By Alexi White, Opinions Editor, MPP ‘13
It is often said that the HKS student body is not sufficiently diverse. But in the last few years, the Office of Admissions has been stepping up efforts to recruit a group of students that aren’t often considered in discussions of diversity: conservatives.
Though the administration says it has always believed in the importance of ideological diversity, Associate Dean of Enrollment Services Alexandra Martinez said that the recent push for more conservative viewpoints came after concerned students raised the issue of conservative underrepresentation to administrators.
“It’s always been about the students,” she said. “We want to create the richest environment we can.”
Bryana Tucci is an MPP1 who identifies as a conservative. She believes that having more conservative students would enhance meaningful and realistic discussion around the school.
“I am often a lone voice in both classroom and extracurricular conversations about policy issues,” she said.
According to Martinez, some potential applicants choose not to apply because they believe a school named for President Kennedy will teach a liberal perspective and be unwelcoming to conservatives. Associate Dean of Students Judy Kugel concurred.
“It’s just what’s out there versus what the reality is,” she said.
Another potential benefit of a greater conservative presence is that it improves the school’s credibility with Republican decision-makers. A recent Daily Caller article on this issue noted that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan earned greater respect from Republicans by increasing conservative enrollment while serving as dean of Harvard Law School.
The Citizen’s requests for aggregate data on the HKS applicant pool received no response, but a peer institution agreed to share its applicant survey data on the condition of anonymity. The results indicate that overrepresentation of liberal viewpoints is a wider phenomenon in the public policy world.
The school sent surveys to 879 applicants and recorded a response rate of 37 percent. On a scale of one to five, with one representing “far left” and five representing “far right”, the mean result was a firmly liberal 2.1.
The HKS administration was adamant that there are no quotas or affirmative action policies in the admissions process. Instead, to attract a greater number of conservatives, the school is reaching out through conservative alumni, and HKS representatives are attending conferences that tend to draw conservative attendees, such as those hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“Anytime we go on the road or have an open house here, we talk about diversity in every sense, and that includes political ideology as well as race, gender, age, etc.,” said Kugel.
This is fitting, since the school’s poor performance in areas such as racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity continue to raise concern. The barriers these prospective students face are the result of deeper social injustices, rather than personal preference.
“Racial and ethnic diversity is one of several top priorities for the school,” said Martinez. “We are in the process of trying to build pipelines with organizations across the country that would enable us to increase the number of students of color.”
Gabrielle Wyatt is an MPP2 who participated in and now coordinates the HKS Public Policy Leadership Conference (PPLC). Its goal is to increase the diversity of students receiving public policy degrees by educating young college students from underrepresented groups on how to turn an interest in public service into a degree.
According to Wyatt, two HKS student organizations – the African American Diaspora Collaborative and the Harvard Journal for African American Policy – will be unable to operate this year because there isn’t a population large enough to support them.
“We’re having to think about what do we put on life support and what do we give up,” said Wyatt, cautioning that diversity should not be confused with tokenism.
“We don’t just want one student from every country. We want to make sure we’re enrolling enough that those people have a community,” she added.
Wyatt also suggested that HKS could do better at reaching out to students once they have been accepted but before they have decided to attend. Other institutions proactively and repeatedly contact students of color or cover the cost of a campus visit.
“I got one phone call from HKS. If I didn’t have the PPLC experience and didn’t feel comfortable contacting HKS proactively, I don’t know how I would have felt about coming.”
Students who have ideas on how to strengthen diversity or have worked with organizations that deal with these issues are encouraged to contact the Office of Admissions.