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Harvard bows to pressure from the intelligence community, withdraws ‘Visiting Fellow’ title from Chelsea Manning

In the dead of night, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government announced that it would no longer consider Chelsea Manning a Visiting Fellow, following criticism by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of Manning’s invitation. While Harvard will still allow Manning to speak, this decision — and suggestion that the school will weigh the “values” of speakers before inviting them — undermines the university’s purported commitment to airing views from diverse and controversial speakers.

On Wednesday, the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government announced several additional Visiting Fellows for the 2017–18 academic year. The Fellows Program was established in 1966, and the fellowships are designed to allow professionals to “shar[e] their experiences with students and explor[e] important public issues with a distinguished group of their peers.” Among the fellows announced on Wednesday was Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst. Manning was court-martialed in 2013 for releasing classified information; her sentence was later commuted by President Obama. Manning’s selection appears to be within the parameters of the fellowship program, which Bill Delahunt, the acting director of the Institute of Politics, put this way:

Broadening the range and depth of opportunity for students to hear from and engage with experts, leaders and policy-shapers is a cornerstone of the Institute of Politics. We welcome the breadth of thought-provoking viewpoints on race, gender, politics and the media.

Harvard’s choice of Manning as a fellow immediately sparked controversy. By Thursday, NPR reported that “Michael Morell, former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, resigned his senior fellowship post at Harvard over the school’s decision to include Manning as a visiting fellow.” Congresswoman Liz Cheney called for the federal government to close its purse strings to Harvard:

The controversy picked up steam as CIA Director Mike Pompeo — who had been scheduled to speak at Harvard on Thursday — withdrew because of Harvard’s award of the fellowship. The CIA, through its official Twitter account, shared a letter from Pompeo, on official government letterhead, decrying Harvard’s decision to invite a “traitor” and “place its stamp of approval upon her treasonous actions”:

Pompeo wrote: “[A]fter much deliberation in the wake of Harvard’s announcement of American traitor Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics, my conscience and duty to the men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency will not permit me to betray their trust . . . .”

Under this pressure, Harvard announced that its invitation was a “mistake.” Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, wrote:

[T]he Kennedy School’s longstanding approach to visiting speakers is to invite some people who have significantly influenced events in the world even if they do not share our values and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community.

Elmendorf went on to indicate that this approach will now change — and not just with respect to whether they’re given a particular title or honorific:

[W]e should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person's visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire.

Honors are often bestowed by universities, including Harvard, on controversial people — including people whose decisions and actions are seen as having caused the deaths of others around the world. Berkeley counts among its professors John C. Yoo, whose 2002 memorandum was seen by many as authorizing the United States to torture detainees. Many view Henry Kissinger — a former member of Harvard’s faculty who has spoken at the university repeatedly — as a war criminal who should not be afforded a “platform” at Harvard.

Manning was not the only controversial fellow Harvard planned to host this year. Also joining the ranks are Sean Spicer, President Trump’s former press secretary, and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager who was fired after being charged with assaulting a reporter (the charge was later dropped).

Manning was convicted for actions many view as having undermined national security. Others view her as a whistleblower “whose disclosure of classified Iraq war documents exposed human rights abuses and corruption the government kept hidden from the public.” She was incarcerated for seven years until President Obama commuted her sentence last January, and she is now known as a prominent advocate for transparency and transgender rights.

Hearing from controversial speakers of diverse views is a social good, and universities must not bow to public pressure in granting their students the ability to hear from — and challenge — speakers whose decisions and actions have shaped the world, for better or for worse. This is how students learn from history and how to criticize newsworthy figures.

In an effort to dampen the controversy, Elmendorf has attempted to minimize the “honor” of the fellowship. Elmendorf’s position is self-defeating. If the title is without honor, there would be no reason to withdraw it (or, for that matter, to bestow it upon anyone). Nobody forced Harvard to select Manning as a visiting fellow, and the facts about her actions have not changed. Presumably, she met Harvard’s standards just fine. The only thing that has changed is the amount of political pressure — including pressure from a high government official — put on the university.

Moreover, even if Harvard is committed to allowing Manning to speak, the genuflection to pressure invites future pressure whenever there’s a controversial speaker, and it suggests that Harvard will condition future invitations based on its sensitivity to criticism. Behavior that gets rewarded will be repeated. Harvard fellowships are now subject to a litmus test premised upon whoever can gin up enough pressure. Today that test was defined by the intelligence community; tomorrow?  

As we’ve said before in the context of academia bowing to pressure from censorship-friendly foreign governments:

There’s much to be gained from universities making efforts to reach students and scholars across borders, but the risks cooperation with repressive governments poses to academic freedom cannot be ignored. There’s hardly a more important time for universities to uphold their commitments to free expression than when powerful authoritarians demand their abandonment.

When those demands are domestic, not foreign, the pressure is all the more great — and the responsibility of universities to uphold their commitments is critical. Betraying its own rousing defenses of “unfettered debate,” Harvard suggested today — as it has again and again and again — that its public perception and sensitivity to criticism, at least from those who it sees as powerful, is more important than its commitment to open discourse and open inquiry.

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