Last Wednesday, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I am currently a student, selected Chelsea Manning as a 2017-2018 visiting fellow for its Institute of Politics. On Thursday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo abruptly cancelled a scheduled speech to be delivered at the School’s John F. Kennedy Forum to protest Manning’s fellowship. At 12:32 a.m. on Friday, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf sent an email to students indicating that Harvard would withdraw Manning’s fellowship.
The decision to grant Manning a fellowship was a major mistake and has damaged the Kennedy School’s brand. Manning’s reckless leaking of military classified documents put the lives of both American soldiers and foreign allies in danger. President Obama’s decision to commute Manning’s sentence sent a dangerous message to leakers and will go down as one of his administration’s greatest moral failings. Elmendorf’s decision to extend an invitation to Manning was thus an affront to the spirit of public service that the Kennedy School claims to promote.
Moreover, Elmendorf’s explanation of the reversal was weak. Elmendorf commented that he was unaware that many people viewed the title of visiting fellow as honorific. Anyone with half a brain can discern the statement to be nonsense. Harvard’s ability to attract such important fellows is mainly due to the prestige associated with the Crimson brand. Why else would Elmendorf expect Manning to come to Harvard? The weather?
With all that being said, I remain nervous about the decision to rescind Manning’s fellowship because it will set a dangerous precedent that could impair Republican presence on the campus in the future. Based on conversations with my more liberal classmates, which tends to be everyone, they are already greatly frustrated that Republican figures, such as Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, were provided fellowships given their work for Donald Trump. I have heard on several occasions over the past week that Harvard should not be providing a platform to Trump’s enablers.
Students Need to Hear a Wide Range of Ideas
Not addressing this hyperbole, I have defended these invitations on the grounds that these fellows would represent perspectives generally not found at the Kennedy School and could provide unique insights into the American political landscape. As someone who opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016, I think students of public policy must better understand what caused Trump’s political ascendency and how it impacts the current American political landscape.
I have also contended that the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum’s requirement that speakers must take questions was an appropriate measure that enforced some degree of intellectual standards on the fellows, as they would be required to publicly explain and defend their positions.
I fear setting a precedent of removing a visiting fellow due to political pressure will cause liberal and progressive groups to target conservative fellows for retribution. I worry that the scope of political debate will only be narrowed on the right beyond objections to Trumpian figures such as Spicer and Lewandowski. This precedent would allow liberals to ramp up such revocation efforts and likely deter conservative figures from accepting fellowships, to avoid the unnecessary aggravation.
I am concerned about the Harvard administration’s ability to withstand such pressure. Their handling of the Manning affair indicates that the university operates capriciously on such matters. The Kennedy School has also consistently advocated liberal stances on current political debates, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, so I doubt it will function as a politically neutral arbiter when such disputes arise.
Conservatives Are a Minority and Have Little Leverage
Moreover, the number of conservatives at the Kennedy School is tiny. In general, most conservatives seek productive careers in either business, medicine, or as NFL starting quarterbacks. By contrast, the types of people who seek careers in technocracy through public policy education are generally left of center. In my section of my program, there are only one handful of Republicans out of about 60 students. Putting aside the fact that most of the conservatives at Harvard are closeted, Harvard Republicans will be heavily outmatched in any effort to combat liberal disinvitation campaigns.
In place of rescinding the fellowship, I would have recommended that we sought to vigorously challenge Manning during the campus appearance. Given Manning’s propensity for only accepting softball interviews, a public question and answer session would have provided a perfect opportunity to confront Manning for Manning’s reckless disregard for the lives of American soldiers and allies and Manning’s newly espoused fringe political views.
Instead, we allow Manning to play the victim card by claiming that Harvard reneged on a public commitment. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who puts the lives of American soldiers at risk and gets rewarded with a Vogue photo spread by Annie Leibovitz should not be considered a victim.