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Harvard Kennedy School Dean Elmendorf Says He Supports the 'Passion' of Student Activists

Harvard Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf spoke about the role of student activism in an interview Wednesday.
Harvard Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf spoke about the role of student activism in an interview Wednesday. By Sanjana S. Ramrajvel

Amid continued criticism over the lack of faculty and student diversity at the school, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said he hopes to engage with student activism in an interview Wednesday.

“Our students are passionate about making the world better. That's why we admit them to the Kennedy School — it’s because of that passion,” he said. “Universities tend to move more slowly than students want them to move, and I remember that very clearly from when I was a graduate student here at Harvard.”

Elmendorf stressed the role free speech plays in HKS’s programming, pointing to the John F. Kennedy, Jr. forum as a space for discussion between audience members and prominent speakers.

“Every event at the Kennedy School, with an outside speaker, there are questions and answers that come from the members of the audience and sometimes the questions are friendlier and sometimes the questions are more critical. That's part of the speech that we look for here,” he said. “We invite people when we think their ideas will be useful for our students to wrestle with.”

Kennedy School students and administrators have started their own discussions regarding diversity at the school in recent years.

Student groups such as the HKS Equity Coalition have advocated for the school to increase diversity in its student body, faculty, and curriculum. Earlier this month, the coalition sent an email — signed by multiple affinity groups and 375 HKS affiliates — to Elmendorf demanding that the school “commit to creating a culture and environment built on the principles of anti-racism.”

The letter called on HKS to implement mandatory diversity training for all HKS affiliates in the spring, host a required course across all degrees on the “history of race and inequality” for the upcoming fall semester, and hire faculty of color who “critically study the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and power.”

In his response, Elmendorf wrote that the Kennedy School will partner with advocacy group Community Change, Inc. to develop anti-racism workshops this spring that, if successful, will be piloted during new student orientation in the fall.

He also wrote that while he and his colleagues are “committed” to enhancing a diverse education at HKS, they are not yet convinced that “a required, standalone course is the best approach.”

Elmendorf added that the school hired five faculty members over the past three years such as Marcella M. Aslan ’99 and Desmond W. Ang “who work on aspects of ‘difference.’”

In the interview, Elmendorf, referencing the letter and his response, spoke about how the school has designed their search for new faculty to “reduce biases” and “cast a very wide net.”

“We have been able to hire outstanding people, because of that,” he added.

Elmendorf said that Sandra S. Smith, a current professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, will join the HKS faculty. Smith studies issues of urban poverty and racial inequality.

“She is one, now, of half a dozen faculty members we've hired in the last few years, who focus on race and gender identity issues,” Elmendorf said.

Elmendorf said the school also hopes to increase the amount of financial aid offered to its students.

“We're fortunate to have a lot of friends at the Kennedy School who provide financial aid who are not alumni of the school, but who believe passionately, like our students, in the importance of public service,” Elmendorf said. “And we hope to continue to increase the amount of financial aid we can offer.”

—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at

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