Students at Harvard’s Kennedy School will now be required to check their privilege

The class will teach students about the inherent power that comes with certain racial, gender and class identities

Topics: Harvard, kennedy school, Race, class, Gender, male privilege, white privilege, policy,

Students at Harvard's Kennedy School will now be required to check their privilegeTal Fortgang (Credit: Fox News)

If Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman who refused to check his white privilege, ever wants to go to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he’ll have to change his tune significantly — or at least spend some time seriously evaluating it, thanks to a new orientation class requirement.

New York Magazine’s the Cut reports that “in response to growing demand from student activists, administrators committed Friday to adding a class in power and privilege to its orientation program for incoming first-year students.”

Reetu Mody, a first year masters student in public policy, organized the movement that eventually led to the training requirement (which is so far unnamed). Mody recently told the Crimson that she started HKS Speak Out in response to the disappointment that her courses “didn’t really address race at all” when examining policy issues. The group’s first session attracted about 80 students last fall, and a recent petition attracted more than 300 signatures — about a fourth of the school’s student population — to push the administration to offer “mandatory privilege and power training.”

A recent 80-person demonstration, which attempted to illustrate the invisible but omnipresent power advantages that people of dominant races, classes, sexual orientations, or genders benefit from, drew positive attention and constructive dialogue with the school’s administration.

“We’re at one of the most powerful institutions in the world, yet we never critically examine power and privilege and what it means to have access to this power,” Mody told the Cut.

“If you don’t have an understanding of sociology, political science, critical race theory, feminist critique and revisionist history,” Mody explained, “it’s going to be very difficult to talk about certain groups’ experiences, and why these other groups continually have this advantage in society.”

Though Mody has been critical of her institution, she also has empathy for students who might only be realizing their privilege for the first time. “If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out ’Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot,’” she said. “Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity.”

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The training will give students with privilege a chance to gain some self-awareness that may have eluded them so far — let’s hope they take it seriously. The true checking of privilege, of course, will happen when these debates are shifted beyond a singular class and affect all of the discussions.

Update 1: Contrary to the Cut’s report, Doug Gavel, the school’s Associate Director for Media Relations told Marketplace that Harvard’s Kennedy School “is not planning to offer classes, coursework, or sessions devoted specifically to ‘power and privilege.’”

In a statement emailed to Salon, Gavel wrote:

There is a great deal of false information in the media being conveyed by reporters who have not contacted Harvard Kennedy School officials to verify the accuracy of the information. Contrary to one article that has been picked up by others, the school is not planning to offer classes, coursework, or sessions devoted specifically to “power and privilege.” The school currently offers a number of opportunities for students to discuss and learn about issues of diversity. Learning to have constructive conversations in the context of differences in race, gender, cultural background, political viewpoints and many other perspectives is important in any graduate school particularly one dedicated to preparing its students to be effective leaders and policymakers. HKS examines opportunities offered to students to engage in these discussions, regularly assessing their effectiveness and value.

We look forward to continuing to work with our faculty and students to provide the most valuable learning opportunities in this area.

Update 2: HKS Speak Out has issued a press release that maintains “A coalition of students is working with the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) administration to incorporate into student orientation a training that prepares students to understand the broad impact of identity on their decision­making as future policy makers. Both the title  and the specific content of the new orientation component remain to be decided by a student ­faculty  committee.” More from the press release:

In response to student efforts, the administration agreed to: 

● Have a required session during orientation for incoming HKS students and make available 

related sessions throughout the year. 

● Create a group of students, faculty and administrators to provide input on the workshop and to 

identify evaluation tools to assess its impact on an ongoing basis. 

● Prepare students to understand the broad impact of identity on their decision­making as future 

policy makers and equip them with the tools necessary to engage in constructive dialogue. 

● Provide funding for these efforts as appropriate.

This article previously incorrectly stated that the training is a course named “Checking Your Privilege 101.” Harvard’s Kennedy School has not yet decided on a name for the class, which is a training requirement with follow-ups throughout the year, not a course.

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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