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The Citizen

An Open Letter to the Harvard Kennedy School: From HKS Speak Out Coalition

We came to policy school to do more and to do better. We gravitated to Harvard Kennedy School, in part, because of its explicit mission to “train exceptional public leaders and generate the ideas that provide solutions to our most challenging public problems.” As aspiring policy leaders, we recognized that our ability to diagnose and solve the problems of tomorrow depends on our ability to develop the right analytical skills today. As part of our core curriculum, we spent hours poring over case studies, STATA problem sets, and economic models to develop tools that will deepen our impact.

Yet shortly after arriving, we noticed holes within the HKS core curriculum that stymied our education. We could not grapple with hard questions about the role of government, the impact of a particular social welfare program, or the root cause of poverty. To consider these questions, we needed the additional benefit of interdisciplinary frameworks from fields like sociology, gender studies, and ethnic studies. Without understanding the socio-historical context in which policy is made, we cannot analyze the disparate ways various groups are affected by public policy, nor can we determine the best path forward.

The exercise of public leadership must draw upon more than the principles of organizational management, the tactics of negotiation science, or the psychology of implicit biases. It requires an honest assessment of structural power dynamics, of in-group and out-group dynamics, and of privilege. It requires that we continue to dissect the ways in which social structures operate to endow some individuals with certain advantages, and others with marked disadvantages. It requires that we remain critically attuned to power dynamics, both micro and macro, that undergird the institutions many of us will operate within throughout our careers.

Never ones to wait idly for change, HKS students from across the ideological spectrum began to organize. Irrespective of personal or political identity, there was a resounding consensus that the HKS experience could be improved, particularly on issues surrounding difference, privilege,  and diversity. Students agreed that too many opportunities were missed this year to penetrate beneath the surface of sensitive conversations; to leverage the different forms of diversity that we each bring to the program; and to develop a more nuanced understanding of the present barriers that impinge upon social progress.

Over one hundred students invested their time and ideas at meetings throughout the year. We launched a public forum for greater dialogue and engagement across the entire school community, and dozens of students shared their stories. In just one day, we collected over 200 signatures for a petition requesting a power and privilege training for all entering students.

Out of this movement and the accompanying tumblr page, the HKS Speak Out is asking for a mandatory power and privilege training for every incoming student every year, and has specified the following terms:

  1. A mandatory power and privilege training that examines components of race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, international status, and power differentials for every incoming HKS student starting August 2014.
  2. For this mandatory training to be led by experts outside of HKS.
  3. For students to be included in the decision-making process to determine which experts and which components of the training are used in future years, starting in Fall 2014.
  4. For this training to be evaluated by students every year.
  5. For these evaluations to be reviewed by a task force composed of students and faculty members charged with recommending improvements for each subsequent year.

This month, we met with administrators to voice our concerns and offer our active participation in instituting a power and privilege training for entering students that would fill some—though not all—of the gaps in our MPP curriculum. We presented the following arguments:

  • HKS seeks to train public sector leaders. To empower these leaders, and the communities they serve, HKS should provide graduate students with a foundational power and privilege training, just as other leading institutions like Princeton and UC Berkeley do.
  • Although we will routinely make decisions that impact diverse communities in our careers, HKS has failed to train us to understand the perspectives of and the historical, social, and economic obstacles faced by many of these communities.
  • HKS does not currently leverage the diversity of the student body in classroom dialogue. By providing students with a common vocabulary and an inclusive curriculum, HKS could empower everyone in our community to bring their unique perspectives and experiences to bear on public policy analysis.

We applaud the administration’s commitment to continuing the conversation. Given the breadth and depth of student support for substantive institutional change on this issue, we strongly urge the administration to move towards institutionalization of a comprehensive training that would allow us to critically analyze power structures and the complex sociological fabric of our society. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and Berkeley’s Goldman School provide excellent models for HKS to follow.  It is the responsibility of the Harvard Kennedy School to do right by its students and to do right by the world that it impacts through its students. And it is our responsibility as current students to hold HKS accountable to its mission.