UPDATED: October 17, 2020, 12:06 a.m.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s annual report on diversity showed little to no change across various demographics in its student, faculty and staff composition. The school faculty and student body remain overwhelmingly white and male.
The Kennedy School has seen a marginal increase in the racial diversity of its student body since last year. Fifty-four percent of students this year identify as white, whereas 58 percent did last year. For the first time since the initial HKS diversity report in 2018, the school reported one “American Indian or Alaska Native” student, as well as one “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” student.
The tenured faculty composition also changed for the first time since 2018. While professors remain 78 percent male, they are now 77 percent white — down 2 percentage points from prior years.
The percentage of Latinx students increased by 3 percentage points, rising to 14 percent, while the percentage of Asian students increased by 1 percentage point, to 18 percent. The percentage of African American students remained the same, at 8 percent.
Among faculty, meanwhile, there are now two tenured African American professors — one more than in 2019.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, admitted Kennedy School students have been granted the unusual opportunity to defer enrollment for one year. That option has driven enrollment down from the school’s usual tally of around 1,000 students to about 900 students across its four master’s degree programs.
Whether the enrollment numbers skewed this year’s data remains unclear. Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf said in an interview Thursday that no data is available on students who chose to defer, which made interpreting this year’s report challenging.
“We don't know the demographic composition of the people who decided not to come this year because of the pandemic. That makes it more difficult to interpret this year's report,” Elmendorf said.
Elmendorf added that the work of increasing diversity at the Kennedy School is not finished.
“We have much more work to do at the Kennedy School to advance diversity and inclusion and belonging,” Elmendorf said. “Part of doing that work effectively is to measure some aspects of diversity that we have that data to measure. And that's why the task force that I commissioned some years ago recommended that we have an annual report of the sort, and why we have had one now for three years. And we'll keep having them in the future.”
The Kennedy School has seen its share of controversy due to a lack of diversity across its student body and faculty. In recent years, affiliates have alleged that the school’s culture is not sufficiently welcoming for people of color, and that increases in diversity have not necessarily translated to increased inclusivity at the school.
Elmendorf said inclusivity remains a priority for the school, citing a new required course on the history of race in America for students in the Master of Public Policy program.
“This report is about diversity, and inclusion and belonging are at least as important. And they are more difficult to measure. So we are making a set of changes at the school to increase the sense of inclusion and belonging on the part of people who are underrepresented at the school,” Elmendorf said.
Other affiliates have criticized the financial aid options available to students, citing their inadequacy as a factor in the school’s dearth of diversity. Students have called for the establishment a need-based financial aid system to replace the current merit-based system.
Elmendorf said he recognizes the importance of financial aid and is constantly working to increase the aid available to students.
“We are working all the time to try to increase financial aid for Kennedy School students because more aid would enable more outstanding future public leaders to get an education at the Kennedy School. And this is a constant topic of conversation between me and donors and potential donors of the Kennedy School,” Elmendorf said.
Elmendorf emphasized the need for financial aid in his remarks in an Oct. 9 meeting with the Dean’s Council, a group of prominent donors to the Kennedy School.
“As David Ellwood used to say when he was dean, the single most powerful tool for attracting superb students and propelling them into public service is reducing the cost of education. And so, I have continued David’s focus on raising funds for financial aid at the Kennedy School, and I am gratified that so many faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the School have pitched in this year to help,” Elmendorf said at the meeting.
Over the past two years, the Kennedy School has implemented a series of changes in order to restructure its hiring processes for faculty and its admission process for students. The changes include the hiring of a new assistant dean to oversee recruiting and admissions, as well as partnering with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Latinx Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“These processes are continuing. Oliver Street, the assistant dean, started this. But he's only been here for one admissions round. And this coming year is the second admissions around. So I think it will take some time before his approach is fully in place. But we are committed to continuing that work and we see some progress in this year's entering class,” Elmendorf said.
Nonetheless, Elmendorf said he is unsure how long it will take to see major changes in the demographics of the Kennedy School.
“We're working very vigorously and I hope we make progress rapidly. But I can't predict the exact timing,” Elmendorf said.