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After Criticism Over Roth Veto, HKS Dean Elmendorf Stresses Importance of Discussing Difficult Issues

In an interview with The Crimson Tuesday, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf stressed the importance of discussing difficult issues.
In an interview with The Crimson Tuesday, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf stressed the importance of discussing difficult issues. By Julian J. Giordano
By Thomas J. Mete and Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, who earlier this year faced scrutiny for allegedly vetoing a fellow who was critical of Israel, stressed the importance of discussing difficult issues at Harvard and around the country in a Tuesday interview.

In January, Elmendorf faced widespread backlash from faculty and students following reporting by the Nation that he vetoed the fellowship of Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth at the Carr Center for Human Rights, allegedly over Roth’s criticism of Israel. Elmendorf later reversed his decision, following petitions calling for his resignation and nationwide scrutiny.

“I think there is a broad concern in higher education in this country about whether students feel they can engage in candid conversations about difficult issues,” Elmendorf said in an interview with The Crimson.

“Empowering candid conversations is not something that deans can wave a magic wand to accomplish,” he added.

During a February Institute of Politics forum, Roth accused Harvard of demonstrating “plenty of pro-Israel tilting” and called for change to the balance of pro-Palestinine and pro-Israel perspectives among speakers and faculty.

But on Tuesday, Elmendorf said affiliates offer a “range of views about Israel and the Palestinians” and denied that the Kennedy School is biased on any political issues.

“The school is not pro or anti any particular position on public policy issues,” he said. “The school is a place for people to learn and form their own views about public policy issues.”

Elmendorf said HKS has a committee that aims to foster constructive dialogue among affiliates on different issues.

“I think we have more work to do on candid conversations generally, and I think that work can and will apply across a whole range of different difficult issues,” he said.

Elmendorf said he believes constructive conversations on divisive topics can benefit both the education and the future professional success of HKS students.

“Being able to disagree with somebody in a way that is hard on the topic, but not personally offensive, can take some practice. It’s something people need to learn how to do,” Elmendorf said.

“Not all of our current public leaders model that very well, but it’s crucial for effective public leadership,” he added.

During the interview, Elmendorf also discussed the potential merger of HKS’ Master of Public Policy and Master of Public Administration programs into one expanded degree. Elmendorf wrote in a March email that the school was in “early stages of exploring” a plan to combine the two programs.

Elmendorf said there are three primary considerations in potentially combining the programs, pointing to an imbalance between the number of applicants to the MPP versus the MPA program, calls to increase flexibility, and the need to accommodate joint degree programs.

“The idea that these programs might come together is an old idea predating my time in school,” he said. “It was considered before, recommended by some people before, not quite pursued.”

In January, the Kennedy School Student Government sent an email to MPA students, writing that Elmendorf made the “broad decision” to merge the programs. According to the email, Elmendorf told representatives in the meeting that “high level decisions concerning program changes do not require student input.”

On Tuesday, Elmendorf said administrators are speaking with alumni of the program, current students, faculty, and staff to make an informed decision on the merger.

​​”It’s important in making big changes to hear a lot of different voices,” Elmendorf said. “I decided it was worth doing a deep dive. Nobody has decided what we will ultimately do because that depends on the consultations we’re having.”

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @asherjmont.

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