How the Harvard Kennedy School Abandoned America

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It was the first day of December on Harvard Kennedy School’s campus, and Kellyanne Conway was wearing a cardigan the color of Donald Trump’s hair. A fitting choice, perhaps, for a campaign manager whose candidate had recently pulled off the most sensational presidential upset in American history. A longtime GOP pollster who now finds herself at the epicenter of power in Washington, Conway was surrounded by nearly a dozen fellow political hotshots who’d led the Trump or Hillary Clinton campaigns. Together they sat in a wood-paneled conference room filled with white-clothed banquet tables. Tidy rows of tabletop mikes and carafes of water conjured an air of erudition and gentility.

Since 1972, HKS’s Institute of Politics has invited key confidants from the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets, from Mary Matalin to David Axelrod, for the purpose of capturing a “first draft of history,” as the school likes to put it. Over the past several decades, the ritual had largely consisted of journalists asking political gurus questions about moments in the campaign that had been covered in the press several times over. Even when campaigns ran hot, dialogue here had remained cool. The losers kowtowed to the victors and everyone complained about Saturday Night Live impersonations. Afterward, participants proceeded to a bar to cordially clink glasses before retiring to their homes for the winter.

Not anymore.

Nearly two hours into the 2016 event, Conway’s deputy praised former Breitbart executive and controversial White House chief strategist Steve Bannon—who’d accepted an invitation to the conference but pulled out at the last minute—as “an unbelievably brilliant strategist.” In response, Clinton’s campaign communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, let loose. “If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am glad to have lost,” she fumed, adding, “I would rather lose than win the way you guys did.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Conway sneered. “No, you wouldn’t.”

Moments later, Conway continued, “Do you think I ran a campaign where white supremacists had a platform? Are you going to look me in the face and tell me that?”

“It did,” Palmieri countered. “Kellyanne, it did.”

“Guys, I can tell you’re angry, but wow,” Conway later retorted. “Hashtag, ‘He’s your president.’ How’s that?

The spectacle instantly made national headlines, and for good reason: No scene, perhaps, better embodied today’s political landscape, at a time when just about the only thing liberals and conservatives agree on is that government in Washington, DC, is more antagonistic and hopeless than ever. The high-profile yet ultimately chaotic and unproductive meeting of America’s most powerful political minds would also seem to be equally indicative of the state of affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Here on the shores of the Charles, you’d think that the cradle of public-policy education would offer some optimism in these fractious times. After all, HKS cranks out hundreds of well-meaning graduates each year—exactly the sorts of dreamers many of us assume will free us from the shackles of today’s unprecedented partisan gridlock. But will they?

In the 1960s, the graduate school hitched its star to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, with the thought that it would recruit the country’s best and brightest and mold them into America’s next great public leaders. Today, though, all signs point to something far different. The school’s mission, critics say, has strayed from the ideals of its Kennedy namesake, and the curriculum no longer emphasizes government service, also preparing students for any number of far more lucrative careers in the private sector. While the school is cagey about its acceptance rate, it’s believed to be several times higher than those of Harvard’s other schools. What it lacks in exclusivity, HKS seems to make up for in big names, relying heavily on its world-famous alums and powerful VIP speakers to maintain the status quo and convince fresh faces to keep signing up for what has long been considered a less-than-challenging degree.

HKS dean Douglas Elmendorf says the school hasn’t given up on the public sector, but he’s also not losing sleep over HKS grads scratching at the door of the consulting world. “I’m agnostic about what path our students take in advancing public purpose,” he says, adding that he does want “a significant number of them to go work for a government.”

When the Kennedy family bestowed its name on Harvard’s school of government more than 50 years ago, HKS was supposed to inspire and produce the next generation of political lions. But as we venture deeper into this era of hyper-contentious politics in DC, it remains to be seen whether the school is going to play a relevant role and provide much-needed leadership and solutions. After talking to students, graduates, and faculty, though, one thing seems clear: You no longer go to Harvard Kennedy School to grease the wheels of democracy; you go to grease your own career track.


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Harvard’s public-policy school was built after Lucius Littauer (center) gifted his alma mater an unprecedented $2 million. / Photograph by Bettmann/Getty Images

From its inception, HKS had been the unwanted stepchild of parent Harvard. In the early 20th century, the very idea of a professional public-service graduate school drew the ire of faculty stalwarts who’d already endured the establishment of the business school. College brass worried that such an enterprise, even more so than Harvard Business School, would dumb down their own scholarship. If not for an unprecedented $2 million donation—the largest from a single donor in the university’s history at that time—from a Harvard alum named Lucius Littauer during the height of the Depression, there may have never been a Harvard Kennedy School.

Littauer, who’d made his fortune as a businessman after inheriting his father’s glove-making empire, had an ax to grind with the government. After serving five terms as a right-wing congressman from New York—and somehow managing to elude serving a jail sentence following a conviction for smuggling a diamond tiara into the country in 1914—Littauer emerged as an outspoken critic of DC, particularly the New Deal. Behind his record-setting gift to Harvard was an anti-government edict that today reads like a precursor to the Tea Party. Citing the “growing invasion of government into every aspect of our nation’s life,” Littauer offered his bequest as “the best hope of avoiding disasters arising from untried experiments in government and administration.”

In 1936, the same year that JFK first stepped onto Harvard Yard as a freshman, the school that would eventually bear his name was officially established. When the Graduate School of Public Administration began, it aspired to enhance the competency of midlevel career bureaucrats in Washington. At first, the program attracted mostly academics, who were taught by professors from a hodgepodge of other Harvard departments—giving the school a ragtag feel. Were professors grooming dutiful bureaucrats or civic-minded scholars? A generation of statesmen or PhDs? Key questions remained unanswered while the school languished for decades, underfunded and unfocused in its direction. Harvard president James Bryant Conant once said that a degree from the school “wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.” In his outgoing 1953 address, with the tone of an ashamed father, he called the school his “greatest disappointment.”

Then came the Kennedys. Less than a month after JFK’s assassination, family members gathered at a Manhattan club and hatched the idea of a memorial to inspire students to embark on careers in public service. It was an easy sell. After all, government at the time was enjoying a star turn. According to Pew Research Center, more than 75 percent of the country trusted the federal government in 1964 (that number was 24 percent in 2014), and the federal workforce was multiplying like never before thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “In the early days of the Kennedy School,” says Archon Fung, the school’s current academic dean, “we imagined ourselves training people as policy analysts and as very high-level staffers in the federal government in Washington. In that era, a lot of people thought you could solve most public problems from that position.”

A master plan designed by famed architect I. M. Pei (one that never fully materialized) called for a sprawling campus, complete with a museum and presidential library in addition to the school. Having lacked funds since the day its doors opened, the school accepted a $10 million check from the Kennedy family, taking on the Kennedy name and officially spawning the John F. Kennedy School of Government. It didn’t take long, though, for Harvard to rankle Camelot.

The realm of public policy breaks down into two camps: those who rely on leadership and instincts, and those who rely on numbers and science. JFK is best remembered as doing the former, for his daring during the Cuban Missile Crisis and his ability to inspire a nation—a man of feeling more than technique. The school, on the other hand, had always leaned the other way, championing age-old disciplines of economics and empirical analysis. From the start, the school and the Kennedy name had made for odd bedfellows, and the rift was about to widen.

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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.


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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.

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