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How the Institute of Politics Can Lead Again

By Jamila R. O'Hara
By Emily S. Brother, Contributing Opinion Writer
Emily S. Brother ’19 is a former staff assistant at the Institute of Politics.

The mission of the Institute of Politics is to inspire students, particularly undergraduates, “to consider careers in politics and public service.” However, the IOP is struggling to meet its mission right now. According to The Crimson Editorial Board, it is an “ironic masterclass for the worst of government.”

I joined the IOP in September 2018 as a student organizer for the Harvard Votes Challenge. Then I co-led a student-staff task force to transform HVC into the IOP’s 16th student program, ensuring that HVC would receive institutional support and funding for years to come. After graduating in May 2019, I joined the IOP as a part-time civic engagement strategist before becoming a full-time, unionized staff assistant.

In February, I began asking questions about staff and student labor practices, gender-based harassment, racial microaggressions, and financial accessibility at the IOP. Instead of taking substantive and immediate action, the IOP and Harvard Kennedy School questioned my health, encouraged me to take a medical leave of absence, presented me with a severance contract, locked me out of my work email, temporarily withheld my overtime pay, and sent me a letter telling me to resign on April 2. Although I contested my termination numerous times, the IOP and HKS did not relent — leaving me without a paycheck or healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have been writing openly about my experiences on Medium ever since.

This series of unfortunate events, which unfolded out of line with Harvard’s union-bargained disciplinary process, is yet another case study in the IOP’s “ironic masterclass for the worst of government” offered every semester. Based on numerous internal conversations, I have learned that IOP and HKS leadership are chiefly concerned with protecting the reputation of the IOP — and by extension, their own professional careers. Consequently, they ignore or bury problems instead of aggressively tackling the systemic challenges that underlie such problems.

Though the IOP has worked tirelessly to maintain a pristine facade, the curtain fell on April 20, when The Crimson published an investigation into the dysfunctional relationship between the IOP and HKS and the systemic challenges plaguing the Institute. This drew much public attention to the IOP’s poor governance and its adverse impact on students.

By allowing systemic challenges to fester, IOP and HKS leadership have undermined the Institute’s reputation while threatening the safety and careers of its staff and students. If IOP and HKS leadership truly want to protect the Institute’s reputation, they must lead by example and take the following bold, substantive, and immediate actions.

Public acknowledgment: Release a public statement describing the Institute’s plan to address the systemic challenges that it currently faces. This statement should include a progress update that responds directly to the unreleased report conducted by the Derek Bok Center in spring 2019 and the critical institutional review conducted by IOP student leaders from fall 2019 through spring 2020.

Put safety first: Reimagine the IOP’s policies and practices to protect student and staff members’ physical and psychological safety. This should include creating a staff-student code of conduct, requiring all IOP staff members to participate in relevant Harvard College, HKS, and university-wide training, and establishing and maintaining an anonymous feedback system.

Clarify and explicitly state the IOP’s mission, vision, and core values: Use these to prioritize and streamline IOP programming and strategically allocate time, money, and personnel.

Democratize decision-making processes: Listening to and actually incorporating feedback from all stakeholders on an ongoing basis, explaining how decisions are made and who the decision-makers are, setting concrete deadlines, and leveraging new software and communications platforms for information sharing and project management.

Formalize Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging: Create a full-time position for a Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging who will reengineer the IOP’s culture to be more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

The Crimson reports that “Harvard alumni compose one-third of Biden’s cabinet.” In fact, former IOP Student Advisory Committee President, Peter M. Buttigieg ‘04, currently serves as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. All students who attend Harvard, including those who participate in IOP programming, go on to lead lives of consequence. As I wrote recently, “The IOP is one of many places on Harvard’s campus where our public servants of tomorrow receive leadership training today. Thus, it is the responsibility of IOP, HKS, and Harvard leadership to lead by example and to model the behaviors that we desire in our public leaders.”

Most students and staff leave the IOP with the skills and network necessary for finding success in politics and public service. But I want us to leave the IOP with the practical expertise that comes from recognizing our Institute’s own shortcomings and hypocrisy and then rebuilding the Institute to be a community where all people feel valued, respected, and a sense of belonging.

A former IOP Fellow recently told me that “to love an institution is to change it” and “believing in an institution is being willing to challenge it.” If we believe in the promise of the IOP’s mission and if we commit to reimagining the Institute to better meet that mission, then we will leave better equipped to become the public leaders that our world needs.

Emily S. Brother ’19 is a former staff assistant at the Institute of Politics.

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