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Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at its Best: Lessons from the Edward S. Mason Program

This piece argues that the Edward S. Mason Program at the Harvard Kennedy School is integral to promoting diversity and inclusion. For a different view, read an anonymous piece by a member of the Harvard community, which argues that the Mason Program should endOpinions expressed by the writers do not represent the views of The Citizen. 

The oldest Harvard Kennedy School international program, a model that exemplifies diversity, is under threat. 

Within the mid-career Master of Public Administration program (MC/MPA) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) exists the Edward S. Mason Program, named after the legendary economist, Harvard professor, and HKS dean. Just under half of the roughly 190 MC/MPA cohort are Mason Fellows. The Mason Program has a number of distinguishing characteristics: it is the oldest international program at HKS spanning some 60 years, admissions are designed to make higher education more accessible for mid-career professionals from developing countries, and it provides an exclusive two-week induction course (the flagship Mason Fellows Seminar) which starts before the cohort-wide five-week MC/MPA Summer Program. Recently, HKS administrators took a swipe at the Mason Program by terminating the integral summer programming component and replacing it with a mediocre, six-day “Mason Fall Launch” without any substantive consultations with students or faculty.

The two-week Mason Fellows Seminar is designed with a pedagogy that engenders cultural and contextual diversity. Unlike the longer five-week summer program for the entire cohort, the Mason Fellows Seminar is facilitated by Harvard faculty, uses a case-study pedagogy, and incorporates substantial time for public policy discussions through various stakeholder contexts and simulations to foster deeper student-to-student interaction. Furthermore, the program fosters inclusion for students from developing countries upon their arrival to the United States and hosts periodic seminars throughout the year. The success of the Mason Program model can be measured by its alumni, which boasts former presidents, prime ministers, and leaders of multilateral organizations. Due to its success, MC/MPA student representatives have called for incorporating characteristics of the Mason Program to other mid-career programming.

The Mason Program is an important construct at HKS: it fosters community for students who are coming to Harvard from very different cultures, sometimes from places with limited freedoms of expression, abysmal human rights records, or outright civil war. As a result, the Mason Program’s outcomes are something all MC/MPA programming should strive for. Terminating it is a step backwards.

The two-week Mason summer programming was changed without student consultation. In response, student leaders engaged with HKS administrators to explore an informed way forward. Since HKS administrators weren’t forthcoming with data collected from surveys, we sent out a petition in early March regarding students’ views of the changes. This petition asked HKS leadership to:

  •   Halt the replacing of the two-week Mason summer programming
  •   Begin an inclusive process for change that involves students, alumni, and faculty
  •   Release survey data from past MC/MPA summer programming
  •   Establish a permanent institutional mechanism that ensures continued engagement with all stakeholders to inform any future changes to the MC/MPA and Mason Programs

Within 48 hours, nearly 70% of our cohort responded supporting this petition. MC/MPA cohort student representatives Rumaitha Al Busaidi and Sami Shaban noted that, “our discussions with the Harvard leadership aimed to bring a genuine improvement to the integrity and outcomes of all MC/MPA summer programming because this is not a ‘Mason’ only issue.” Despite student opposition, however, the two-week Mason Fellows seminar has been replaced by the six-day Mason Fall Launch, demonstrating a clear disconnect between the evidence collected from the cohort and the actions of HKS administrators.

The summer program now under threat is just one example of how the Mason program is critical for diversity and inclusion at HKS. Admission into the Mason Program does not require standardized tests, and the program is targeted specifically towards students from developing or transitional economies. Those who advocate for Mason Program applicants to submit standardized test scores fail to question the unintended consequences. Standardized testing has well known pitfalls as highlighted by The Atlantic, which shows a disproportionate “toll on student diversity – mainly the numbers of women, minorities, and economically disadvantaged students.” For a program centered on international diversity, standardized test scores would undermine its very mission and create barriers for many prospective students from applying. Similarly, other mid-career masters programs from leading universities do not require standardized test scores, including the University of California at Berkeley and Tufts University.

Admission into the Mason Program is limited to students with nationalities from developing and transitional economies. A passport, however, is not the singular qualifying criteria for acceptance into the Mason Program. Mason Fellows share a responsibility to transfer the knowledge gleaned at Harvard and apply it to, “address the world’s most compelling development challenges.” This is a key facet of the admissions process. For a school centered around public service, nationality is a critical marker in admissions given that many Mason Fellows return to their home countries and other emerging parts of the world. The call for public service resonates strongly for me, as I have committed the last 16 years of my career serving as an international public servant in multiple developing countries on several continents.

Given the uncertain environment around coronavirus, the MC/MPA summer programming may not be delivered this upcoming year. This challenge presents an opportunity to re-frame improvements to the MC/MPA summer programming using the valuable lessons on diversity and inclusion from the Mason Program. Discussions on how to improve MC/MPA summer programming require an inclusive process involving all stakeholders. An inclusive process for change can ensure that all MC/MPA summer programming benefits from the leading attributes of the Mason Program which continues to serve as one of Harvard’s most effective fellowships in promoting diversity, inclusion and belonging on campus.

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