Values for Advancing the Public Interest

Dean Elmendorf addresses the graduating class of 2017

May 30, 2017
by Doug Gavel

Cool, rainy weather did not temper the spirit of the moment on Thursday (May 25) when 561 Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) graduates received their diplomas during a ceremony at JFK Memorial Park. HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf presided over the event, encouraging members of the Class of 2017 to “choose your values carefully – and stand up for them, and act on them.”

In his address, Elmendorf outlined five important values that he described as “principles we should follow even when doing so conflicts with particular policies or leaders we favor,” saying that “if we can live up to these values consistently, we will be much more effective at making the specific changes needed to solve public problems.”

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“The first value that I think should guide us is the importance of truth and knowledge,” Elmendorf said. “On the personal side, we should be honest when we speak and write. We should be people of integrity who face the truth even when it is difficult. We should always seek to understand the world better. On the policy side, we should support inquiry and analysis, and we should respect the resulting evidence in making decisions.”

The second value he spoke to was the belief in the worth of each person “regardless of their gender, race, political views, religion, socioeconomic status, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and certain other characteristics,” saying that “if we believe in the worth of each person, we must believe in their freedom of self-determination and in their basic human rights [and that] building better bridges between people, communities, and nations is crucial to the ability of societies to make better lives for their people.”

Elmendorf cited the third value as “the importance of civil discourse and compromise among people with different views,” telling the graduates that “rather than dismiss or ignore those with whom we disagree, we should listen to them, try to understand their perspectives, vigorously advocate our own views -- and then look for ways to work across differences that do not require us to abandon our principles.”

The fourth value, he remarked is the need to make “governments and civic institutions act effectively in the public interest. […] Addressing such nuts-and-bolts issues of governance is less glamorous than developing grand policy strategies, but no less important. And we need robust civic institutions, including a free and vigorous media that informs citizens, an independent and respected judiciary, a strong nonprofit sector, and social movements and associations through which active citizens articulate their interests and work collectively,” he argued.

Working to improve prospects for those who are disadvantaged was the fifth value that Elmendorf cited, saying that “compassion and concern for those who are being treated unfairly and left behind is both a moral imperative for those of us who are more fortunate and a practical necessity for building cohesive societies.”

Elmendorf ended his address by telling the graduates that “all of us here at the Kennedy School will be with you in spirit -- wishing you well, cheering you on, and being inspired by your accomplishments.”

commencement female student globe hks

"We should support inquiry and analysis, and we should respect the resulting evidence in making decisions." --HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf


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