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The Citizen

HKS Should Dismantle the Mason Program

This piece argues for the termination of the Edward S. Mason Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. For a different view, read David de Bold’s piece which defends the Mason Program as an integral part of HKS that promotes diversity and inclusion. Opinions expressed by the writers do not represent the views of The Citizen.

In 1958, Edward S. Mason, one of the Harvard Kennedy School’s most illustrious deans, launched a new program to provide additional capacity to mid-career professionals from “developing, newly industrialized, and transitional economy countries.” He foresaw the need for professionals from these countries to have access to the mammoth resources of Harvard, in order “to address some of the world’s most compelling challenges.” 

However, more than 60 years after Dean Mason established the program, the best way to honor his memory is to gradually end the HKS Mason Fellows Program. Here are the reasons why:

Its reason for existence is outdated.

No other Harvard graduate school – nor any top-ranked postgraduate school of international public administration in the United States accredited by the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA)utilizes separate admissions criteria for students from developing versus developed countries. Today, the Mason Program’s artificial “developing/developed country” binary is anachronistic and unnecessary. Many of these “developing” countries now have relatively higher economic and geopolitical power on the world stage (such as the powerful BRICS nations) than some of the “developed” countries. Admissions policy to the Mason Program is often arbitrary as well: many of its Fellows hail from the wealthy G7 nations, and strangely, even from the United States.

It degrades the Harvard Kennedy School’s reputation.

Boston Magazine’s recent exposé on HKS discovered that the likely acceptance rate to the wider Mid-Career MPA (MC/MPA) Program was approximately 50 percent – much higher than that of most comparable international public administration programs in the United States, and higher than other HKS and Harvard degrees. The standards for the Mason Program are even lower than the general MC/MPA Program: the Mason Program is the only HKS degree that doesn’t require the GRE, the GMAT, or any standardized test scores. Over the decades, the Mason Program’s controversial admissions policy has accepted some highly questionable admits, including those without a Bachelor’s degree. Because of these reputational challenges, in many discussions with Mason Fellows, they rightfully raise concerns that employers may think twice before hiring them.

It is unnecessarily divisive.

Mason Fellows arrive at HKS weeks before their non-Mason MC/MPA counterparts. Mason Fellows have been known to form their closest bonds with each other, and perhaps this is intentionally by design. But over the long term, this results in unpleasant exclusionary social choices: for example, bombastic rhetoric against “the West,” and at its worst, sometimes open hostility and discrimination against non-Masons.

Some may respond to this particular critique by rightfully pointing out anecdotal examples of very close, deep friendships between Masons and non-Masons. However, the larger point of recommending an end to the Mason Program is that its current social structure naturally intensifies cross-cultural and geopolitical tensions that already divide the wider mid-career (MC/MPA) cohort. Phasing out the Mason Program will unify the MC/MPA cohort, rather than further polarize it.

It does not provide added capacity to Mason graduates.

If the raison-d’etre of the Mason Program is to increase fellow capacity beyond the standard MC/MPA curriculum, then it falls short. The curriculum relies on Mason-only seminars, case study discussions, games, presentations (which unfortunately often degenerates into self-congratulatory, semi-performative “showtime” rather than meaningful skills exchange), and other activities regarding “global leadership.”

But is there any long-term, post-commencement data that illustrates substantive career differences in Mason alumni, compared to their international counterparts from other top US public administration programs? Most likely not.

Admits to the Mason Program are typically experienced individuals, who are often spurred by a genuine desire for public service. But their own program is a tremendous disservice to them: its rationale is outdated, it divides by design, and its substandard reputation reduces trust in both HKS and the alumni that it produces. Fortunately, The Chronicle on Higher Education has published excellent advice for universities on sensible, humane approaches to closing academic programs, which the Kennedy School’s deans should constructively consider.

The HKS Mason Program should be gradually phased out.

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