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Irony at the IOP: Poor Governance Harms Student Constituents

By Jamila R. O'Hara
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Harvard’s Institute of Politics, like any public service organization, should seek to serve its constituents: in the IOP’s case, that means Harvard College undergraduates. A recent Crimson investigation, however, has unveiled a rather unfortunate irony. The institute tasked with studying political leadership, housed in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, has been plagued by its own host of leadership controversies, the consequences of which are ultimately harming the very undergraduates whom the organization is intended to serve.

The reviews of the internal culture are damning: Students and former staffers cite that a “chronically short-staffed” IOP has created a harmful “culture of overwork” in recent years. Undergraduates often put more than 20 hours of unpaid work per week into the organization, breeding an environment of exhaustion and effectively barring lower-income students from participation.

Even worse, at the beginning of this month, Emily S. Brother ’19, who served as an IOP staff assistant, wrote a public letter claiming that she was forced out of the institute after raising concerns “about staff and student labor and employment practices, gender-based harassment, racial microaggressions, and financial accessibility.” The allegation that Brother’s very serious concerns were met with a termination date — rather than by an urgent investigation by the IOP — is noteworthy and incredibly troubling in and of itself.

And finally, the IOP’s shortcomings are also reflected in the institute’s neglect of its public-facing programming responsibilities. Students have observed that the organization is losing its undergraduate focus, instead unduly elevating graduate priorities. Former U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy ’80 — the daughter of President John F. Kennedy ’40, to whom the IOP is dedicated — also claimed that the IOP’s discussions have been lacking in vibrance, diversity, and the provocation of thought.

A former IOP student president attributed some of these concerning culture problems to the IOP’s executive leadership having different priorities than its undergraduate students. A governing body whose goals are not aligned with those of its constituents? An easy recipe for a leadership failure.

Looking into the turmoil within the governing body of the IOP unveils why undergraduates’ experiences are suffering. Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf has exerted more power over the Senior Advisory Committee, the bipartisan group of public servants tasked with steering the institute, than his predecessors: Most troublingly, critics claim that Elmendorf has endeavored to reserve power over the institute’s finances, and that he has sought to change the IOP’s governing structure by strengthening his own control over the selection of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee members.

Elmendorf’s impositions upon the Senior Advisory Committee have led many of its members to resign in frustration — including, most notably, Caroline Kennedy, who served as its honorary chair. Her departure marks a breach in the dying wishes of her uncle, U.S. Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56, who had wanted a direct descendant of his brother, the former president, to continue to lead the committee.

Caroline Kennedy’s resignation is a clear red flag, and we, too, find Harvard extending its reach in these ways to be alarming. We share in the concerns of IOP members who speculate that these dynamics threaten to crush what has historically been the “independent spirit” of the institution.

However, we remain unconvinced that the IOP’s original governing structure was perfect to begin with. It’s peculiar that Harvard’s Institute of Politics, dedicated to promoting greater understanding between the “academic world and the world of politics and public affairs” at large, is so deeply intertwined with a specific political dynasty. We know all too well that, for any institution, there exist ugly side effects of excessive reliance on huge donors: most fundamentally, they often expect something in return, creating conflicts of interest from a strictly academic perspective, as well as from a political one.

But shifting back to what matters — life for the students on the ground — there are tangible improvements that can be made, regardless of who makes them. For one, the organization should begin to pay dedicated student laborers for the work that they do, a measure that some student leaders have already called for.

Beyond that, increasing staff and faculty diversity might serve to alleviate some of the concerns surrounding issues like gender-based harassment and racial microaggressions at the IOP. While by no means a complete solution, welcoming and listening to advocates like Brother — instead of pushing them out — is an essential first step towards reckoning and reform.

Amidst these troubles, it holds true that the mission and opportunities offered by the IOP — such as the chance for students to learn through experience, and to engage with wondrous change-makers — remain inspiring, quintessential elements of the Harvard experience.

But at present, the IOP’s rousing vision is in danger. In fact, the IOP’s current state of disregard for student concerns and internal squabbling for the reigns of power is entirely antithetical to its founding mission. Until these issues are grappled with, the IOP will remain an ironic masterclass for the worst of government, not the best.

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.

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