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Updated: September 7, 2023, at 3:49 p.m.
Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf will step down at the end of the academic year, University President Claudine Gay announced in a Thursday morning email to HKS affiliates.
Elmendorf, who began his tenure as HKS dean in 2016, is the first Harvard dean to depart since Gay began her tenure as president in July. Before joining the Kennedy School, Elmendorf served as the director of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and as an assistant professor in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Economics Department.
Elmendorf, who was one of the longest-serving deans at the University, was appointed the role in 2015 by former University President Drew G. Faust.
In a Thursday email to HKS affiliates, Elmendorf wrote that he “decided during the summer that it will soon be time for the next chapter for the Kennedy School and for me.”
Elmendorf will officially step down as dean in June 2024 but said he plans to remain at the Kennedy School as a faculty member.
“I look forward to playing a different role here — that of a faculty member — and to having much more time to learn and teach about economic policy,” he told the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication.
Elmendorf’s tenure at times was plagued with controversy and turmoil, facing calls to resign as dean at two separate points last semester.
In January 2023, Elmendorf faced widespread backlash for allegedly vetoing a Carr Center for Human Rights fellowship for former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth over his past criticisms of Israel. Elmendorf’s move — which was later reversed — triggered a petition calling for his resignation that was signed by more than 360 affiliates and co-sponsored by 19 student organizations.
Elmendorf came under scrutiny again in February 2023 after ending a research project led by misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Donovan departed the Kennedy School at the end of August for a tenure-track position on Boston University’s faculty.
In addition, Elmendorf presided over a period of controversy for the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
In February 2020, Caroline B. Kennedy ’80 — the daughter of President John F. Kennedy ’40 — resigned as honorary chair of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee amid concerns over the IOP’s governance. A 2021 Crimson investigation, which first reported the reason for Caroline Kennedy’s resignation, revealed that Elmendorf exercised unprecedented control over the IOP as HKS dean.
Shortly before Caroline Kennedy’s resignation, Elmendorf had presented her with a proposed IOP governance structure that wrested much of the control over the IOP’s administrative functions from the Senior Advisory Committee.
The IOP, which was founded as a living memorial to President Kennedy, had been managed with direct involvement of the Kennedy family on the Senior Advisory Committee since the institute’s inception. Multiple other committee members resigned in the wake of Caroline Kennedy’s departure.
In the emailed announcement, Gay wrote that she has “deep gratitude” for Elmendorf’s commitment to “principled, effective public policy and leadership in the face of considerable challenges to those ideals.”
“Leading a school of government during times of political turmoil has not been easy, but Doug has approached the challenge with boundless grace, good humor, and an unwavering commitment to rigorous scholarship for the betterment of society,” she wrote in the email.
Over his eight years as dean, Elmendorf launched a variety of initiatives, including establishing the school’s first Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in 2018.
During Elmendorf’s tenure, the Kennedy School also launched the Bloomberg Center for Cities with a $150 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2021. The Bloomberg Center brings together experts on cities to train leaders around the world and produce urban-centered research.
Gay wrote that she and Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 will provide additional information about the search for Elemdorf’s successor in the coming weeks.
With Elmendorf’s departure, Gay — just months into her tenure — will be tasked with overseeing the fifth dean search of her presidency. The University recently announced deans for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard Divinity School. The search for the next dean of the Harvard School of Public Health is still ongoing.
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