Harvard Kennedy School Affiliates Praise Outgoing Dean Elmendorf’s Tenure, But Acknowledge Controversies
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Harvard Kennedy School students and faculty expressed mostly positive thoughts on the eight-year tenure of outgoing Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, who announced on Thursday that he would step down from his post at the end of the academic year.
Affiliates pointed to an array of controversies faced by Elmendorf, though they also praised positive changes to the school under his leadership.
In January, Elmendorf faced calls to resign after he allegedly denied a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch leader Kenneth Roth over his criticism of Israel. Though he ultimately reversed his decision, tensions have remained between school affiliates and Elmendorf.
Under Elmendorf, the Kennedy School has also made controversial decisions to combine the school’s MPA and MPP programs, force out Harvard misinformation expert Joan Donovan, and merge student-run policy journals into one.
Joseph S. Nye, a former dean of the Kennedy School, said in an interview that challenges are expected in any dean’s tenure. Still, Nye said he believes Elmendorf has strengthened HKS since his appointment to the deanship in 2015.
“Doug has been a very good dean. We’re stronger in terms of our faculty, in terms of our research, in terms of our internal procedures, so I think it’s been eight good years,” Nye said.
“In the normal course of events, there’s bound to be issues, which will be controversial during any dean’s tenure.”
Kennedy School and Economics professor Jason L. Furman ’92 said he believes HKS is “a difficult-to-govern school.”
“Not every decision happened in the smoothest way, but I think most things ended up in the right place,” he said. “He’ll be missed — really just focused on upping the school’s game both in terms of scholarship and teaching and public policy relevance.”
Some students, however, said they look forward to fresh leadership at the Kennedy School.
Salina Abraham, an HKS student who graduated last year, said she felt Elmendorf’s decisions were “unilaterally made” and his administration was “reactive” when engaging with student concerns.
“I think the school could benefit from a new leadership,” Abraham said.
HKS graduate Akira Shimabukuro wrote in a statement that he feels “it is a great pity” that Elmendorf will step down, praising “a tremendous job in further advancing HKS as a world-leading academic institution.”
Still, Shimabukuro wrote that issues linger at HKS following Elmendorf’s veto of Roth’s fellowship.
“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,” Shimabukuro wrote.
Second-year student Naveed Ahmed said that facing controversy is a natural part of leadership.
“There are bound to be incidents, bound to be certain issues, which people don’t agree with,” Ahmed said. “It’s very easy to judge people who presume leadership when sitting here, but I think he did a fair job.”
Kennedy School professor Robert N. Stavins praised Elmendorf’s leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the 2020-21 academic year, HKS students were given the option to defer enrollment without incurring any additional fees.
“Douglas Elmendorf was an exceptionally dedicated and caring Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School during very challenging times, not the least of which was the COVID epidemic, which meant that the entire school, including all our teaching, had to move immediately from classroom instruction to on-line remote teaching in the space of a week, in the midst of the semester,” Stavins wrote in a statement.
First-year student Arjun P. Gargeyas said he will be sad to see Elmendorf go, recalling feeling inspired by his welcoming speech to the incoming class during this year’s orientation.
“I was really enamored by his speech,” Gargeyas said. “He told us to remember about why we are here and why we came to the Kennedy School and what we want to achieve — just keep asking the question why — and that’s something that still reverberates within me.”
Gargeyas, who is an international student, also commended the dean’s role in shifting the Kennedy School toward greater international representation within both the student body and curriculum.
“I do think that he has changed the school curriculum and helped make it better, especially for international students,” he said. “The curriculum has been tailored to have an international perspective now — before it was mostly American policy and domestic policy.”
Second-year student Abeera Ahmed said she is interested — and apprehensive — about what the future holds for the Kennedy School after Elmendorf’s departure.
“My biggest concern is not about Elmendorf stepping down, it’s about who is going to take this position and what that means for international students,” Ahmed said.
Second-year student Junaiid S.R. Khan said he hopes the Kennedy School’s next dean will address issues he has faced around housing and curricular restrictions.
“It’s not what I expected — I expected much more of the place,” Khan said. “Hopefully the person who comes next will bring that change.”
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn contributed reporting to this story.
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