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Student Group Publishes Open Letter Advocating for Equity-Related Changes at Kennedy School

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HKS Equity Coalition, a student group advocating for equity and justice at the Harvard Kennedy School, published an open letter in late January calling for several equity-related changes at the Kennedy School.

The letter rearticulates demands the Coalition made in previous years, including the implementation of a semester-long course covering racism and colonialism, as well as biannual anti-racism workshops, a public audit of the Kennedy School’s course curricula, and the annual hiring of four BIPOC faculty.

The Kennedy School's Black Student Union, Latinx Caucus, Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus, Arab Caucus, Women’s Caucus, and the LGBTQ Caucus joined the HKS Equity Coalition in signing the letter, which garnered 329 signatures as of Wednesday.

In June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the following nationwide racial reckoning, the Kennedy School mandated all incoming Master of Public Policy students take a two-week course called “Race and Racism in the Making of the United States as a Global Power.” While the open letter calls this a “start,” it demands a semester-long course be required of all master’s students.

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In an interview with the Crimson on Wednesday, Equity Coalition coordinating team member Cassandra Duchan Saucedo said that “working with the administration is tough.”

“A lot of the responses that we get are basically saying that they’re already doing the work that we’re asking for,” Saucedo said. “But if you review the demands that we have, it’s pretty clear that that's just not the case.”

The open letter also states that BIPOC students are underrepresented at HKS, and that the school’s admissions process lacks transparency.

“Broadly speaking, Latinx students, Black students, and Indigenous students are completely underrepresented at the Kennedy School,” Saucedo said. “It’s disturbing to be at a school that really claims to be serving this future population, when it doesn’t even represent the current population of even the country, let alone in the world.”

The letter further states that BIPOC students face a “host of concerns and barriers” to accepting admission to HKS, and the letter calls for HKS to “shift the financial aid structure from merit-based to need-based.”

“There’s no need-based financial aid at the Kennedy School, it’s all quote-unquote ‘merit-based.’ The scholarships that are being given out are allegedly — at least what administration says — is that they’re given out on a dual need- and merit-based basis,” Saucedo said. “So I think the process is super opaque. But it’s also just visibly not need-based. I think they do a poor job of assessing need.”

Kennedy School spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in an email that the Kennedy School’s financial aid system already considers students’ levels of need.

“Our financial aid awarding process already factors in an individual’s level of need, and we continue to look for ways to expand need-based financial support,” Smith wrote. “While we would love to be able to meet the needs of all of our students, converting to an entirely need-based system would require far greater funding than we now have.”

Saucedo added that student organizers are dissatisfied with the school’s engagement with student groups.

“In general, the administration tends to approach student organizers in an antagonistic way and creates a kind of negative relationship,” she said. “It’s not just disheartening for student organizers, but it’s actually counterproductive for the school, and them resisting progress in the long term is not going to serve the school, especially because we’re moving into a future that is more diverse, hopefully, more equitable, and putting out students who aren’t prepared to deal with that is not going to serve them or their bottom line in the future.”

Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf wrote in an email that HKS administrators regularly participate in discussions with students.

“We engage regularly in constructive discussions with students and others in the HKS community about ways to become even more effective at our mission,” Elmendorf wrote. “For example, building on discussions with students, we are making changes in how we incorporate need into the financial aid process (which we have told students we will discuss with them in the coming week), hiring students to help increase student diversity and inclusion at HKS, and strengthening how we incorporate student views in the faculty hiring process.”

—Staff writer Isabel G. Skomro can be reached at isabelskomro@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @isabelskomro.

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