How the Harvard Kennedy School Abandoned America

And just when we need it most. —Malcolm Burnley

harvard kennedy school ted kennedy

In 1978, Ted Kennedy dedicated the Kennedy School of Government as a “living memorial” to his slain brother. / Photograph by Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1969, the school adopted a new Master in Public Policy (MPP) program—a move that signaled an increased academic bent that left Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis perplexed, even angered. The school’s increasing technical emphasis also bothered Ted Kennedy, who demanded something “far freer and [more] risky than the regularized academic approach” if the school intended to enhance his brother’s New Frontier, rather than curtail it. Eventually tired of criticism from the Kennedys—and of trying to woo conservative donors during the Reagan years while shouldering the family’s liberal reputation—Harvard removed the Kennedy name, becoming the Harvard School of Government in 1981. More than two decades later, though, it recanted, eventually rebranding itself as the Harvard Kennedy School in 2008. Many years before he died, Ted Kennedy told reporters that while he’d “like to see [the school] pay less attention to techniques and more to the values of public life,” he was still “proud to have our name on the school.”

Ultimately, his gripes had little to no effect on the school’s curriculum, which continued to veer away from government service. The MPP stresses economics and quantitative analysis over political science. The type of student HKS caters to has shifted as well: Gone are the days of primarily targeting high-level staffers in Washington with an aim to shape them into more effective public servants. “The Kennedy School is dramatically different now,” says Fung, who lays out two key changes. The school, he says, has become the most international institute at Harvard—nearly half its students come from outside the United States—so the approach to public problem-solving is more global than ever. Second, and most important, HKS no longer prioritizes careers as public servants in Washington over nonprofit and private-sector jobs.

Today, the school’s mission and curriculum are so broad you have to squint to see how they’re actually focused on improving our fraying democracy. “I think people still think about the Kennedy School as being about the U.S. and about Washington,” Fung says. “It certainly is about the U.S. and about Washington, but it’s about many other things also.”


This past November 8, HKS played host to an election soiree on campus inside the Institute of Politics, a panopticon-like forum that’s housed within one of HKS’s four main buildings. The scene was fairly standard: beer, pizza, Wolf Blitzer on TV. During the early returns, I walked up to an HKS student watching the action from some wooden bleachers. “Brian” (he asked to be quoted anonymously) worked in consulting before coming to HKS for a Master in Public Administration degree. He selected the program, he said, in order “to be filled with a sense of hopefulness about what’s possible in the world.” The election, combined with the well-meaning culture of HKS, had struck a chord. “I feel a sense of desperation watching,” he told me. “Part of me almost feels a sense of responsibility to be involved in the political process in some way.”

After we talked for several minutes about accountability and public service, I asked Brian what he planned to do after graduation. Had his investment in graduate school been worth it? “If we’re being more forthcoming,” he replied, “I’m definitely heading back into consulting for a while.”

Brian isn’t an anomaly. A third of HKS grads proceed into the private sector. Nowadays, the school is less of a pipeline to Washington than it is a feeder for McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group—a major reason why HKS isn’t exactly helping to untangle the partisan knot in DC. Nearly 10 years ago, when the school rebranded to HKS, it removed the word “government” from its PR materials—a savvy shift by the administration that offered a clear hint at the direction of the school. “The profession we are training people for is to advance the public purpose,” says Elmendorf, who recently began his second year as dean after presiding over the Congressional Budget Office—about as numbers-heavy a gig as there is in government. “And that can be done in one or more sectors of the economy, and one or more parts of our society.”

Of all the jargon bandied about at HKS, you’ll probably hear the term “trisectoral” the most. It’s meant to convey, in a single buzzword, the idea that the school’s curriculum equally prepares students for careers in the nonprofit, private, and public sectors. From the perspective of a professional school, the approach makes a lot of sense: The government workforce has been downtrending since the George H. W. Bush years, and these days governments rarely work alone. Think, for instance, about the Affordable Care Act. While it is a federal policy, its delivery, advocacy, and administrative maintenance take place largely in the private sector. The argument from HKS is that the school hasn’t abandoned government training as much as America, in solving public problems, has abandoned the government.

There’s little debate that distrust in American politics is at an all-time high, and has been trending that way for the past 50 years. The assassination of JFK, in some ways, heralded the death of the very world the school was created to invigorate. As the nation plunged deeper into the horrifying quagmire of Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal transformed America’s perception of politics in Washington, the country found itself awash in a newfound cynicism about its elected leaders—a cynicism that Harvard’s ivied walls could not keep out.

But could HKS itself be contributing to the waning interest in government work? It’s a question Carol Chetkovich stumbled upon while researching public-policy-school training and socialization as an HKS instructor during the early 2000s. Using data she gathered by asking MPP students to project their career paths before enrolling and then after completing their degrees, Chetkovich found evident disparities. “There was a decline in stated interest in government careers [after completion] and a large proportion of students went to the private sector at that point.” she says. “I was really struck by the level of skepticism and disdain that respondents expressed toward government.” Chetkovich, now a professor of public policy at Mills College, in California, ultimately theorized that policy-school grads were no longer ushered into government because “the takeaway from the core curriculum tends to be, Well, you just can’t get anything done in government.”

Unsurprisingly, many HKS professors push back on the premise that they’re teaching even the subtlest brand of anti-government education. There are, after all, plenty of examples showcasing the school’s public-sector commitment. HKS, for instance, played an essential role in turning around the government of Somerville through a 10-year partnership that allowed students to consult on ways to better deliver city services. The Taubman Center for State and Local Government, through its Government Performance Lab, has been doing similar work in seven states across the country, helping improve the efficacy of government, through initiatives such as juvenile justice programs and prenatal care for low-income mothers. If democracy is crumbling, the school argues, it’s not like HKS is simply leaving the bricks on the ground. “The core of our microeconomics training is how to think systematically about how markets don’t always get everything right,” says Jeffrey Liebman, director of the Taubman Center. “So much of what government does is figuring out how to buy goods from the public sector to deliver public value. That’s actually a question that microeconomics is really good at addressing.”

Liebman isn’t wrong, but the HKS numbers-first approach to government instruction is essentially tantamount to running a dance studio and offering ballroom classes to a soundtrack of Ludacris. Yes, it technically can be done—but odds are, it’s not going to be pretty. “These schools got off on the wrong foot,” says Lawrence Mead, a professor of politics at New York University. “Political science should’ve been the basis of public-policy fields, rather than economics.”

To Mead’s point, Chetkovich also found, in a separate study, that some MPP alumni rated their HKS education as being the least effective in the skill areas of leadership, ethics, organizing/mobilizing, and managing people. HKS scored highest in imparting skills related to written communication, statistics— one of the skills least-often used in the public sector, according to surveyed alumni who wound up in government—systematic thinking about problems, economics, and policy design. The school may talk about valuing public service, but given feedback on the curriculum, the numbers don’t lie. And if anyone appreciates numbers, it’s HKS.

When you go looking for things that Kennedy School luminaries have accomplished lately, it’s telling that you find a lot of obituaries of the old guard. Thomas Schelling, for example—one of the “founding fathers” of the program and an economist whose political ideology falls sharply into the “numbers” side of the public-policy divide—died this past December. This fading philosophy gets to the heart of one criticism that has plagued the school for decades: that its curriculum, steeped in old-school quantitative-analysis training—even when drawing upon real-world case studies from the present—produces graduates who are too narrowly educated and not properly prepared for the realities of modern governance. That’s especially true of this present moment, when Trump’s triumph is the latest example of the outdatedness of traditional thinking in politics.

Perhaps the more central question is whether it’s even possible to teach policy in the classroom. “Policy and politics are absolutely intermingled,” says former New York Congressman Daniel Maffei, an HKS alum who represented a district in upstate New York. “And yet, in these graduate programs, politics can be an afterthought. Getting an elite education from a public-policy school does not translate to the political world, other than connections.”

In other words, the best reason you go to Harvard Kennedy School is for its proximity to power.