Behind the Scenes with KSSG: Grappling with Political Diversity

KSSG Meeting Picture 2-7-2017By Wei Luo, MPP 2017

On Tuesday February 7, the Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG) held its first meeting of the spring semester. This time, KSSG members focused their discussion on a key question facing the HKS community—how to create a school environment that respects the diversity of political opinions.

KSSG President Arohi Sharma initiated the conversation, inviting members to share their thoughts openly. MPP1 Class Representative Jean-Baptiste Le Marois observed that students with liberal views comprise a majority of the HKS community, which means that “there are debates we don’t have at this school.” VP of Communications Sri Kulkarni reinforced this point, noting that conservatives sometimes feel that they have to “cover up” their views. He encouraged KSSG to promote initiatives like the bipartisan/nonpartisan discussions that he and fellow students are organizing every Friday.

Disagreement arose over whether to draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable political disagreement. Interim VP Thomas Hocks argued that certain things—such as fake news—are indefensible. “There’s a point where you shouldn’t excuse these views,” he said, “Or else you give people legitimacy that shouldn’t have it.” He also stressed the unique responsibility of the Kennedy School to stand up and take the lead on such issues.

VP of Finance Sasha Ramani proposed a more “incrementalist approach” to bridging divides by initially engaging students in discussions about the minimum wage and other issues where opinions are not as diametrically opposed. MPP1 Representative Claris Chang seconded the idea, but cautioned against making conservatives feel “tokenized” and that they “must represent all conservatives.” “We’re asking for a culture change,” she said, “And it starts with the bipartisan workshops like Sri’s.”

The final parts of the discussion turned toward actions that KSSG and the school administration could take. Executive VP Jen Smith raised the issue of admissions, noting that it would be hard to change the culture at the school if conservative applicants hear stories that they’ll get “shut down” in an unwelcoming environment. Interim President Jack Pead concluded that a major issue is social capital, observing that he had been surprised coming to the Kennedy School by how guarded many peers are in their interactions with each other. This results in quick judgments about others, and forces us to be politically correct. The challenge, Jack said, is “how can we build social capital rather than how not to offend people.”

KSSG President Arohi Sharma closed the meeting by thanking members for their candid discussion. Although KSSG reached no final initiatives or resolutions, members have committed themselves to keeping the conversation going and taking action to address this important issue in the coming weeks.