HKS Hosts John F. Kennedy Centennial Symposium

By Wei Luo, MPP 2017

On Thursday April 20, 2017, HKS hosted the John F. Kennedy Centennial Symposium to celebrate the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth and to reaffirm the spirit of public service that he embodied.

The Symposium started with opening remarks by HKS dean Doug Elmendorf, who recognized the members of the Kennedy family, as well as former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in the audience. “We gather today to celebrate the spirit of public engagement,” he said, noting that many HKS alumni are answering President Kennedy’s call to service across the U.S. and around the world.  Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust followed up with an opening address on President Kennedy’s commitment to bringing together politicians and intellectuals.  As President Kennedy recognized over half a century ago, she explained, we need “not just practical uses of learning.”

After President Faust’s remarks, the Symposium shifted to a first Forum event on American power and global security, featuring HKS professors Nick Burns, Graham Allison, Joe Nye, and Meghan O’Sullivan, as well as Carolina Kennedy—JFK’s daughter and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan. The Forum showed video clips from President Kennedy’s inaugural address and American University speech. Ambassador Kennedy said that “it was here at Harvard that my father became the man he did” and that after his death, the family wanted to continue inspiring new generations of leaders to believe “politics can be a noble profession.”  The panelists subsequently discussed the historical context behind President Kennedy’s American University speech and its contemporary resonance.

Thereafter, attendees split up into three concurrent sessions on civil rights, international development, and environmental policies. They returned at the end of the Symposium for a second Forum event on the future of public service. After an introduction by Jack Schlossberg, JFK’s grandson, HKS professor David Gergen introduced the guests: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, and journalist and former First Lady of California Maria Shriver. The panelists discussed their own “eternal flame” that drives them to stay in public service, the opportunities for political dialogue and bipartisan cooperation in the present era, and the nature of public leadership.

As we, the HKS community, reflect on our namesake’s 100th birthday and the meaning of his life, let us remember what he said in his 1963 American University speech: “Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man.”