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A ‘Fundamental’ Shift: Harvard Institute of Politics Marred by Tensions, Turnover as Kennedy School Asserts Increased Control

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Four months before he lost his battle with brain cancer in 2009, U.S. Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56 penned a letter to then-Harvard President Drew G. Faust to outline his vision for the future of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

The letter — meant to serve as “a formal amendment” to a founding document written by Robert F. Kennedy ’48 when the IOP was established in 1966 — requested that key oversight roles at the IOP remain in the hands of the Institute’s Senior Advisory Committee, a group of bipartisan political figures and Kennedy family members tasked with steering the Institute.

In Ted Kennedy’s letter, which has not been previously reported, he asked that a direct descendant of his brother — President John F. Kennedy ’40, to whom the IOP is dedicated — continue to sit on, and play a key role in leading, the committee.

Just over a decade later, in early 2020, Caroline B. Kennedy ’80 — JFK’s daughter — was presented with a proposed IOP governance structure that violated many of her uncle’s dying requests. Shortly after, she resigned from the Senior Advisory Committee, of which she was the honorary chair.

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In the year since, she has declined to elaborate on her decision to depart. Previously unreported documents obtained by The Crimson reveal that it came due to unaddressed concerns over the governance, performance, and leadership of the IOP.

“The current frustration stems from a sense that the IOP is not holding itself to a high-enough standard, not innovating, and not executing its existing programming as well as it should,” Caroline Kennedy wrote in a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow last June, four months after her resignation.

Held up as a model and copied at more than a dozen universities nationwide, the IOP has a rich history as a non-academic institute focused on providing public service opportunities to undergraduates — despite its home within the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a graduate school. Its John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum events and study groups with fellows allow undergraduates to rub shoulders with some of the nation’s top political figures, while other programs offer College students public service leadership and volunteer opportunities.

Historic Kennedy family documents never previously made public reveal, though, that there have long been fears that the IOP’s placement within the Kennedy School could jeopardize its independence and undergraduate-focused mission.

Those fears have come to a head under current Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, who has asserted more control over the IOP than his predecessors, leaving some Senior Advisory Committee members feeling unable to address substantive concerns that have emerged under the leadership of IOP Director Mark D. Gearan ’78. Persistent staffing issues have led to overwork among students and staff, while student members have raised questions about transparency, undergraduate focus, and diversity at the Institute.

In the year since Caroline Kennedy left, governance tensions have persisted, driving multiple other members of the Senior Advisory Committee to resign, documents show. Elmendorf has attempted to clarify the role of the SAC, and Gearan has sought to address some of the student frustration. All the while, Caroline Kennedy remains absent from the committee her family has long steered.

‘Under Their Thumb’

Tensions over the Institute’s role at Harvard have long been present in the storied relationship between the school and the Kennedy family.

In a stunning 1968 letter that has never been previously reported, Jacqueline L. “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis — JFK’s widow and a founding member of the Senior Advisory Committee — expressed her frustration about Harvard’s stewardship of the memorials to her late husband.

“Memorials can never replace men — and one just argues to exhaustion with a lot of wooden people who will have it their way in the end anyway,” Kennedy wrote to Robert S. McNamara, JFK’s Defense Secretary.

The letter, which was written just over one month after Bobby Kennedy was killed, came amid a years-long struggle over the JFK Library, which was originally supposed to be housed at Harvard but was eventually built at Columbia Point in Dorchester, where it opened in 1979.

“What is happening is that it is on its way to becoming the deadest place in the world,” Jackie Kennedy wrote of the library, “and gradually the Institute, which was the vital part one wanted to reflect Jack, will be swallowed up by the School of Government — which just turns out a lot of dreary men who love to spend their lives trading position papers back and forth.”

She expressed frustration that in naming “their dismal School of Government after Jack,” which “for some strange reason Bobby thought so nice at the time,” Harvard leaders had “assured they’d always keep the Institute under their thumb.”

Over the years, the relationship between the family and the University has ebbed and flowed, but was mutually productive — in large part because of Ted Kennedy’s involvement and relationships with University leaders, Caroline Kennedy said in an interview with The Crimson Sunday.

But in the 12 years since his death, under the leadership of a new Harvard president and a new Kennedy School dean, the Senior Advisory Committee has come to play a diminished role in overseeing the IOP, according to documents that shed new light on the governance tensions at the Institute.

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In his 2009 letter to Faust, Ted Kennedy asked that “oversight of the IOP budget, programs and staff” be vested in the Senior Advisory Committee. The Kennedy family representative on the committee, he wrote, should play a leading role in selecting the committee’s chair, as well as a consultative role in picking committee members and the Institute’s director.

Under the proposal Elmendorf presented to Caroline Kennedy last February, almost none of those tenets were upheld. Elmendorf’s proposed structure sought to bring the Senior Advisory Committee “in line with the University’s practices regarding advisory boards,” according to a copy obtained by The Crimson.

It stipulated that members “refrain from direct interactions” with most IOP staff members and not be “involved directly” with budget decisions. New committee members, the proposal said, would be “chosen by the IOP Director and the Harvard Kennedy School Dean in consultation with existing SAC members,” who would serve three-year terms “renewable by invitation of the Director and Dean.”

Concerned about the IOP’s governance and performance, Caroline Kennedy departed the committee shortly after receiving the plan.

“The ultimatum that Doug presented to me in February did not reflect the mission or history of the IOP as a non-academic center founded as a memorial to my father, in which three generations of our family has invested time, effort and devotion,” she wrote in her letter to Bacow later that year. “I hope that this element will not be eliminated in the current bureaucratic rationalization.”

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In a statement on Sunday, Caroline Kennedy wrote that recent changes have failed to respect her family’s dedication to the Institute.

“Through the depth of his commitment and the power of his personality and position, my Uncle Teddy was able to prevent my mother’s prophecy from coming true. I watched him advocate for the IOP with Harvard Presidents and Deans over many years,” Kennedy wrote. “Together, Harvard leaders and members of our family worked through the inevitable disagreements in a spirit of mutual respect, and the IOP flourished. It saddens me that I have been unable to protect its independent spirit and that my uncle’s own legacy is being devalued.”

Governance Gridlock

Just over a month after Caroline Kennedy resigned, the committee’s remaining 14 members penned a letter to Bacow outlining their “deep concern” about the IOP’s future.

In the letter, which has not been previously reported, the Senior Advisory Committee members wrote that they were “deeply troubled by a new governance plan for the IOP that was recently presented to Ambassador Kennedy.”

“We believe it reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the unique structure and operations, which have served Harvard and HKS so well,” they wrote.

Changes to the role granted to the committee in overseeing the IOP, they wrote, threaten “the vitality and future success” of the Institute. They asked to “resolve this matter relatively quickly and to have Ambassador Kennedy and the SAC return to helping lead this extraordinary institution.”

Previous “natural tensions” that arose between the Senior Advisory Committee and Harvard administrators “were always worked out in a spirit of mutual respect,” the committee wrote to Bacow. “We regret that this has been strained with changes in leadership in recent years.”

Frustrated that Caroline Kennedy was not quickly courted back, other Senior Advisory Committee members followed her out the door.

When Manny A. Diaz, the committee’s then-vice chair, resigned last May, he wrote to his colleagues that he was “disheartened by recent events, including and most notably Caroline’s departure and the failure to correct this unimaginable wrong,” according to a resignation email obtained by The Crimson.

With the departure of Diaz, who served as the mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009 and now chairs the Florida Democratic Party, the committee was left leaderless. Its previous chair, Kenneth M. Duberstein, departed around the same time as Caroline Kennedy amid reported tensions with Elmendorf.

Despite the appointment of six new Senior Advisory Committee members in February, no new committee chair has been named. Former U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III is now the only Kennedy family member left on the committee, though he is not a direct descendant of JFK.

At a committee meeting last year, Joe Kennedy III questioned Elmendorf about the budget oversight role granted to the SAC, citing Elmendorf’s tenure as the director of the Congressional Budget Office as he asked for a more detailed accounting of the IOP’s finances, according to two sources in the meeting who were granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

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Since the resignations, Elmendorf has submitted at least one revised governance proposal to committee members that attempted to address some of their concerns. In January, Elmendorf proposed a governance structure that carved out a specific role for Caroline Kennedy and more defined responsibility for the committee than the version offered to Kennedy in February 2020.

Granting the Senior Advisory Committee “a distinctive and crucial role in guiding the work of the IOP” is “crucial to ensuring the future success” of the Institute, Elmendorf wrote in a Jan. 5 letter obtained by The Crimson that included the revised governance plan.

“At the same time, the SAC’s role needs to be consistent with Harvard University’s practices regarding external advisory groups,” Elmendorf wrote. “Those practices encourage strong engagement by advisory groups but require that oversight and authority for the University’s activities rest with the University—consistent with the University’s intellectual independence, fiduciary responsibilities, charitable-gift terms, and need to provide clear lines of authority for staff and students. These guidelines have resulted in successful relationships across Harvard.”

The new governance proposal stipulated the Senior Advisory Committee chair will be “chosen by the HKS dean in consultation with the IOP Director and with Caroline Kennedy for the foreseeable future.” IOP directors will “be chosen by the HKS dean in consultation with” the committee and the president of the University, it said.

Soon after Elmendorf sent his revised structure, Richard L. Berke — the executive editor of STAT News — resigned from the committee, still citing concerns about the IOP’s governance.

He wrote in a resignation letter obtained by The Crimson that he “had planned to resign a year ago, but stayed on in the hopes that I could help sort out some of the issues over the governing structure of the IOP.”

“I am disheartened by the continued, protracted impasse,” Berke wrote. “I hope this can be resolved soon so that the students can get the full attention they deserve.”

In a statement to The Crimson last Friday, Elmendorf wrote that the Advisory Committee’s role “is consistent with Harvard-wide practices regarding external advisory groups.”

“These practices encourage strong engagement but, as with other such programs at Harvard, oversight rests with the University,” he wrote.

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Some members of the Advisory Committee concur that limits on the committee’s authority are warranted. Philip R. Sharp, a former U.S. Representative from Indiana who has served on the board since 1998 and is a former IOP director, said in an interview that some members of the committee have pushed beyond the group’s intended role, to the point where “it was reasonable for the dean to be concerned.” He said, however, that he was not referring to Caroline Kennedy, who he hopes will return to the committee.

“There unquestionably have been occasions when members of the Advisory Committee thought we were more like a board of directors, to whom the management must answer and and take direction from,” Sharp said.

Others argue the governance stalemate is the product of a fundamental shift from historical precedent.

“Our request to you is fundamental, and we believe fair: to maintain the same relationship that has served Harvard, HKS and the IOP so well from the beginning,” the Advisory Committee — including Sharp — wrote to Bacow in the March 2020 letter. “To mandate the IOP and the SAC to adhere to the proposed strict governance rules that apply to other University institutes would put at risk the very reasons the IOP has succeeded.”

Elmendorf wrote in his statement Friday that the SAC “is crucial to helping the IOP focus on its core mission, and to helping enhance the message and mission of the IOP through their own experiences.”

“The senior advisory committee has been strengthened with the appointment of six new members this year who bring fresh voices and broad diversity in every sense,” Elmendorf wrote. “The committee is providing valuable counsel to the Institute’s leadership, staff, and students.”

‘Everybody Was Exhausted’

The governance tensions arose amid concerns among some Senior Advisory Committee members about the Institute’s direction and management — namely, its staffing and budget.

Multiple IOP staff positions that were previously left unfilled have been eliminated in recent years, purportedly as part of a structural reorganization. The changes, several students and former staffers say, have left the IOP chronically short-staffed and created a culture of overwork.

In the fall of 2014, the IOP employed a total of 19 staff members, according to archives of its website, as well as an organizational chart from that year reviewed by The Crimson. Today, its staff page shows just 13 employees — including one who has been on leave and another who also works as the Washington Post’s chief correspondent.

In a statement Friday, Kennedy School spokesperson James F. Smith wrote that there are just two current IOP vacancies, which are for staffers who departed in March.

“Some previous staff positions were absorbed into other roles and new positions were filled in recent years as the IOP has reorganized to meet changing demands,” Smith wrote.

According to numerous organizational charts reviewed by The Crimson, most IOP programs have typically been run by a director and a coordinator, with additional support from staff assistants at various points. But since 2017, following director-level staff vacancies, coordinators have often been left to run programs alone — without being promoted to the level of director. In some cases, staff assistants were brought in to assist the coordinators.

Two top posts — Director of Fellows and Study Groups and Director of Internships and Career Services — became vacant in 2017. The positions went unfilled until at least July 2019, according to IOP organizational charts that labeled the posts as “TBA.”

By 2020, the jobs had disappeared from the charts.

The Institute also lacked a JFK Jr. Forum Director between fall 2019 and August 2020. For that period, the forum was run by a coordinator and students, though an outside contractor helped direct it for a period.

In recent years, the IOP has also created and filled two new positions: Senior Fellow — a part-time post — and Director of Student Programs.

In a statement to The Crimson Friday, Gearan, the IOP Director, defended the organizational changes.

“The IOP has reorganized its structure in the past couple of years, combining some roles and creating others, as we have configured our team to meet fast-evolving challenges,” Gearan wrote. “These changes have enabled us to meet strategic shifts in programming.”

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But the empty positions have fostered a culture of burnout, some students and former staff say.

“Everybody was exhausted,” said Amariah L. “Mari” Jones ’21, who served as IOP student president in 2020.

She also attributed the overwork to IOP executives having different priorities than students, requiring a constant student presence in meetings.

A 25-page institutional review compiled by two cohorts of IOP student leaders between fall 2019 and spring 2020 found student leaders frequently put in more than 20 hours of work per week at the IOP — a factor the report identified as limiting socioeconomic diversity in the organization. The reliance on student labor has prompted some to call for a compensation program.

“Until IOP Staff decides to recognize the student labor they depend on,” the report read, IOP student leaders will leave their roles with “a bitter taste in their mouth, which they undoubtedly share with other students who may at one point have been interested in becoming a member.”

The burnout and lack of recognition, the report suggested, will make alumni less likely to return to the IOP in the future.

“Our efforts to be responsive to students and to this momentous political time, especially during the pandemic, have given all of us lots to juggle, and we appreciate that people have gone the extra mile,” Gearan wrote. “We know we can always be better and we’re committed to working together to get there.”

Beyond its undergraduate programming, the IOP has not yet held or announced its Campaign Managers Conference following the 2020 election. The signature event, which is typically held in early December, has been hosted every four years since 1972, bringing top campaign officials together to reflect on the election year.

“Scheduling the campaign managers event has been complicated this year by the unprecedented issues around the 2020 election,” Smith wrote. “We are actively planning and developing this now, with a goal of holding the event by next month.”

Staff leaves-of-absence that have come on top of the restructuring created confusion about reporting and chain-of-command, according to Emily S. Brother ’19, who served as a staff assistant at the IOP from 2019 until earlier this month.

Brother, who was a student member of the IOP before joining its staff, publicly alleged in recent weeks that she was pushed out for raising concerns about gender-based harassment.

In a post on Medium, Brother alleged that in Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 meetings with Gearan and former IOP Executive Director Amy Howell, she raised concerns “about staff and student labor and employment practices, gender-based harassment, racial microaggressions, and financial accessibility.” Less than a month later, she said, she was offered a separation contract that included a waiver of her right to sue.

Days after receiving the contract, which she said she never signed, Brother was told she would be locked out of her email for alleged policy violations and given a termination date, according to a March 11 letter from Kennedy School Human Resources that she has posted publicly.

“Particularly with situations around gender-based harassment, I was trying my best to champion students who don’t have a voice when all of the power structures are bent set against them,” Brother said while asking a question at JFK Jr. Forum event hosted by the IOP on April 9.

“They need letters of recommendation, they need to graduate, and they can’t elevate their concerns and go too far — and push the status quo — without fear of retaliation,” Brother said of IOP student members. “At the end of the day, that is something that I feel that I’ve had to experience.”

On the day of her termination, Brother filed a complaint with the Harvard Title IX Office and the Office of Dispute Resolution alleging she was retaliated against for raising concerns about sexual harassment, she said. She also said she has entered a workplace problem-solving process through the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

Brother’s exit marked the third staff departure from the IOP in 2021. None have been replaced.

Smith declined to comment on Brother’s allegations due to a policy against speaking about individual personnel matters.

‘We Couldn’t Do Anything Without the Kennedy School’s Approval’

In recent years, Elmendorf has played a more active role in overseeing daily IOP operations and governance, according to several students and former staff.

“As long as there was kind of an understanding that we were allowed to do what we wanted to do, within reason, everything was well. And that lasted until Elmendorf came,” said Julie Schroeder, who worked as the executive assistant to IOP Directors between 2001 and 2018.

Multiple former IOP staff members, who were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal dynamics, said they believe Elmendorf has played an increased role in large part due to a lack of direction and leadership from Gearan.

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Regardless, the dean’s influence over operations has sparked concerns among students that the Institute’s focus on undergraduates has diminished.

The institutional review conducted by students between 2019 and 2020 said undergraduates “have expressed feeling less included” in the IOP in recent semesters amid “an increased presence of graduate students and community members” around the Institute.

“I did feel like the IOP, throughout the time that I’ve been at the College, has been losing its autonomy,” said Jones, the former IOP student president.

“We couldn’t do anything without the Kennedy School’s approval of what we needed to do,” she added.

The institutional review called for a reduction in IOP programming, streamlined communication between students and staff, and an increased focus on diversity.

Caroline Kennedy conveyed similar concerns in her letter to Bacow last June.

“The students I have spoken with find that the programming is losing its relevance to undergraduate interests and concerns,” she wrote. “The Forum programming is dominated by graduate centers, speakers, and events. The moderators lack diversity, and the discussions are not thought-provoking.”

Students and former staff have also complained of a lack of transparency in decision-making from top IOP executives.

In 2019, IOP staff and student leaders took part in focus groups organized by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning — the University’s teaching support center — centered around how to improve the Institute. But the Bok Center’s report never saw the light of day, despite an expectation among at least some IOP affiliates that their feedback would be released.

The process by which IOP fellows are ultimately selected also remains a mystery to students. Despite a student-led fellows search committee that interviews candidates and provides input, students are not in the room when final selections are made, according to Eric K. Jjemba ’21, who was the student chair of the Fellows and Study Groups Program in 2020.

Jjemba said he thinks the opaque process is “representative of a distrust” that the IOP has in “the students that fill its space.”

Gearan, a former Crimson News editor, wrote that during the pandemic, the Institute “has responded with robust virtual programming and innovations designed to meet this unique moment.”

“We’ve added internship opportunities for students, launched the Harvard Votes Challenge, recruited a dynamic group of fellows, expanded leadership opportunities for students including moderating the JFK Jr. Forum,” Gearan wrote. “The changes we have begun reflect the need to reach beyond the IOP’s focus solely on electoral politics and to equip students to engage in broader public service and activism.”

Despite wide-ranging concerns, Caroline Kennedy wrote in a statement to The Crimson on April 12 that she remains “hopeful that the substantive issues will be addressed.”

“No one would be happier than me to see the IOP leading the pack,” she wrote. “My family continues to care deeply about the IOP and has always worked to put its students first. If I can contribute to its success in the future, I would be happy to do so.”

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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