How the Harvard Kennedy School Abandoned America

And just when we need it most. —Malcolm Burnley

harvard kennedy school kellyanne conway robby mook

2016 presidential campaign managers Kellyanne Conway and Robby Mook, prior to a forum at HKS. / Photograph by Charles Krupa/AP Images

Three weeks after Election Day, HKS held an installment of a seminar series called Making Democracy Work. It consisted of a small group of faculty and students reflecting on the struggle to remain optimistic as progressives in the world today. It was an off-the-record discussion, like a lot of things at HKS, so whatever republic-saving wisdom I gleaned I’m regretfully forbidden from sharing.

Meanwhile, some 600 feet away, a throng of students gathered in the pouring rain, pounding poetry into megaphones on the steps of the Institute of Politics. Amid the umbrellas, there were homemade signs bearing slogans such as “Will Trade Racists for Refugees” in protest of Steve Bannon, who’d been invited to the same conference as Kellyanne Conway to rehash the election. He’d canceled at the last moment, but the protesters persisted. “How can Harvard reconcile inviting these individuals with racist ideologies with promoting the role of higher education to foster understanding?” organizer Zachary Lown asked the crowd. “If their only criteria is a reverence for power, then I guess it makes sense.”

Getting into bed with power players has long helped keep HKS afloat, and serves as a major factor driving enrollment. Without the flashy speakers and connections, it’s not a stretch to think that far fewer students would wind up getting well-paying jobs, or even bother attending. On any given day, students here might bump into a Nobel scholar—or an accused international war criminal.

For every lauded dignitary HKS churns out (Senator Chris Van Hollen, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), the school has also welcomed students and faculty it would just as soon forget. Hector Gramajo, a former Guatemalan general who was ultimately found liable for his role in the torture of individuals in his country, graduated with a Master in Public Administration in 1991; Jason Richwine, a conservative policy analyst whose HKS dissertation argued that Latino immigrants in the U.S. have lower IQs than “native whites,” earned his PhD in 2009; and Donald Heathfield, a widely reported Russian spy who infiltrated the U.S. with the connections he made at HKS, graduated in 2000. (Harvard revoked Heathfield’s degree in 2010.) Even the school’s Taubman Center is named after a disgraced businessman who served jail time within 15 years of endowing the center.

At times, HKS can resemble a halfway house for disgraced politicians. After finishing his six-year presidential term in Mexico—punctuated by drug cartels running rampant in parts of the country—Felipe Calderón left his homeland. HKS quickly welcomed him as a visiting fellow—as well as his spokesperson, Alejandra Sota, who got accepted into the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration (MC/MPA) program without so much as a college degree.

None of this appears to trouble HKS, which chooses instead to tout its revolving door of political celebs. “Compared with other policy schools,” Elmendorf says, “the Kennedy School is generally more engaged with the practice of public policy, has more current public leaders on our faculty, has more current public leaders who come here to speak, than is true of most public-policy schools.” It’s just that at HKS, much of that engagement is built on a foundation of cold, hard money.

The longtime rub on HKS is that any schmo with $50,000—even a Russian spy—can buy his or her way into Harvard. Heathfield deftly found a back door onto the school’s campus through the MC/MPA program, a one-year degree that accounts for 38 percent of all HKS students. The program’s acceptance rate, according to Forbes, is believed to be 50 percent, though HKS keeps the information private. Plenty of non-schmos who can pay full tuition have also taken advantage of the program, including Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia; Johnson Sirleaf; and former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Each had at least a cup of coffee at HKS during the one-year MC/MPA program—a convenient way to pad the alumni rolls.

In all fairness, HKS in 2010 listed its acceptance rate as 20 percent, though that only reflected the MPP, where 44 percent of students currently study. Still, that percentage is significantly above the acceptance rates of the college (5 percent), law school (16 percent), and business school (11 percent). It’s also a riskier value proposition: The average cost of an HKS education runs $47,000 to $91,000 per year, depending on room and board and other expenses, lending a material reason to why so many idealists are tempted away from public-service work by far flashier consulting gigs. Herein, of course, lies the problem with calling an HKS education a professional degree: Whereas a law degree is a prerequisite for working in the legal industry, there are no hurdles to entering public service or politics. That means the degree will never have anywhere near the same value.

Instead, HKS must rely on its old-school precepts—piggybacking off its famous alums, professors, and the Harvard name—to buttress the ever-increasing cost of a degree. “I don’t think the Kennedy School should be a bastion of Chomsky-ite criticism of the political establishment,” HKS professor Stephen Walt says, “but it should actively encourage its faculty to challenge conventional wisdom, orthodoxies, powerful institutions, and people. The school has tended to be part of the chorus. When that happens, instead of speaking truth to power, as good academics should, you’re sucking up to power.”


Elmendorf, who holds two degrees from Harvard (neither from HKS), has inherited considerable institutional baggage, along with a $100 million expansion of the campus, which currently consists of four discontinuous buildings. Construction is under way to improve the physical cohesion of the school, including a redesigned courtyard. Right now, though, the slogan—“Ask what you can do; imagine what we can do together”—is superimposed on fencing that surrounds the rubble and cranes, as if the school is still trying on identities and hoping one sticks.

Given the state of politics—including a president who campaigned with what at times seemed like a willful ignorance of facts, policy, and data—it’s plausible to think HKS might be facing some type of institutional identity crisis. Not so, Elmendorf assured me. “Priorities,” he said, “have not shifted as a result of the election.”

Still, Elmendorf has high hopes for where he can take HKS. Understanding the need to offer students a relevant education, he plans to make several changes and adjustments. Namely, updating the quantitative-analysis curriculum, improving HKS’s study of digital technology in government, and growing its nascent program for social innovation—all of which jibes perfectly with the school’s trisectoral philosophy. “The best way to address a particular public problem might be through the government,” Elmendorf says, or “it might be through a nonprofit, or creating a for-profit that’s focused on a particular public problem.” It’s important to note that all of these priorities stand to nudge HKS farther down the path of a technocratic school whose relationship to government work remains foggy at best.

For now, aside from a few fairly minor adjustments, it appears that the status quo is good enough for HKS—content as an institution that safeguards establishment politics, not one that helps unclog DC and fulfills the democratic ideals of its namesake, John F. Kennedy. Judging by the school’s successful $570 million fundraising campaign, there’s little incentive to shake things up. For as long as people are willing to pay for a Harvard stamp, the degree will still have plenty of cred. No matter what the Kennedys, or anyone else for that matter, happens to think.