Op-ed: The real crises at Tufts and Fletcher: Lessons from a complex world

When you walk up the stairs of the President’s Lawn on Tufts’ campus, past students walking to and from Tisch library or sitting underneath trees during the summer discussing issues from around the world, it is easy to recognize the strong bond the university has with the values of diversity and inclusion. Leadership in such a place faces unique opportunities and obstacles. That is just one reason to be skeptical of the recent op-ed which drew on “lessons learned” in the U.S. Marine Corps to harshly criticize Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School.

Upon her appointment, Dean Kyte inherited challenges that had been brewing under the surface for several years. In the past half decade, more affordable high-quality education options have become available. There is now a wealth of distance-learning options, including workshops and training programs with high academic rigor and sometimes zero cost. As a result, fewer students are willing to pay high tuition fees. Networking and access to influential groups are no longer exclusive to schools like Fletcher. Like other U.S. schools of international affairs, Fletcher will need to continue to evolve in order to survive and thrive. With Dean Kyte, the school — and Tufts as a whole — has started to accept and embrace these developments.

As alumnae with years of experience at Fletcher in various roles (MALD, Ph.D.), we were delighted to see an authority on foreign affairs appointed as the school’s first female dean. Dean Rachel Kytes track record speaks for itself. She has served as the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, as a special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and as the World Bank Group’s vice president and special envoy for climate change. She has motivated us to keep working on wicked problems like climate change, increasing inequality, human security and mass migration. Throughout her career, she has shown the kind of leadership that brings factions with different perspectives to the same table, that mobilizes groups to confront new threats and face reality and that takes bold actions but corrects mistakes when they are made. Like no other, this dean has the skill set to navigate The Fletcher School through the looming storms of the 21st century.

Dean Kyte is steering us through some of the most challenging semesters in the school’s history, as the pandemic erupted just months after her appointment. One of us, serving as the residential co-director at Blakeley Hall, witnessed first-hand how she cares about students and inquired about those who were suffering with isolation due to COVID-19 during the tumultuous spring semester. Now, she has responded humbly to criticism of her attempted rebranding. Making mistakes while exercising leadership is inevitable and having courage to accept them, course-correct and work with the community in a search of effective solutions are signs of a real leader. This is exactly what Dean Kyte is doing. 

Attacks on women who hold positions of authority in an attempt to pursue their silence are nothing new. In the midst of a crisis, we often go into a state of rage or disorientation. We are inclined to tune out or scapegoat. We tend to transfer our responsibility to an authority figure, hoping they will solve the problem. This provides temporary comfort, while the issue keeps growing. The real challenge is to understand and accept the root cause of the crisis. The Marine officer’s story reveals this truth. This story gives the impression that the organization successfully tackled racism in its culture by removing one person. In reality, improving race relations is never that easy. It involves input from many directions, trial and error and a lot of (sometimes uncomfortable) back-and-forth about seemingly small but very meaningful details.

In 1692 Salem, the choice of weeding out individuals to battle a community’s ‘contamination’ turned out to be a tragic mistake. The tendency to place all blame on our current dean comes from a similar human instinct: to buy into stories of infections with simple cures. This path would not leave Fletcher any more prepared for the transformation it must undergo to thrive in a changed world. It would not make our school more productive, humane, inclusive, strong or profitable. The Fletcher School community has work to do, and Dean Kyte is worthy of our support and gratitude.

Zdenka Myslikova is a Ph.D. candidate at The Fletcher School. Clara Vandeweerdt and Maria Rita Borba are Fletcher alumnae (F ‘15). They can be reached at [email protected]