

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at raquel.coronelluribe@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy SchoolFront Middle Feature2020 Election