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The Citizen

First Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Conference Dissects HKS

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On October 16th the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability project (IARA) hosted its first conference on the topic of “Truth and Transformation: the First Step Towards Institutional Change.” The conference’s goal was to explore and examine how understanding and engaging with institutional history impacts organizations when forging a path forward for equity. Speakers and participants included HKS faculty, students, alumni, organizational leaders at other institutions that are working on anti-racist institutional change, and experts in the field of anti-racism. You can learn more about the conference here and get a sense of the day through this Twitter thread, which documented it in real time.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Ash Center at HKS and funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.
Below is an excerpt of the testimony given by Sophie Dover, a second year MPP candidate at HKS, who was asked to speak about her experience as a student. You can watch the full testimony in the video below.

Excerpt from Student Testimony, Truth and Transformation Conference, October 16, 2019

Before I begin, I would like to ask that we take a moment of silence for Atatiana Jefferson, who was killed last week in Fort Worth, Texas at the hands of a white police officer, and for all the countless Black victims of police murder in the United States.

Good afternoon! My name is Sophie Dover and I am a second year MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. It is an honor and a privilege to be here with you all.

I was invited to give testimony today to tell the truth about my education here. I want to start by saying it is a privilege to be here at HKS. In being a student here, there is a constant balance between being grateful, being blown away by the opportunities and access this school provides, sharing the pride of my friends and family – and calling into question not only where this education is missing the mark, but creating daily psychological, emotional and academic harm for students of color and other marginalized identities.

I came here for the unparalleled leadership training that the school boasts, hoping to grapple and pick apart the issues that we see unfolding in the public realm. I came here in part for the brand. I came here with the hopes of building technical skills and knowledge of how “the system” operates. I came in with cynicism about Harvard’s elitism and more moderate politics, but was looking forward to engaging with a multitude of perspectives and broadening my own.

What I will tell you today is what I’ve seen and learned from a long history of student organizing, experiences of harm and isolation, and institutional racism. These are not “isolated events” but symptoms of ignorance and oppression, however well-intentioned it may be. I will tell you that this conference, while an act of protest and community, is the culmination of decades of organizing work of students and faculty alike.

I hope by telling you this, you can see how Harvard is missing an opportunity to meaningfully educate and include its students, future world leaders.

I hope this also allows you to see the strength of the community that has been and will continue to be built here.

Besides being “slightly left” politically, there is not much about my lived experience that defies convention here at Harvard. As a matter of fact, I pretty much fit the profile. I come from an upper-middle class family and proudly occupy South Asian and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Harvard was made for people like me – for the most part, as long as we have sufficiently assimilated. However, for people of color, LGBQ and T folks, people with disabilities, even people of privilege with organizing or social service backgrounds, we are perpetually made to feel as if we are the guests.  

Every public policy degree program loves data, so I want to provide some data for you. Based on most recent data from fall 2019, the student population across programs is 0% Native American or Alaska Native; 0% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 8% Black or African American; 11% Latinx; 17% Asian American; 5% two or more races. This is not disaggregated data. That means out of approximately 1,000 students, zero are Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 44 are Black or African American; 62 are Latinx; 95 are Asian American; and 28 are two or more races. Up until recently HKS was including international students in its counts of domestic people of color.

Out of 194 professors who teach at HKS, only 7 professors teach on topics of racism or colonialism, all of which are elective, non-mandatory, courses. Of 42 tenured professors at HKS, 1 is Black; 1 is Latinx; 5 are Asian American. There is only one Professor of Practice or Senior Lecturer who self identifies as a person of color, 1 out 28. This is the second highest-level faculty post at the Kennedy School. Over the past three years, seven Black female faculty and staff members have left HKS, many of whom are subject to non-disclosure agreements. Students have come to understand that one of their shared reasons for departure was a toxic work environment.

There have been gains in some capacities, thanks to students’ continued organizing work with the administration – but we still have a long way to go.

I’ll now share some stories that have encapsulated my time as a student here.

In my first ethics class last year, we were told that “ethics is about how we should act in ways that can be justified to others.” I asked about justice and was told that this was not the point of the course.

When I met with the Dean of the Kennedy School later last year, I told him I had been enjoying my time at HKS but was concerned about the potential psychological harm students of color experienced in this professor’s class. The Dean resisted my definition of “harm,” indicating it would be more appropriate to call this “discomfort.” He then went on, making reference to my own Jewish heritage, to lay out the careful process he would be sure to undergo if he “got wind of an anti-Semitic event taking place on campus,” including calling in subject matter experts and having critical conversations with the faculty members in questions, tenured or otherwise. This process has failed to initiate around a matter we can certifiably deem as racist.

When students have advocated for the hire of more professors of color, members of the administration have cited “pipeline issues,” asserting that there are not enough professors of color, of Harvard caliber, to choose from. Evidence is to the contrary.

During my meeting with the Dean, he told me, “you can’t just go down to the corner store and find another Professor Muhammad.” When asked about the dearth of students of color at the Kennedy school, another Dean said that it was “the quality of the applications” that just wasn’t up to Harvard’s standards.

If I didn’t have the racial education or framework to understand, I might believe them – due to pervasive stereotypes about people of color and the “achievement gap.” But I know that these poor excuses reflect an inability to look in the mirror – an inability to see that perhaps HKS’ inflexible standards, homogenous hiring and admissions committees, and lack of student input are perhaps the real problems here.

Of course, as we know, the aftermath of the 2016 election was one of shock, horror, and dismay for many Americans. For many others, this was a painful extension of a familiar reality. Similarly, for those who have studied our nation’s racial history, this was less of a surprise. Either way, this provoked a sea change of political activism. Everywhere except HKS.

In the months and years that followed, HKS convinced itself that it had missed the writing on the wall because it had not included enough conservative voices. The administration decided that it would overcome tyranny by recruiting more conservative students and fellows. Students with conservative viewpoints have indicated that they feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions in class, and the administration seems very concerned about this – that conservative students are being “marginalized” and “experiencing harm.”

Racist comments are more “discreet” because we’re in a liberal environment, but they are certainly heard and felt. When these incidents and dynamics are confronted by students of color, they run the risk of being further isolated. Simultaneously, there is a seeming inability here to take the lived experiences of students of color as “evidence,” or to treat these experiences with any respect.

A classmate of mine, a man of color, was recently called a “terrorist” and a “racist” for challenging his classmates in considering their relative privilege in evaluating international aid. When he sought recourse from the administration, he was told that his experience is “simply one perspective,” and that “conservative students are experiencing harm as well.”

There should certainly be an emphasis on civil discourse, especially in the context of a tweeter-in-chief in America and deepening political divisions worldwide. However, using this emphasis to imply a false equivalency between political conservatism and lived realities of racism is ridiculous and inappropriate. People of color occupy a multitude of political beliefs. Racial harm is not a political view or party, and it goes far deeper than our opinions on the education system or how we should balance our budget.

Diversity of thought should be welcome, but not when that diversity comes at the risk of disproportionately endangering the lives of society’s most marginalized. This is less exemplary of diversity of opinion or experience; it is in fact oppressive.

This is thematic. This is the same school that does not teach about redlining, or the racial denial of labor protections. The school that fails to underscore the negative implications of American foreign policy and Western colonialism, unless they fell upon the Western world. Where African or Black American history is incorrectly represented in classrooms and Eurocentric histories are centered; where criminal justice is boiled down to a need for mental health treatment to combat ingrained “criminogenic behavior” in low-income communities of color.[1]  A school that during the immigration crisis currently unfolding at the US-Mexico border, refused to send communications about ICE movement out to its students or its staff, some of whom may in fact be undocumented, or condemn the rogue actions of our nation’s president, because “students don’t check their email over the summer.” A school that passes the buck to the next administrator, to the next staff member, until the circle goes around and around, and concerned students graduate.

This is Harvard. Where accountability rarely falls squarely on leadership’s shoulders, and instead, students are gaslighted for raising doubts, take on the work of a full-time Diversity, Inclusion and Equity team without pay, and are told that the Kennedy School “is working on it,” when the proportion of underrepresented minorities has only fallen since the HKS Taskforce on Diversity & Inclusion issued its first findings in May 2017.

Harvard has given its students an excellent education in the politics of elitism, of the status quo, of holding to the moderate middle, of racial illiteracy. In failing to challenge our preconceived notions and assumptions about the world order, it has given many of us a free pass, a pat on the back confirming our natural “leadership abilities,” and confirmed for us that any of the policy decisions that we support or make (as natural leaders) will strike a bicameral and bipartisan balance and benefit all key stakeholders. Without challenging us or making us uncomfortable about our own assumptions, Harvard is doing its job in reinforcing hegemonic ideals of race, colorism, class, caste, gender, and politics. As people who have concerns about the wellbeing of others, our curiosities are assuaged with assurance that our good intentions are noble and for that, they are good enough.

However, as a “future leader,” Harvard has failed me.  It has given me a lack of racial-historical education and failed to prepare me to adapt to a nation’s evolving needs, crises, income inequality and lived experiences. This is not progress; I am not being challenged. I am not being held accountable.

In the absence of institutional change, we are educating each other. I am inspired by the tenacity, intelligence, and dedication of those who came before me, my peers, and the students who just arrived. We are leaving here and carrying torches for justice.

Harvard, you are our textbook. We will re-write you.

Thank you.

To take action and hold the HKS administration accountable to making the changes we wish to see, please read and consider signing the Open Letter to Harvard Kennedy School Administration that students opened for signature in December 2019.

To learn more about the past and present of diversity, equity and inclusion issues at HKS:



  • “Equity in Hiring at HKS,” Part I of the Equity at HKS Series from the Kennedy School Review Podcast. Hear current and former students talk about their understanding of the faculty hiring process and faculty diversity at the Kennedy School.
  • “Equity in Pedagogy at HKS,” Part II of the Equity at HKS Series from the Kennedy School Review Podcast. Hear current and former students talk about their experiences of pedagogy and curriculum at the Kennedy School.

[1] To better understand how Thomas Abt, one of the two professors teaching about criminal justice at HKS, frames these issues, click here.

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