A few dozen Harvard Kennedy School staff, faculty and students gathered to celebrate the opening of the Office for Student Diversity and Inclusion earlier this month. Officially inaugurated on July 1 of this year, the office emerges at a time when a confluence of events over the past year has made diversity at HKS especially pertinent for many students.
The office, which has been under development for over a year, will be led by Assistant Dean Alexandra Martinez, a Latina and first generation college student. Martinez moves from her previous role as Assistant Dean of Enrollment Services at HKS, a position that overlapped considerably with her new role and will not be filled in her absence. Martinez will continue to report to the Dean of Students, Chris Fortunato, and one full-time staff assistant, also previously based in Enrollment Services, will support Martinez.
Addressing the attendees of the recent opening celebration, Martinez spoke of how diversity is critical to the mission of preparing students to be global leaders. She also promised her office would deliver “resources, opportunities and activities to promote and celebrate diversity.”
Martinez declined to be interviewed for this article, citing unexpected travel plans.
The position was originally envisioned at the Director level, but was later elevated to Assistant Dean. The Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG) requested to be involved in the hiring process but was turned down.
One of the office’s primary responsibilities will be to step-up the recruitment of students from traditionally under-represented backgrounds, emphasizing diversity of race, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Another is to provide support to the HKS Diversity Committee.
Outside of these concrete responsibilities, the office’s mission remains vague, with the administration offering little beyond the refrain of “promoting and celebrating diversity in all of its forms” through “trainings and community engagement events.”
Last year’s KSSG President Sherry Hakimi said Martinez’s experience at HKS was viewed as an important asset to the position.
“Part of the role is to recruit minority students. Her relationship with minority alumni gives her an advantage,” said Hakimi.
In announcing the appointment of Martinez last spring, Dean Fortunato also stressed her experience “building powerful relationships with students, colleagues, alumni and organizations throughout the world.”
Recent MPP graduate and former head of the Black Policy Conference Gabrielle Wyatt worked closely with Martinez for the past two years and considers her a “true role model for HKS leaders” and a “strong advocate for students of color.” Nonetheless, Wyatt has some reservations about how successful the office will be.
“I think it runs the risk of holding conversations about diversity that are not courageous enough. My worst fear is that the office will become tokenized as just enough response to the growing discontent around diversity issues, preventing effective and meaningful change on campus,” said Wyatt.
Blake Hyatt, MPP2 and member of the HKS Diversity Committee, believes the creation of the office is a signal that the administration is taking student concerns over diversity seriously. He hopes the office will tackle the academic side of the diversity issue that is often overlooked.
“In the classroom, work needs to be done to ensure that lectures don’t marginalize or tokenize students’ identities, and the curriculum needs to be updated to address the challenges associated with diversity that we will encounter across our disciplines.”
Hakimi also shares Hyatt’s desire for pedagogical change, but her experience working with the administration has left her skeptical that there is sufficient political will to see such a program through: “That will take a unified partnership between Dean Ellwood, Dean Fortunato, and Martinez. It would take some real bravery on their part to tell professors what to do in their classroom.”
Helena Pylvainen, MPP2 and President of the LGBTQ Caucus, said her relationship with the office has been productive thus far. She said she looks forward to working with Martinez to “make LGBTQ people and policy issues more visible at HKS – from the diversity of individuals highlighted in course readings to the speakers we see in the forum.”
In his address to the celebration on Sept. 7, Dean David Ellwood called the Office “really overdue” and acknowledged how far HKS has yet to go in promoting diversity.
“[Without adequate diversity] you lose out on ideas. You lose out on the learning that can happen in a diverse mix of backgrounds,” said Ellwood. “Change is not going to happen just because of Alexandra. It’s going to happen because you speak up,” he added.
Students are encouraged to reach out directly to Assistant Dean Martinez. The Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion is located in L-126.