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Incoming HKS Dean Says School Should Focus on Technology, Local Politics at Alumni Talk

Incoming Harvard Kennedy School Dean Jeremy M. Weinstein delivered some of his first extensive comments about his new role at Harvard at a Harvard alumni event in San Francisco earlier this month.
Incoming Harvard Kennedy School Dean Jeremy M. Weinstein delivered some of his first extensive comments about his new role at Harvard at a Harvard alumni event in San Francisco earlier this month. By Ben Y. Cammarata
By William C. Mao and Dhruv T. Patel, Crimson Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Incoming Harvard Kennedy School Dean Jeremy M. Weinstein said he hopes to increase the Kennedy School’s focus on studying the intersection of technology and politics at an alumni event on June 11, according to a recording shared with The Crimson.

During the event, which was held in San Francisco and marked one of Weinstein’s first interactions with alumni since being appointed to the school’s top post, he said the Kennedy School could help fill the glaring gaps in policymakers’ understanding of technological advancements that he observed during his time serving in Washington.

“Our senior policy makers were not well equipped for the technological changes that were going to remake how government works but also remake the responsibilities of government for helping us navigate the technological age,” he said.

“The Kennedy School has got to get its head around this new moment that we are looking across,” Weinstein added.

Weinstein — a political scientist at Stanford University with a focus on Africa — is known for applying computer science to political science. In 2019, he developed Computer Science 182, a popular Stanford course on the intersection of philosophy, politics, and computer science, and in 2022, he created a major in data science and social systems at the school.

The event with Harvard alumni came just weeks before Weinstein will officially assume the Kennedy School deanship on July 1, succeeding the school’s longtime dean Douglas W. Elmendorf.

During his remarks, Weinstein also said he hopes to shift the Kennedy School’s curricular and research focus more toward local politics, saying that state and local governments are critical “to grapple with the problems that we see all around us.”

“What is happening in Sacramento matters, what’s happening in other state capitals matters,” Weinstein said. “The Kennedy School needs to be oriented not just to Washington, but also to leadership that we’re seeing from governors and state legislatures.”

Weinstein’s address opened an event that featured Nancy Gibbs — the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at HKS and the former editor-in-chief of TIME magazine — and focused on the role of media in the upcoming 2024 U.S. elections.

Gibbs discussed how journalists should be covering the run-up to the 2024 U.S. elections, especially the mental acuity of the two presidential candidates — former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden — both of whom would be the oldest U.S. president in history if elected.

Gibbs said that though writing about how the candidates’ age could affect their ability to govern was “totally valid,” some coverage of Biden’s age has focused less on his performance as a leader and more on how he looks and sounds — something Gibbs called “politics as entertainment.”

“Writing about it in a way that is all about the optics of the performance and not what it means to their ability, on both ends, to do the job — I think it’s clear there has been a failure,” she said.

Weinstein and Gibbs later turned to the impact of social media and artificial intelligence on the journalism industry.

Gibbs acknowledged that traditional journalism has lost significant viewership to social media and said that to combat this challenge, research centers like Shorenstein have to better understand how readers consume content and what content they prefer.

“You can be doing the greatest journalism imaginable, and if people are not reading, then you have a problem,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs added that journalists must be willing to embrace novel technologies and forms of media to boost viewership, saying artificial intelligence could be one such route.

When asked about the potential positives of AI for journalism, Gibbs said it could support local newspapers struggling nationwide by taking on “routine busy work” and freeing up local journalists to do “the human to human investigative work” of covering rallies or interviewing people.

“Imagine what it would involve to be able to cover the school board meeting, the zoning board meeting, the board of reps meetings, by basically taking a recording and having a transcript then turned into a story by our friends,” she said.

Before concluding the event, Weinstein acknowledged the challenges facing institutions of higher education since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging time to be a faculty member, a university leader,” Weinstein said.

“I don’t think there's any reason to expect that next year is going to be any different,” he added. “In fact, next year is going to be equally challenging for universities as we confront not only the continuing tragedy of the Middle East, but also the election, which will be deeply polarizing for the country and for university campuses.”

But Weinstein said the current polarization is also an opportunity for the Kennedy School to model how to have difficult conversations.

“If we can’t do that at the Kennedy School, my concern about our ability to do it in California, or Arkansas, or the United States, or the United Nations just dropped precipitously,” Weinstein added. “We have an opportunity to approach this differently.”

—Staff writer William C. Mao reported from San Francisco. He can be reached at william.mao@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @williamcmao.

—Staff writer Dhruv T. Patel reported from Chicago. He can be reached at dhruv.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @dhruvtkpatel.

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