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The Citizen

Institutional Racism Lives at HKS, Compromising Its Effectiveness as a Public Service Institution

“Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot… but the white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality…Even in areas where liberals have great influence…schools…and politics—the situation of the Negro is not much better than in areas where they are not dominant. This is why many liberals have fallen into the trap…where a token number of Negroes adds color to a white-dominated power structure. They say…’Our university has no problem with integration, we have one Negro faculty member and even one Negro chairman of a department.’

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?


These words by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were directed towards liberal white Americans in 1967—but they could easily have been directed at the mostly white senior administration and faculty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2019. The last line rings alarmingly true—the Kennedy School has only one Black tenured faculty member.

The Harvard Kennedy School prides itself on being the world’s premier training ground for current and future policymakers, politicians, researchers, and other public servants. It aims to maintain this status through recruiting promising students, world renowned faculty and lecturers, accomplished fellows, and other distinguished visitors to cultivate the solutions and skills needed for public governance. But the Kennedy School fails to do the following: educate its students on systemic oppression, recruit students and staff from underrepresented racial identities in meaningful numbers, and adequately equip faculty members to effectively discuss racism and power in their classrooms. The institution is run by an administration that prefers tranquility to equality, resisting the transformative changes necessary to address these critical issues. This perpetuates institutional racism at the Kennedy School and impedes its stated mission to prepare graduates for leadership in a 21st century democracy.


Race Cannot be Separated from Public Policy

Teaching students about the complex history of systemic racism in the U.S. and how to undo those mistakes is not a core goal of the Kennedy School – there are no required courses on the topic. Though some students opt-in to the very few classes analyzing racism, these are usually students who are already interested in the topic and have some base level knowledge.

This is not just a matter of diverging academic interests amongst students. The public policy problems that Kennedy School students seek to solve are deeply racialized – whether they acknowledge it or not. If these students do not understand racism, history, and power, then they will further harm vulnerable populations through their work after graduation.

This topic is relevant for international students as well. Systemic oppression and racism are a global phenomenon, and this is a missed opportunity to give international students the tools to understand both within a global context.


A Lack of Students, Faculty and Staff of Color

There is an appalling lack of students from historically marginalized backgrounds enrolled at the Kennedy School. According to the Data on Certain Aspects of Diversity at Harvard Kennedy School report released in October 2019, only 19% of the students who are US citizens at HKS are Black or Hispanic/Latinx. There are no American Indian, Alaskan Native, or Pacific Islander students. Representation amongst the faculty is worse. An overwhelming majority of tenured professors—78%—are white.

The lack of a critical mass of students and professors from underrepresented racial backgrounds hampers the sophistication and depth of classroom discussion and learning. During the 2018-19 school year, conversations about policies that have serious repercussions on communities of color devolved into surface-level conversations, with discussions including racist tropes. During a discussion in a required course about why checks and balances failed to prevent the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, one Masters in Public Policy (MPP) student said that maybe the internment was “the right decision.” The professor did not address the comment.


A Lack of Racially Literate Faculty Members

The lack of racial literacy amongst current faculty members negatively and disproportionately impacts students of color and perpetuates institutional racism. This is exemplified in Mathias Risse. Risse is the director of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights and is one of four professors who teach the ethics course that is required for first year MPP students. During the fall semester of 2018, Risse repeatedly and without prior notice singled out students in class based on his perception of their ethnic and religious affiliations. This included asking a South Asian student to describe a Hindu religious text because he assumed the student was Hindu, when in fact they were not.

Risse and Kennedy School Professor Richard Zeckhauser co-wrote a philosophy article in 2004 that outlines a moral justification for racial profiling. After several critical responses from peers on the logic and implications of their paper, they wrote another article reinforcing their original position in 2007.

The articles on racial profiling have concerned many students who are required to take Risse’s ethics course. The article rests on the dangerous assumption that being of a certain race (most of his examples are of Black people) is significantly correlated with the “propensity to commit certain crimes.” This premise is not only an intentionally constructed and explicitly racist lie, but it also ignores the well-known fact that data on crime rates are extremely flawed in part because of the disproportionate targeted policing of Black people. Black people are not more prone to criminality than other people, but the article indicates Risse and Zeckhauser may believe otherwise.

In a conversation with students during the 2018-19 school year, Risse maintained that he and Zeckhauser intended to engage with the discourse around the use of racial information in a neutral approach informed by statistics. He also affirmed that he believes using racial profiling is justified for policing in certain situations. The United States does not have a neutral criminal justice system, and the arguments Risse made did not have a neutral effect. His work reinforces an unjust system that criminalizes Black people and justifies the use of police practices like racial profiling that lead to assault and death. Risse stated that far right groups who he did not agree with embraced his paper and invited him to various speaking engagements. Risse says he declined these invitations, and still maintains that his paper is neutral and objective.

Despite students voicing significant concerns about Risse to administrators in previous years, the Kennedy School named him the Faculty Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The administration’s failure to critically examine how racism functions and listen and respond to students most affected does a disservice to all students and entrenches systemic racism. Though we only reference Professor Risse, he is not alone in perpetuating racist beliefs that create a harmful environment both inside and outside of the Kennedy School.


 A Lack of Commitment by the Administration

Over the span of just over six months in 2017, three Kennedy School administrators—all Black women—stepped down. This is indicative of an environment that is not welcoming to faculty of color who advocate strongly for students of color who feel marginalized by the Kennedy School’s practices. One of the three administrators, Alexandra Martinez, then the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, spoke openly about this, publicly declaring a “lack of support” from school leaders around addressing issues of diversity and racism. It would be helpful to know why the others stepped down, but a commonly held belief is that nondisclosure agreements prevent us from knowing. A fourth Black woman, a beloved administrator, left at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

In addition to their professional obligations, the faculty of color who remain at the Kennedy School perform the all too common invisible labor of supporting students of color at predominantly white institutions. This labor is not recognized or rewarded by the administration, but it should be. There should also be other support systems in place so that these professors are not overburdened.

Existing reports and articles have established that the Kennedy School does not have an inclusive classroom culture and fails to recruit student, staff and faculty of color.[1] The Kennedy School’s leaders are making deliberate choices that deprioritize confronting racism and instead maintain the status quo.

This failure extends to the Dean of the Kennedy School, Douglas Elmendorf. Last fall, during a small group conversation, one of the authors of this article told Elmendorf that she did not believe the Kennedy School adequately taught students to understand how public policy can perpetuate systemic racism. As a result, she added, Kennedy School graduates will continue to harm non-white communities if they do not actively learn how not to. Another student stated it was unacceptable that there was only one class during the fall semester explicitly about race.

Elmendorf stated that there are not more classes about the intersection of race, history, and policy because there are not enough qualified professors to teach the classes. When asked specifically if he was saying there were not exceptional people of color outside of the Kennedy School who could be hired to teach classes about race, Elmendorf simply replied that faculty members are extremely protective of who gains entrance into the Kennedy School and that there is a high bar to pass.

Another explanation Elmendorf gave for the lack of required classes exploring race and policy is that the faculty that sets the curriculum are all passionate about different topics, which makes determining requirements difficult. What Elmendorf appears to not understand is that all aspects of domestic policy and many aspects of foreign policy are racialized. Racial literacy[2] is not a second or third language a policymaker can opt into. It is the lingua franca of American democracy and permeates all areas of work, including seemingly “objective” sciences such as statistics and economics.

Elmendorf may believe the Kennedy School’s hiring practices are objective and decisions about what to make required are fair, but when the school’s tenured faculty, a group that is 64% white and male, determines what credentials are necessary to hire a professor and what is relevant to the curriculum, their bias will inevitably impact the process in detrimental ways.


Where Do We Go From Here?

 The issues at the forefront of what the Kennedy School calls our “leadership crisis” — immigration, policing, voter disenfranchisement, technology, AI, national security, and Trumpism — are deeply racialized. If we do not prioritize engaging with our nation’s racist past and present, these problems will only become more entrenched. For the Kennedy School to truly prepare its students to be effective public servants, policymakers, and change agents, it should do the following:

  1. Require a course on the history of racialized policy in the United States and abroad. Dr. Khalil Muhammad’s “Race, Inequality, and American Democracy” is a strong starting point. No student should graduate from HKS without knowing basic American history, how race was constructed, the discriminatory policies that have been put in place to preserve it, and how it functions institutionally today. Until more faculty members are hired to teach this class, the Kennedy School could consider partnering with Harvard College to offer these classes.
  2. Cluster hire a cohort of three-to-four professors who critically study race, gender, class, or power. One or two token faculty members cannot change the culture of the Kennedy School. Research shows a critical mass of people is needed in an organization to make any real change.
  3. Anti-racism > Diversity: The Kennedy School should move away from the current frameworks centered around “implicit bias” and “diversity” that are used for faculty training and new student orientation. Bias and diversity focus on interpersonal prejudice and cosmetic diversity. Instead, the school should adopt frameworks and trainings offering a critical analysis of power and institutional racism, which facilitate an understanding of institutional racism and the types of solutions that redistribute power and promote antiracist pedagogy.

King’s critique of white moderates was a critique of liberalism itself. Though liberalism is often taught as an ideology in which all members of a society are equal, free, and have certain rights, many of the architects of liberalism were in fact exclusive. They were explicit that only white, property-owning, able-bodied men had these rights. Phenomena like the genocide of indigenous people, chattel slavery, and restrictions on the right to vote are often taught at institutions like the Kennedy School as aberrations from the ideals of the system, when, in fact, they are woven into the fabric of liberalism itself.

Liberalism not only tells us that we should be equal and free, but that we already are. Under this assumption of existing equality, efforts to hire more faculty who critically study race or gender, or to recruit more students of color are seen as going too far. Why give special treatment to one group of people if, despite past harms, they are now on a level playing field?

In the spirit of King, whom the Kennedy School so often celebrates, we need to actively combat these trappings of liberalism by recognizing that doing the bare minimum is not anti-racist in an actively exclusionary, violent, and unequal society. Passive racism will not move us towards the world we claim to want.



[1] HKS Struggles to Recruit Minority Students, Kennedy School Faces Dearth of Minority Faculty and Admins, Students Solicit Faculty Support for HKS Diversity Pledge, At Meeting, Kennedy School Students Raise Diversity Concerns, Harvard Kennedy School Still Mostly White and Male, Newest Report Indicates

[2] Racial literacy is the capacity to decipher the durable racial grammar that structures racialized hierarchies and frames the narrative of our republic. Guinier, Lani. (2013). From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown V. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma. The Journal of American History. 91. 10.2307/3659616.


The Citizen is the independent, official newspaper of the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Our mission is to seek the full truth on university and community affairs. In doing so, we challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue on the identity and ideals of HKS. We strive to help the school achieve its own goal: allow people to leave safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. 

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