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An Oath for Public Servants, Not Just Physicians

Harvard can't combat injustice without actively equipping its students to do the same.

By Anil B. Hurkadli
Anil B. Hurkadli is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The group rises in unison, and the rustling of their cloth graduation gowns is the only thing that can be heard across John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. Each graduate raises their right hand and speaks clearly, emotions rising with every phrase:

“We, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Class of 2022, stand together to take our oath as we commit to the noble profession of public service. In keeping with the great traditions of President John F. Kennedy and our predecessors, we make these pledges for times of peace and times of crisis, to our constituents and ourselves: I will do no harm. I will undertake public service with humility. I will always be truthful, recognize the limits of my knowledge, and seek guidance when uncertain. I will be a voice for justice and recognize where our institutions perpetuate injustice.”

This scenario should not seem far-fetched. As Joseph R. Biden Jr. prepares to ascend to the presidency after four turbulent years and my first semester at the Kennedy School draws to a close, I am reflecting upon the great responsibility that comes with the privilege of studying here.

Many Harvard alumni sowed discord as members of the Trump administration, and some have called on the school to publicly condemn their harmful actions. This is an important step, but Harvard is facing a deeper reckoning. To truly fulfill their missions, Harvard graduate schools must take stronger measures to equip every student with the knowledge, skills, mindsets, and relationships they need to be more ethical, just leaders.

Unfortunately, a sense of personal responsibility isn’t an innate mindset. It must be cultivated intentionally. Harvard Medical School doesn’t toss an anatomy book at aspiring doctors and then leave them to do with the information what they will. Why not administer an oath to every Harvard Law School and Kennedy School graduate, similar to the one recited during a medical school white coat ceremony? While not legally binding, an oath serves as a moral guide to ensure future policy leaders and elected officials make a public commitment to ethical leadership. The inspiration for the fictional oath above was the one taken by this year’s Yale Medical School graduates, who were asked to compose an oath that reflects their shared values as a class. We would be following in the footsteps of courageous young doctors who are reimagining what these oaths might represent.

Policy, like medicine, has a tremendous capacity to heal or to harm. As scholars, practitioners, and leaders, we have an ethical obligation to use the skills we gain at Harvard for good — and to do no harm along the way.

I am not advocating that schools begin administering litmus tests for admission or requiring universal agreement on the most important issues of our time. An oath simply binds a class together in a nonpartisan commitment to humble, truthful, and just leadership.

Of course, Harvard’s graduate schools can also take more concrete steps to foster personal and ethical responsibility while preserving the diversity of thought that characterizes our experience.

At the Kennedy School, there is undeniable evidence to support broader curricular changes. This academic year, after decades of lobbying, the administration approved the introduction of a new core requirement for all Master in Public Policy students, DPI-385: “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power.” As a member of the course’s inaugural teaching team, I witnessed firsthand how students, both eager and skeptical, domestic and international, digested this country’s disturbing and painful history of violence and oppression. They celebrated narratives of resistance, came to understand the global implications of American racism, and internalized it all as knowledge absolutely necessary to their leadership, regardless of sector. After this summer’s global uprising against racial injustice, there should be little doubt that this knowledge must be a basic requirement for any program with a goal of preparing tomorrow’s policy leaders.

Faculty and staff should also be trained to facilitate difficult conversations, which increase the likelihood that students graduate less polarized and more able to engage across lines of difference. Amid multiple global crises that impact every student — and as some students feel genuine fear for their safety because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, or political affiliations — faculty must be able to create space to acknowledge these challenges and help each of us make sense of our differences.

Harvard says it wants to combat racism. The only way for the University to truly do so is to reimagine and redesign every aspect of the student experience through a justice lens. In the scenario envisioned above, when future Kennedy School students lower their hands upon the conclusion of the oath to do no harm as public servants, a just world is not a guaranteed outcome. But if Harvard does more to cultivate a sense of personal and ethical responsibility, students will be united in their commitment and equipped to forge that oath into reality.

Anil B. Hurkadli is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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