The Picture of Douglas Elmendorf


After an eight year tenure as the dean of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Douglas W. Elmendorf will be stepping down from that role at the end of the academic year.

Individuals who do not attend the Kennedy School — like the members of our Board — can’t grasp the full significance of Elmendorf’s tenure, nor understand the nuances of running an institution as complicated as HKS. Instead, our exposure to Elmendorf’s legacy has mainly come from reading occasional scandalous headlines about controversial decisions.

But as Elmendorf steps down, now is the perfect moment to consider a fuller picture of his time running Harvard’s public policy-focused school — a picture with both luminous hues and murky patches.

On the one hand, Elmendorf infamously vetoed a fellowship appointment for human rights titan Kenneth Roth, allegedly as a consequence of Human Rights Watch’s critical coverage of Israel while Roth was its executive director — a decision we critiqued for suggesting a lack of courage on the dean’s part. Elmendorf also pushed online misinformation expert Joan Donovan out of her position at a Kennedy School research center and forcefully consolidated 14 individual student-run policy journals into one publication against editors’ wishes.


At the same time, Elmendorf appointed the first Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging dean to HKS, oversaw the expansion of student financial aid, and helped increase international student representation in the Kennedy School community. All these decisions have expanded diversity at HKS, and, in our view, have better prepared the school to advance its mission of improving public policy and leadership. Furthermore, under Elmendorf’s leadership, HKS fundraising efforts saw significant success, including a $150 million dollar gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2021.

Ultimately, however, Elmendorf’s tenure will be judged not just by an exclusive club of HKS insiders with detailed knowledge of each of his decisions, but by the court of public opinion — by the ordinary people who see the Kennedy School from afar.

With that in mind, as committees begin their search for Elmendorf’s successor, they should look for a quality that, in the external eyes of our Board, the dean’s decisions sometimes seemed to lack: courage.

The next dean should have the moral backbone to stand up to potent political forces, be they the national security apparatus, which orchestrated a pressure campaign that apparently resulted in the removal of whistleblower Chelsea E. Manning from a fellowship, or pro-Israel forces, which allegedly led Elmendorf to nix Roth’s fellowship. The next dean also needs to support emerging scholars like Donovan, who lacked tenure, but whose research displayed promise in critical fields.

Courage in a dean, however, is not just measured by the substance of their decisions. As criticism surrounding Elmendorf’s lack of transparency and neglect of student input in key decisions has demonstrated, courage also means defending your decisions publicly and inviting stakeholders into the decision-making process.

Still, while some elements of Elmendorf’s public impression should be rectified by his successor, others are worthy of replication — like his commitment to diversity. Elmendorf’s efforts to make the Kennedy School more international and to institutionalize DIB initiatives hold even greater significance today as we start navigating higher education in a post-affirmative action world. We urge the next leader of the Kennedy School to maintain this commitment and build upon it in the form of political diversity by welcoming voices that are outside of the prevailing status quo, like Manning and Roth.

While admittedly lacking the nuance of an insider’s view, the picture of Doug Elmendorf that emerges from external reflection on his tenure contains powerful lessons on leadership at HKS; we hope his successor keeps these contours in mind, and augments Elmendorf’s successes while revising his mistakes.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.