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As the Harvard Kennedy School searches for a successor to outgoing Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, some students called on the University to appoint the first woman or person of color to lead the school in its 88-year history.
Elmendorf will step down at the end of the academic year, after eight years leading a school that has historically struggled with a lack of diversity among the school’s student body and faculty. With the search for his successor underway, some affiliates are advocating for an end to the Kennedy School’s streak of white, male leaders.
“It’s one of the most oldest institutions, and not having a woman dean or person of color — I’m shocked,” said Ujjwal Kumar, a member of the Kennedy School’s student government.
While it is unclear if the timeline for selecting Elmendorf’s successor will be impacted by the ongoing leadership crisis facing Harvard, the Kennedy School’s student government leaders urged interim President Alan M. Garber ’76 to consider appointing a woman or person of color to lead the school.
NanaEfua “Nana” Afoh-Manin, HKS student government president, and Zubair Merchant, executive vice president, wrote in a statement that the dean appointment comes amid “a year when students have felt unheard and unsafe.”
“KSSG urges Interim President Garber and the search committee to nominate a new Dean who puts the wellbeing, safety, and needs of students first,” Afoh-Manin and Merchant wrote. “We also implore the President and committee to consider that a person of color or woman has never held the highest administrative position at HKS.”
Paul M. Garbarino, a first-year master’s of public policy student at HKS, said that appointing a woman or a person of color to serve as dean “absolutely makes sense.”
“Perhaps it’s time that someone who’s also very acclaimed, who is not a white straight male, also take up the mantle as the leader of the Harvard Kennedy School,” Garbarino said.
The calls for a female or person of color dean come after the 2023 HKS diversity report revealed a more than 50 percent drop in HKS students identifying as Black or African American compared to 2021.
Maria Kuznetsova, a first-year master’s in public policy student, said that it “definitely feels that the school will greatly benefit from having a woman or person of color.”
“We definitely don’t have enough Black Americans here,” Kuznetsova said. “We have zero Indigenous Americans.”
Naomi R. Carolan, a first-year MPP student, said the appointment of a person of color or a woman to succeed Elmendorf would “represent a perspective that we haven’t had in a dean thus far.”
“Whether that be a woman, a person of color, someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, just someone who can bring a fresh perspective and understand the student body,” Carolan said.
Carolan also noted that whoever is picked to serve as the next Kennedy School dean would be one of the University’s first major leadership appointments following former President Claudine Gay’s resignation on Jan. 2.
“Especially given the resignation of Dr. Gay, this is the opportunity for the school to actually make a statement about where its priorities are,” Carolan said. “I think DEI should be one of those priorities.”
Elizabeth S. Keller, a second-year master’s in public administration student, said a woman leading HKS as dean could provide fresh perspectives that “challenge existing assumptions.”
But some students placed less significance on the identities of potential candidates.
Nazmul Haque, a mid-career master’s in public administration student, said that it should be “more about competence” when evaluating dean candidates.
“I do not see diversity as being a priority factor there,” Haque said.
Keller, however, noted that “pipeline issues” exist for women and people of color aspiring to leadership positions.
“As someone who worked on gender in the national security space, it’s really important to get diverse perspectives into those leadership roles,” Keller said.
“Until you do that, it’s going to remain hard to even address that pipeline and get more women and people of color into the Kennedy School and into positions of power and into professor roles,” she added. “Having more diversity in the leadership would be really impactful for that.”
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