As Unusual School Year Begins, Georgetown’s SSP Steps Up DEI Efforts

Photo Credit: Pixabay/Alexandra Koch

It is 2020: a year when racial injustice is topping national headlines and forcing the national security community to confront its heritage of racial prejudice, exclusion, and marginalization. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are three core principles guiding organizations and communities as they seek to increase representation of marginalized and underrepresented groups, including people of color, members of the LGBT community, and women.  As the home of many former and future foreign policy and national security leaders, Georgetown’s Security Studies Program (SSP) is attempting to address DEI challenges through creating program-based DEI advisory groups.

The SSP exemplifies the challenges many graduate programs face in terms of diversity. While about 50 percent of incoming students have been women in recent years, the number of incoming non-white students remains notably low. About 2.4 [i] percent of incoming students over the past four years were African Americans and about 6 percent were Hispanic. [ii]  Slightly over 14 percent of adjunct faculty members in the past ten semesters were non-white[iii] and about 75 percent of adjunct faculty in that same period have been men. [iv] While the program’s core faculty is 61 percent women, the entire core faculty is white.[v] Guest speakers invited to participate in events hosted by SSP have also been overwhelmingly white, and mostly men. [vi]

These trends are apparent throughout the field of international relations. While many graduate programs have openly prioritized diversity, the actual translation of these intentions to reality is clearly lagging. Very few students of color, American or international, choose to pursue graduate degrees in international studies or an international career. The Executive Director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), for example, shared in a personal communication in 2019 that student racial/ethnicity demographics at APSIA U.S. member institutions were predominately white as of fall 2018. [vii]  More specifically, member institutions were 65 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Black/African-American, 6 percent two or more races, and less than 1 percent Native American.[viii] In 2016, English and Umbach published a study examining factors affecting a student’s choice to pursue graduate-level education. These factors include, among other things, their undergraduate experience, the GPA attained during undergraduate studies, financial barriers, and their family’s background and level of formal education.[ix] The research also found that while African American and Hispanic undergraduates are more likely to aspire to pursue a graduate education, only a small number of them actually reach that goal.[x]

GSSR interviewed SSP Director Dr. Keir Lieber about his views concerning the current state of DEI within SSP and the program’s plans moving forward. Dr. Lieber acknowledged the importance of diversifying the program, pointing to significant achievements in the inclusion of more women in faculty and core faculty positions. When asked about the limited representation of students of color, Dr Lieber elaborated on efforts to diversify the student body. “I can tell you that, if anything, we’ve been quite aggressive in trying to recruit African American students, and as part of this new DEI initiative that we’ve launched this year, we are adapting our recruitment strategy,” said Dr. Lieber. “We’re trying harder to recruit from, for example, historically black colleges and universities. We’re trying to identify scholarship funds that might be used to attract underrepresented minorities, not just African American, Latinx and others […] This is a long road, and we’re going to get ups and downs.” Dr. Lieber stated that he prefers to hold off on some strategic decisions, since he awaits further input from the DEI advisory group. He stressed that due to the pandemic, the program is facing budgetary limitations which impacts the availability of scholarships and the hiring of new faculty members. He added that the pandemic also hinders active recruitment efforts targeting historically black colleges and universities, as traveling is restricted and many schools are operating virtually.

Cody Kennedy, a second-year SSP student who attended the initial meeting of the DEI advisory group, conveyed uncertainty when asked about his experience in the meeting. “We’re an advisory group—that’s how they framed it. But we’re not responsible for any of the changes or any of the implementations or actions that the program will make, and to me that’s not how you fix the problem.” Kennedy elaborated that, to him, the program’s diversity crisis will not be solved by “us[ing] this majority white SSP faculty to remedy this problem.”

As a gay student, Kennedy reflected on his learning experience at the SSP and his approach towards the national security community. “Imagine growing up, and being told that what you are is immoral[..]that what you are is damned from the start, that what you are is not natural, is sub-human[..]Then, when people come up to you and say ‘why aren’t you proud to be an American, don’t you want to come work for the US government?’ […] I feel like especially in national security, you have to keep in mind, queer people are looked on, especially gay men, [like] they’re not real men.[…] And queer culture, in a traditional sense tends to kind of reject those [behaviors or actions] because it sees them as heterosexual norms towards violence. […]So I think a lot of queer people disconnect when phrases like ‘national security’ or ‘defense’ are thrown around.”

Kennedy shared how the 2016 attack on Pulse, a gay club in Orlando,[xi] motivated him to overcome these challenges and claim his place within the national security community. “I’m from Orlando[..] 49 people were killed, and this was a bar many of my friends frequented, this was a bar I was at the night before everything went down. It was a terrible experience. When news started to come out about the perpetrator and more information, it became an intelligence failure, he had been put on the watchlist twice, there were a lot of issues with how he was able to acquire the weapons he did. I joined this field in large part because I wanted to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, that something like that doesn’t happen to queer people, that queer people matter, that other minority groups and marginalized groups also matter, that we aren’t just a box to be checked.”

Kennedy referred to the high costs of attending Georgetown as a major obstacle that many students, especially ones from underprivileged groups, have to overcome. He expects that the program will continue to improve financial support for underprivileged students and  improve in communicating to students from underrepresented groups that they belong in the program.  

Over the past summer, Kennedy sent a letter to the program’s leadership. In the letter, Kennedy stated: “I found a graduate program that still resembles the previous century in terms of leadership, representation, and opportunity[…] As a queer student at SSP I do not feel comfortable in most of my classes or at student lead functions[..]Additionally, the culture of SSP is pervaded by a toxic masculinity that has pushed myself, as a queer student away from the program, leaving me feeling that I am not wanted here.” Kennedy shared the demoralizing impact of toxic masculinity on his learning experience, a phenomenon he describes as “the new racism, the new homophobia[..] because it can’t be so ‘out’ as it once was in the past.” Kennedy continued, “While in class I tend to stop talking, I don’t want to participate, I don’t want to engage with this person, I tend to avoid them, and I tend to also feel uncomfortable in the class from that point on.” Kennedy said that he had experienced issues relating to toxic masculinity in discussions during class, and even in interactions with faculty.

“One thing we’re always looking for is what happens in the classroom that we might not hear about,” Dr. Lieber said. “You have a dozen students and one professor in the classroom and comments are made by a faculty member or by a fellow student that irk another student, they feel they are inappropriate comments for the classroom, it’s difficult. So first of all, the first thing I often do is seek advice from Rosemary Kilkenny, the head of IDEAA and vice president for DEI and anti-racism at Georgetown[…]and she will give me feedback either that the person should file a formal complaint, an anonymous complaint, or that this is free speech and determination of any kind of violation is unlikely to lead to any kind of disciplinary behavior[…] As soon as we receive any sort of complaint brought to our attention anonymously or otherwise, we’ve acted on it, immediately. It’s just something I would not sleep well at night knowing that incidents like that were common, and for better and for worse, I don’t think too many of them have been brought to my attention.”

Beyond interpersonal dynamics within the program, another key dimension that shapes DEI is course curricula.  For example, the syllabus for one of the program’s two core courses, Theory and Practice of Security, is notably comprised of materials written mostly by white men. Since 2017, however, the percentage of female authors represented in the syllabus has grown from five to eleven, and, as of fall 2020, also includes a gender non-binary author. On the other hand, the number of authors of color represented in the syllabus has declined from two to a single author since 2017.[xii] In addition to the identities of authors included in the Theory and Practice of Security syllabus, students in the past have criticized the content of the course syllabus. A petition circulated by SSP graduate students last year called for the syllabus to incorporate non state-centric approaches to international relations, theories of human-security, feminist theories, and more materials that address climate change.

When asked about syllabi content, Dr. Lieber acknowledged the issue’s complexity. “On the one hand, I worry that offering a demographic snapshot of current authors assigned on the core syllabi suggests that we think one’s skin color or gender is correlated with or somehow even determines one’s substantive viewpoint about international relations and security[…] On the other hand, I think it is valid to be concerned that IR theory generally has emphasized certain questions and neglected others, including the role that race and racism have played in global political history.” Dr. Lieber shared that he sees IR theories as “color blind,” and universally applicable. “Of course, the bottom line here is that it might be worth including readings that discuss whether the dominant perspectives in IR theory have ignored important problems and questions in the real world, as well as whether any or all of the existing approaches are racist.”

Dr. Lieber detailed measures that the program has taken to diversify the syllabus. “We have solicited and considered assigning readings on the issues you mention – human security, feminist critical theory, for example—and we will continue to do so moving forward. We have also sought to expand our course offerings on these and other topics, such as racism and security studies and global climate change—the latter of which I believe poses an existential security threat.” However, he cautioned, the addition of one article would come at the cost of removing another. “The question is always: how good is this article, how good is this book chapter, and does it make me think of the world in new ways that we haven’t previously considered. Every year we review the core syllabi to consider new arguments, new ideas, and new perspectives. Every year we sit down, with the 500 and 501 syllabi, to analyze what went right, what went wrong, what are new readings, what are new arguments, and we try to incorporate them as best we can and that’s the only way we can really move forward.”

As one unusual school year opens and one unusual election year ends, Washington’s national security community is beginning to address an apparent diversity crisis. An understanding exists among many experienced professionals that the crisis is not just a moral one. Rather, it undermines America’s foreign policy and national security efforts and deprives the country of an immense pool of talent that includes a rich variety of voices and perspectives. As a central pipeline that is likely to produce America’s future national security leadership, Georgetown’s SSP wishes to tackle that crisis. The mission, crucial as it may be, will raise immense challenges. Opening the door to a more diverse student body and faculty requires additional financial resources and active recruitment. Furthermore, even when more people of color, women and members of the LGBT community earn a seat at the table, an active effort is required to enable their full participation and growth. To do this, we may have to reimagine the very concept of security, how it is achieved and who it serves. Though, at SSP, its program-based DEI efforts appear to be a practical step in the right direction.   


[i] “Part 1: Where We Are Now, A Demographic Snapshot,” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SSP, August 6, 2020,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hasanna N. Tyus, “Addressing the Lack of Racial Diversity at a Graduate School of International Affairs: Perceived Barriers and Motivators to Enrollment Among Students of Color,” Ph.D. Dissertation submitted to  University of Pittsburgh School of Education (June 25, 2020), 2-3.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] David English and Paul D. Umbach, “Graduate School Choice: An Examination of Individual and Institutional Effects,” The Review of Higher Education vol. 39 no.2 (winter 2016), 180-185.

[x] Ibid.,” 202-206.

[xi] Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimi and Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance,” CNN, June 13, 2016,

[xii] “Part 1: Where We Are Now, A Demographic Snapshot,” Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SSP, August 6, 2020,

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