HKS Students Criticize Dean’s Response to Diversity Letter, Citing Police Brutality Simulation


Students at the Harvard Kennedy School criticized their dean’s response to an open letter sent by the HKS Equity Coalition earlier this month advocating for a commitment from the school to “creating a culture and environment built on the principles of anti-racism.”

The original letter sent by the coalition contains three demands: a mandatory course on the history of race and inequality, mandatory diversity training for all Kennedy School affiliates, and cluster hiring of faculty of color who “critically study the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and power.”

The letter was signed by multiple affinity groups and 375 Kennedy School affiliates.

In an emailed response to members of the equity coalition, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote the school is working with the advocacy group Community Change, Inc. to develop anti-racism workshops this spring. If the process is successful, these workshops will be implemented during new student orientation in the fall, according to Elmendorf’s email.


He wrote that although he and his colleagues are “committed” to adding more courses on race and inequality, they are not yet “convinced” that a “mandatory, standalone course is the best approach.” He also wrote that the school has been working on faculty cluster hiring focused on the stated topics for “several years.”

Several students criticized Elmendorf’s response to the coalition letter in interviews with The Crimson. Elmendorf did not respond to a request for comment on any of the criticisms.

Nneka O. Onwuzurike, one of the original authors of the coalition letter, called the dean’s response to the three demands “lackluster.” She cited the absence of student involvement in creating the anti-racism workshops.

“We are not involved in the process of creating solutions to the problems that we, ourselves, have identified to the organization,” she said.

Mike Yepes, a first year at Kennedy School, said he feels Elmendorf misinterpreted what the students meant by a mandatory course focusing on the history of race and inequality.

“We requested a class that catered to talking about oppression and systemic violence across a global context,” Yepes said.

The course did not address this topic, according to Yepes.

In response to Elmendorf’s comment on the process of attracting faculty, Abhinaya Narayanan — another author of the original coalition letter — said while she “recognizes that’s a challenge,” she believes the administration needs to do more to promote an inclusive culture.

“If the administration is taking steps to make sure that there are courses in place, that they are recruiting students of color here — we need to make sure that the environment here is one that faculty of color can come to and thrive,” she said.

This has not historically been the case, according to Narayanan.

Sophie P. Dover said the culture at the Kennedy School contributes to its difficulty in attracting faculty.

“What does it say to an applicant when we only have — formerly one, now two — black individuals on tenured faculty? What does it mean or signal to applicants when there is no focus on racist structures within the public policy realm, or the role of colonialism in international affairs?” Dover asked.

“That's sending clear signaling and messaging to excellent potential faculty who are of Harvard caliber and are going to other schools that are our competitors,” she said.

Onwuzurike cited a simulation that took place in the fall as an example of why she believes the school needs workshops and faculty of color who focus on issues related to diversity and inequality. Dubbed the "Bell Harbor" simulation, the exercise was run by white moderators and required first year Masters in Public Policy students to assume roles in a case about police brutality, according to Onwuzurike and three other students interviewed.

“These white teachers and TAs wrote out a fictionalization of a black man being murdered by the police,” Onwuzurike said.

Onwuzurike was given the role of a “white PhD student who had a lot of racist ideologies in her language,” which made her uncomfortable.

The simulation led several students of color to leave the class, according to Yepes.

“Immediately — like within 10 seconds of reading the prompt — several students of color walked out,” he said. “Multiple others were very uncomfortable and just none of us can fathom how this managed to make it through rounds of reviews to faculty to be given as an assignment for 250 students.”

Course instructors held a “check-in” about the simulation afterwards, according to Yepes.

Elmendorf did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

—Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at