Open Letter to Harvard Kennedy School Administration

2021 Racial Equity Now

A Rearticulation and Reimagination of Our Demands

This year Equity Coalition has continued to organize online in spite of and in response to many crises: a global pandemic that is disproportionately devastating Indigenous, Black, and Latinx communities; a mass uprising against police brutality and anti-Black racism; and a historic election in the United States where local organizers (namely women of color) fought to protect our democracy.

When placing Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) within the context of our white supremacist society, the racial inequity and injustice at this institution is not surprising. However, it is also no excuse for the school’s complacency.

Equity Coalition presents the following rearticulation and reimagination of our demands to invite the HKS administration to finally adopt an anti-racist, anti-colonial culture and curriculum.

1. Implement a semester-long course on global racism, colonialism, and public policy, mandatory for all four master’s degree programs (MPP, MPA, MPA-ID, MC/MPA) beginning annually in Fall 2021.

Harvard Kennedy School students will go on to shape public policy across the world, yet currently have limited mandatory education on the origins and current manifestations of race, racism, and global systems of power and oppression. Without a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the institutions of domination that have historically excluded groups from social, political, and economic participation, HKS graduates are poised to deepen social hierarchies and inequities in their work.  

In June 2020, in the midst of a mass uprising against police brutality and systemic racism, HKS administration publicly responded to years of student demands with the announcement of a new two-week core requirement for all incoming MPP students. With extremely limited time to prepare, HKS asked its only two Black tenured professors (Khalil Muhammad and Sandra Susan Smith) to co-teach this additional course, on top of already teaching electives and fulfilling other responsibilities. While this course is a start, a two-week course for only one degree-program is grossly insufficient. 

  • Provide BIPOC-specific supports (e.g., racial and ethnic caucusing; trauma-informed care protocols; group healing spaces) to address the mental and emotional toll of being exposed to repeated images and texts of racial violence and commentary from students that are new to this material
  • Resource this course like every other core course, allow for a sufficient amount of professors and course assistants for multiple sections
  • Adequately compensate professors for their additional labor

2. Conduct a comprehensive public audit of all HKS course curricula and research using an anti-racist, anti-colonial lens.

The mandatory course on global racism, colonialism, and public policy cannot be taught in isolation. To ensure that what students learn in this course isn’t dismantled and undermined by other courses, HKS must conduct a curriculum audit, beginning with core courses across all degree programs. 

Harvard Kennedy School alumnus Bryan Stevenson has spoken up about his experience, saying of his classes, “they were teaching us to maximize benefit, to minimize cost, but it didn’t seem to matter whose benefits got maximized and whose got minimized.” Students are failing to receive an education that is grounded in the pursuit of public good, social equity, and justice for communities that have been and continue to be failed by public policy.  

Similarly, research conducted by HKS shapes oppressive public policy. Racialized policing and mass incarceration were intellectually justified and supported by publications on racial profiling, broken windows, and the use of data measurement tools to justify increased policing. A more recent publication further perpetuates the criminalization of young Black and Latinx students, deeming them “partners in crime.” Ibram X. Kendi, anti-racist scholar and current fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, makes the case for anti-racist researchers at Harvard who acknowledge that their work cannot be race neutral, but instead must affirmatively work to eliminate racial inequity and injustice. 

  • Co-design the audit process with administration, faculty, and paid student representatives from Equity Coalition, Black Student Union, Latinx Caucus, and AAPI Caucus
  • Publish a public report highlighting the main findings, changes that will be made, a timeline for changes, and a commitment to anti-racist and anti-colonial principles 

3. Address the underrepresentation of HKS BIPOC students by instituting admissions policy reforms, need-based financial aid, and supporting fellowships specifically for Indigenous, Black, and Latinx students.

BIPOC students are underrepresented at HKS. Domestic students are 54% white, but only 11% Latinx, 8% Black, 18% Asian, <1% American Indian or Alaskan Native, and 0% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The HKS student body is majority white and class-privileged, raising serious concerns around who gets access to this institution and whose experiences and knowledge are valued in the admissions process. This privilege is multiplied as graduates go on to positions of leadership in national governments, companies, and nonprofits. 

When BIPOC students are applying, HKS has historically failed to effectively conduct outreach and recruit. Instead, BIPOC student organizations are forced to fill the gap and conduct their own unpaid outreach and application support efforts. Furthermore, HKS admissions processes are highly opaque. There is neither transparency around the composition of the admissions committee nor in how the committee is held accountable to equity and diversity goals. HKS must target overrepresentation for incoming classes to account for decades of exclusionary admissions policies and practices rooted in white supremacy and nepotism. 

When BIPOC students are admitted, they face a host of concerns and barriers to choosing HKS. In 2019, Dean Isaacson and a team of HKS student volunteers piloted outreach to domestic prospective students of color who declined their HKS admission offers in order to understand the major drivers behind this decision. The major reasons for decline (in order of frequency) were the following: lack of financial aid; a negative admissions experience (e.g. cumbersome financial aid application, lack of outreach, experience during New Admit Day); a lack of diversity in student life and culture; perceptions of a corporate brand; and the academic offerings.

  • Shift the financial aid structure from merit-based to need-based. A comprehensive need-based aid strategy should include: an application fee waiver and a needs-based financial aid formula that accounts for parental income and assets in addition to student income and assets. The latter serves to offset the racist policies and practices that prevent BIPOC communities from accumulating intergenerational wealth to afford graduate education, while also benefiting all students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds
  • Conduct data disaggregation across a variety of metrics including, but not limited to: African diaspora communities (e.g. African-American, Carribean, Latinx, etc.); AAPIs by subgroups (e.g. people of Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Samoan, Hmong, etc. descent); pell grant recipients; country of origin for international students
  • Create paid student positions for BIPOC admissions outreach and support, increase transparency in the admissions process, and include students on the admissions committee

4. Annually cluster hire a cohort of four BIPOC faculty who critically study the intersectionality of race, gender identity, class, caste, and power across a variety of disciplines and support their paths to tenure.

BIPOC professors are extremely underrepresented at HKS. According to recently published data, HKS has 0 Native/Indigenous (0%); 4 Asian (9%); 2 Black (5%), 1 Latinx (2%), and 0 Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (0%) tenured professors. At the same time, HKS has 34 white (77%) tenured professors. These numbers pale in comparison to the U.S. demographics of today and tomorrow (with people of color estimated to be the majority by 2045) and when compared to the global population.

The over-representation of white professors in tenured positions is reflective of decades of explicit and implicit discriminatory practices and the devaluing of the scholarship and contributions of faculty of color. Hiring a few additional BIPOC faculty in one academic year does not address the inexcusable, historic racial disparities in our faculty composition. Furthermore, HKS fails to promote junior BIPOC faculty through the ranks to earn tenure, reflecting the pervasive institutional racism, lack of mentorship, and support. 

Dean Elmendorf often stresses the importance of preparing students for the future, yet we have faculty that do not reflect the demographics of the present or future. 

  • Cultivate a critical mass of scholars from historically oppressed and excluded communities with scholarship and expertise in global systems of oppression. 
  • Invest in, support, and promote BIPOC faculty 
  • Pay students to be involved in every step of the faculty hiring process. Undergraduate and graduate students in other Schools participate in the faculty search process more fully than at HKS. 
  • Take action on the recommendations that have been developed and provided to Dean Cooper

5. Implement anti-racism workshops biannually for all students, faculty, staff and HKS affiliates. 

In addition to teaching a mandatory course on racism and colonialism (rooted in history, theory, and empirical research), HKS needs to provide intimate spaces for members of its community to identify and confront their own individual connections to power and privilege. Regardless of our intent, each of us participate in systems that produce and perpetuate racial hierarchy and disparities. 

We need guided spaces to unpack our complicity and discover ways to move to action. These anti-racism workshops will allow the HKS community to develop a common language for examining internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism and to develop the critical skills to analyze the complicity of individuals in relation to institutions. 

  • Develop workshops similar to those held by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond that utilize dialogue, personal reflection, and presentations 
  • Hire trained external facilitators (jointly selected by students and administration) to lead workshops; workshops not to be led by the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging

6. Create a system of accountability between HKS administration, faculty, staff, and students.

HKS has a problem with accountability and transparency. This is a result of a white supremacy culture that promotes exclusion and control. HKS administration has a pattern of making major decisions without having the key stakeholders, impacted students, at the table. They have a pattern of making promises and not fulfilling them. They have a pattern of not being forthcoming about progress (or lack thereof) made on diversity, inclusion, and belonging goals, and thus put the burden on unpaid student organizers to monitor and pressure administration.

We demand that HKS administration create a system of accountability for all efforts towards anti-racist transformation, including giving students decision-making power in matters related to admissions, faculty hiring, core curriculum, fellowship appointments, participatory budgeting, and more. 

HKS should borrow some accountability tactics from Harvard Business School Action Plan for Racial Equality by:

  • Financing: Make a significant dollar commitment to financing the racial equity work and include BIPOC students in financial decision making towards institutional transformation
  • Task Stewardship: Assign each aspect of Equity Coalition demands to a senior faculty or staff member to be responsible for stewarding the work  
  • Governance: Create a Board of Advisors (consisting of paid students, alumni, faculty and staff) to review the School’s progress, advise HKS leaders, and keep the racial equity efforts on track
  • Data Collection & Reporting: Create a regularly updated public report and an internal dashboard to track progress on all racial equity work
  • Data Collection & Reporting: Hire 3rd party auditors to conduct reports on why BIPOC students decline admissions


HKS Equity Coalition, Black Student Union, Latinx Caucus, Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, Arab Caucus, Women’s Caucus, & LGBTQ Caucus

Join us in demanding Racial Equity Now