‘The Eye of Every Storm’: Finding the Next Harvard Kennedy School Dean Amid Global Crisis

By Thomas J. Mete and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers
By Toby R. Ma

Six weeks after Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced his decision to step down at the end of the year, the search for his successor has begun in earnest.

In an email to Kennedy School affiliates, University President Claudine Gay and Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 — who will co-lead the search — announced the members of a 15-person advisory committee who will assist in the search and invited students and faculty to weigh in on the priorities and traits sought in the next dean.

“The mission of Harvard Kennedy School — to improve public policy and public leadership, so people can live in societies that are safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous — has never been more important,” Gay and Garber wrote.

In the coming months, the pair will prioritize finding a new dean who can “marshal the rich intellectual resources and energy of HKS to address the myriad challenges facing our nation and our world,” they said.

With more than 23,000 alumni, the Kennedy School has served as a launchpad for a vast array of public servants, government officials, military leaders, and academics both in the United States and abroad since its founding in 1936.

Elmendorf’s exit raises questions about the future of Harvard’s vaunted policy school as its scholars are called to confront escalating geopolitical crises, with ongoing wars between Israel and Hamas as well as Ukraine and Russia — both of which have become major focuses of U.S. foreign policy.

Gay’s fifth dean search could be her most precarious, coming as the University faces intense scrutiny for statements by its administration and its students on the Israel-Hamas war and centering on the school whose work most closely involves that conflict. Already, HKS has received backlash, with several prominent donors severing their ties with the school over what they viewed as insufficient support for Israel.

Democracy and governance professor Tarek E. Masoud said he believes the Kennedy School is “one of the most public facing parts of Harvard University.”

“A lot of the issues that we deal with at the Kennedy School are hot-button issues that rouse a lot of intense emotions,” he said. “What we try to do at the Kennedy School is substitute emotion with logic, evidence, rigor, reasoned argument, but the Kennedy School is almost in the eye of every storm by design, given how central public policy is to our mission.”

The Crimson spoke with 22 HKS faculty members about their priorities in the search and the scholars they hope to see considered for the school’s top post. Some faculty members were granted anonymity to speak freely about the search and the school’s current administration.

‘Restoring Trust’

The next dean of the Kennedy School will be tasked with rebuilding confidence in the school’s administration after years of fraught relations between the school and many of its affiliates.

In the past year, Elmendorf faced clarion calls to resign from Kennedy School affiliates in two separate instances — first, following accusations that he had vetoed a fellowship for former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth over his criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestine, and second, after The Crimson reported he was abruptly forcing misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan out of her role at the school.

After his veto of the Roth fellowship, more than 1,000 Harvard affiliates demanded Elmendorf step down in an open letter. Following the Donovan news, 121 signed a renewed call for his resignation.

Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, accused Elmendorf of blocking his HKS fellowship over Roth's criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, accused Elmendorf of blocking his HKS fellowship over Roth's criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. By Julian J. Giordano

“I believe the HKS community is still in the process of restoring trust and something more has to be done for the community to heal,” HKS graduate Akira Shimabukuro wrote in a statement at the time.

Elmendorf declined to comment for this article.

The next dean will also need to decide whether to push forward or roll back controversial initiatives advanced by Elmendorf in his final year in the role.

In a March email to students, Elmendorf announced that the school was in the “early stages of exploring” a merger of its Master in Public Policy and Master in Public Administration programs, sparking backlash from the HKS student government.

The school also faced significant criticism over a consolidation of the Kennedy School’s student-run policy journals into a single “HKS Student Policy Review” — a move the journals’ student editors said they had little input in.

“Some of the challenges and feedback that we’re seeing is that this dean in particular hasn’t been student-facing,” Kennedy School Student Government President NanaEfua Afoh-Manin said. “Finding a dean who really is student facing is probably the most important thing. Just for emotional well-being for the student body, they need to feel like the dean that’s coming in actually cares.”

Perhaps most pressingly, the next Kennedy School dean will be entrusted with mending fractured relationships with some of the school’s donors over the University’s response to the attacks on Israel by Hamas.

In a statement to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, the Wexner Foundation severed its financial and programmatic ties to the University, ending a fellowship that sent Israeli students to HKS for decades. Leslie H. Wexner, the foundation’s co-founder, is the namesake of one of the Kennedy School’s six buildings and gave more than $42 million to the school prior to 2012.

Citing similar concerns about the University’s response to the invasion, Israeli billionaires Idan and Batia Ofer quit the HKS executive board last Friday.

Masoud said that these reactions reflect a dynamic in which there will “almost invariably be people who will be disappointed or even upset with things that faculty or administrators produce.”

“An adept administrator needs to be able to navigate and continue to just communicate that the goal of an institution of higher education is to convene debate, not to weigh in on one side or the other of a debate,” he said.

Roth said Elmendorf allowed himself to be too easily influenced by the school’s donors in his role as dean, citing the initial rejection of his fellowship.

“The Kennedy School has invited donor pressure to curtail academic freedom by getting into the censorship business,” Roth said.

Professor Mathias Risse, who spoke out against Elmendorf’s decision to veto Roth’s fellowship, wrote in an email that the severing of the Wexner Foundation’s ties with the Kennedy School “makes clear again how demanding” the dean role is.

“Being dean of the Harvard Kennedy School is as close to having an impossible academic job as it gets,” Risse wrote. “At the same time, the demandingness of the job also plainly reflects how unusual and exciting an academic institution the Harvard Kennedy School is.”

Elmendorf will play no formal role in the search for his successor, according to University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain, though consistent with other outgoing deans, he “will be available to the advisory committee for consultation to inform their consideration around challenges and opportunities for HKS.”

Elmendorf has come under fire for a number of decisions, including allegedly blocking fellowship over the recipient's criticisms of Israel and considering a merger of HKS' Master in Public Policy and Master in Public Administration programs.
Elmendorf has come under fire for a number of decisions, including allegedly blocking fellowship over the recipient's criticisms of Israel and considering a merger of HKS' Master in Public Policy and Master in Public Administration programs. By Julian J. Giordano

The Search Begins

The search for Elmendorf’s successor will likely accelerate in the coming days with the advisory committee now in place and a meeting with faculty members slated for Monday.

The 15-person body consists primarily of Kennedy School faculty, but also includes prominent figures from elsewhere in the University.

Members include Harvard Business School Dean Srikant M. Datar, Law School professor Richard J. Lazarus, and Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo. Two academic deans at the Kennedy School — Erica Chenoweth and David J. Deming — are also serving on the committee, as is Meghan L. O’Sullivan, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Other committee members are Marcella M. Alsan ’99, Christopher N. Avery ’88, Hannah Riley Bowles, Jason Furman ’92, Fredrik Logevall, Rana Mitter, Carmen M. Reinhart, Daniel Schneider, and Sandra S. Smith.

These individuals will also participate in a “broader outreach plan,” according to Gay and Garber’s letter, which requests that HKS affiliates offer thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the school and put forward their priorities and preferred picks.

Though the Kennedy School Student Government had sought a greater formal role in the process, in the form of three seats on the advisory committee, the University has provided only an email address, a Qualtrics form, and a mailing address for student insight on the dean search.

According to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton, the search for the Kennedy School Dean will look similar to other leadership searches. The process will involve considering nominations for the role, along with broader input and insights from affiliates.

Gay will meet with all faculty who choose to attend next week on Oct. 23 for a preliminary consultation.

Based on previous searches, this initial meeting will likely be followed by a gathering of the search committee, where Gay and Garber will discuss issues facing the Kennedy School and the qualities necessary for a new dean.

In the following days, as in past searches, nomination submissions from search advisers and from other University deans around the country will likely be gathered into a list with around 60 names and basic biographical information.

After this list is compiled, Gay and Garber will likely select a shortlist of about a dozen names from the initial list who advisers will speak to in greater detail and assess.

From this point, the list will steadily winnow — with greater involvement from the president and provost in individual candidate assessments — until a final candidate is selected.

University President Claudine Gay and Provost Alan M. Garber '76 will co-lead the search for the next dean of the Harvard Kennedy School.
University President Claudine Gay and Provost Alan M. Garber '76 will co-lead the search for the next dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. By Julian J. Giordano

‘A Broad Range of Concerns’

At next week’s consultation, faculty from all corners of the Kennedy School will put forward what they view as the most pressing issues facing the school.

Over the last decade, the Kennedy School has experienced a dramatic surge in international students, with more than 50 percent of the student body coming from outside the U.S. The focus of the school’s curriculum, however, has not shifted quite as fast.

“The Kennedy School in the time I’ve been here has really become a global place where there are students from around the world with a broad range of concerns and different challenges that they’re dealing with,” Masoud said.

Masoud added that the Kennedy School should be a place where international student can gain knowledge that is relevant to “the missions that they’re going to fulfill when they go back to their home country.”

This influx of international students has led several professors to suggest a reevaluation of the Kennedy School’s selection of policy classes — which presently skew toward U.S. concerns.

“If we’re going to continue to build classes that are at this level of international students, we will have to diversify the curriculum and enhance the faculty’s skill sets to meet their particular needs,” said history, race, and public policy professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

“The school remains U.S.-centric in terms of the expertise of its faculty, and that mismatch is a source of some challenge in the classroom, both for me and for many of my colleagues,” he added.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. By Julian J. Giordano

As the Kennedy School expands its curricular domain, it also wades into conflicts without easy policy prescriptions — and where academic exploration meets the constraints of external pressures to limit debate.

“The Kennedy School needs courageous and transparent leadership at a time of tremendous uncertainty in the world, and a crisis of legitimacy for expertise and truth,” Muhammad said. “A future dean will have to model trust and character and integrity in order to build a stronger and more effective institution to meet the challenges that we face.”

Roth said it is critical for the University to select someone who is “committed to academic freedom.”

Roth added that he had pushed both Elmendorf and Garber, the University provost, to publicly declare that commitment to academic freedom on issues concerning Israel and Palestine — but “each refused to do it,” he said.

“If the dean has that commitment, then I don’t really care what their personal views are,” Roth said. “But if the selection committee is going to look for somebody who is going to enforce censorship on their favorite topics, that’s a big problem.”

The next dean of the Kennedy School will also have to guide the school’s approach to addressing global gender issues — both domestically after the fall of Roe v. Wade as well as internationally with ongoing clashes over women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan.

Pointing to these issues, several faculty members said Gay should appoint a woman to lead the Kennedy School for the first time in its history.

“A woman dean would send a signal and I think it would send a signal that is powerfully needed in the world,” said HKS professor Sheila S. Jasanoff ’64.

“As a general principle, I favor having a female dean after a long string of men — just as I might well favor a male dean after a long string of women in some other position,” Public Policy, Government and African and African American Studies professor Jennifer Hochschild wrote in an email.

Some faculty are also hoping for a change of pace in terms of academic background. The next dean will succeed two decades of economists holding the top post at HKS, a contentious point among portions of the faculty.

“We do not need another person who is an economist to lead the Kennedy School,” Muhammad said.

“We are well resourced in terms of faculty who can bring the best of economics to the school's curriculum. We need people who bring more balance to how the school conceptualizes this leadership,” he added.

Looking Inward

Of the four deans that Gay has appointed in her first year as president, all have been current or former Harvard faculty members — which some have taken as a sign that she is likely to look close to home for the next Kennedy School dean.

In conversations with The Crimson, Kennedy School faculty members said a set of six internal choices stood out as uniquely qualified to head the school.

Faculty members identified Kennedy School professors Danielle S. Allen, Iris Bohnet, Chenoweth, Deming, Archon Fung, and Deval L. Patrick ’78 as particularly strong picks to lead the Kennedy School into its next chapter.

Chenoweth, the HKS dean of faculty engagement, and Deming, one of the school’s academic deans, were both subsequently named as part of the advisory committee; they would likely have to step down from the body to be considered for the role.

Of the names mentioned — three are women, three are people of color, and one is international. All would be firsts for the Kennedy School, which has only had white American men at the helm since its founding in 1936.

Muhammad said he viewed the dean search as an opportunity for the University to embrace diversity at the Kennedy School.

“I’d be surprised if this weren’t an opportunity to find a dean who was not a white man, and I wholeheartedly support that,” he said. “I would caution though, that representation alone is insufficient to the kind of leader I imagine in this role.”

Chenoweth received praise for their commitment to consensus and inclusivity, though declined having interest in the role in a statement to The Crimson.

“I am deeply appreciative of my colleagues’ confidence. However, I have many satisfying responsibilities to the Kennedy School, the College, and my family,” they wrote.

Deming, the faculty dean of Kirkland House since 2020, declined that he was considering additional roles, including the Kennedy School job.

“I have made a commitment to the wonderful students of Kirkland House,” he wrote in an email.

Fung, the former HKS interim dean and director of the school’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, was applauded for his distinguished research and academic profile by several colleagues.

“Archon Fung is a scholar of enormous renown,” Masoud said. “He is also a fundamentally good human being — I’ve known him now for 15 years. As the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, he’s brought tremendous energy to that institution and really imbued it with a new spirit.”

Six faculty members, however, said Fung’s stint as interim dean from June 2015 to January 2016 exhibited a lack of vision and weak leadership. Some questioned his ability to move the school in a new direction.

Fung, who has served as a professor of citizenship and self-government since 1999, served as the chair of the faculty and staff advisory panel to the presidential search committee that tapped Gay for Harvard’s top post earlier this year.

Fung did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Allen, the director of the Ash Center’s Lab for Democracy Renovation and a University Professor — Harvard’s highest faculty honor — has long been held in high regard by her colleagues. She was considered one of four favorites late in the process for the 2018 Harvard presidential search that ultimately landed on Lawrence S. Bacow.

Allen set her sights on higher office in 2021, running in the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary before suspending her campaign February 2022.

In an emailed statement, Allen wrote she is “not a candidate for the role,” adding that she is “very glad to have joined the Ash Center and HKS” and to be working on the Democracy Renovation lab.

Danielle S. Allen is a University Professor, Harvard's highest faculty title, and ran for Massachusetts governor before suspending her campaign in 2022.
Danielle S. Allen is a University Professor, Harvard's highest faculty title, and ran for Massachusetts governor before suspending her campaign in 2022. By Sophia C. Scott

Bohnet, a Swiss economist, is considered a potential pick by many senior economists at the Kennedy School — a faction that largely supports and predicts her potential deanship, according to two tenured economics professors.

Bohnet declined to comment on her potential candidacy for the deanship.

With 25 years of experience at HKS as a professor with a stint as academic dean, Bohnet has acquired the institutional knowledge necessary to serve as dean, with one faculty member noting that she is already deeply embedded in HKS administrative decisions.

Some faculty members, however, believe there should be a significant shift from the Kennedy School’s focus on economics — a change in vision that Bohnet would not necessarily usher in, given her academic background.

Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, is the only one of the six who has served in public office, an attribute that has divided those within HKS. Patrick’s experience is seen as an asset for a training based school, but others said his minimal research background could harm the Kennedy School’s academic credibility.

Deval L. Patrick '78 is the former governor of Massachusetts and a current professor of the practice of public leadership at the HKS.
Deval L. Patrick '78 is the former governor of Massachusetts and a current professor of the practice of public leadership at the HKS. By Josie W. Chen

Patrick could find himself as the next dean with little opposition, according to two senior faculty members — though he has actively told faculty members he has no interest in the role, they added.

Patrick declined to comment on whether he had any interest in the deanship.

While internal speculation surrounds names familiar to the Kennedy School, the search will almost certainly consider names both inside and out.

Masoud said though many Kennedy School faculty members could “step into the role of dean and perform with flying colors,” a comprehensive search is necessary.

“It would behoove the president of the University to cast an extremely wide net,” Masoud said. “The idea here is really not just to get somebody who would be good enough as dean of the Kennedy School, but really, the very best person that we can get.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at thomas.mete@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @thomasjmete.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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