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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Profiles in Cowardice

By Stephen L. Rabin

Had President John F. Kennedy ’40 been able to write about the present-day administration of the school bearing his name, he would have had to choose a word other than “courage” for the title of his book. How else to explain the absence of student input in the decision to honor Massachusetts Governor W. Mitt Romney by naming him 2003 commencement speaker at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG)?

Perhaps if the KSG administration trusted its students more, it would have declined to honor a man who is the antithesis of everything the school stands for. The Kennedy School is supposedly training a new generation of ethical, high-minded public leaders. While Romney does happen to be the governor of KSG’s home state, his short-lived political career would make a great KSG case study on how a public leader should not handle himself. Choosing Romney to speak about public leadership is akin to choosing former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay to speak about corporate ethics.

While business leaders play an important role in society, the Kennedy School is dedicated to training leaders who forgo opportunities for profit in the private sector in order to serve the common good. Romney has spent more of his life lambasting people for dedicating their lives to public service—that is, following the path KSG urges its students to take—than actually serving the public. Romney spent his business career at Bain Capital putting self above the common good. His business dealings reflect a clear pattern: lay off workers, cut their benefits, line his own pockets.

Some might be willing to excuse this behavior had Romney demonstrated sound leadership in the public sector upon leaving private business. He has not. Throughout the country, a tough economy and declining federal assistance are forcing governors to make tough decisions. In Massachusetts, Romney’s lack of candor about these decisions has been stunning. While the wisdom of Romney’s policies is debatable, his disingenuousness has been inexcusable from any political standpoint.

During his campaign, Romney misled the public on the magnitude of the budget crisis. Why? He needed to justify his false claim he could balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting vital services. Romney’s own budget chief admitted his boss’s projections were off only days after the election. It would appear that Romney purposely misled the public. Of course, he would hardly be the first politician to make dubious claims during an election campaign. Still, even if Romney is given the benefit of the doubt here, his behavior after the election has been just as disingenuous, if not more so.

Shortly after his inauguration, Romney went on statewide television to repeat his pledge to balance the budget without touching taxes or popular services. His rationale? He had supposedly uncovered $2 billion of wasteful spending in the state budget. This would have been quite a notable accomplishment—if it were true. Unfortunately for Bay Staters, the claim was false. After facing media scrutiny, Romney was forced to backtrack.

Still, in Orwellian fashion, Romney continued to tell his new constituents that his proposed budget would not increase taxes or cut essential services. Apparently the governor was not concerned about letting something as simple as the truth get in the way of a good political message. Is this the type of advice he will pass on to KSG graduates?

In actuality, Romney’s budget proposed deep cuts in popular services such as the public university system and included raising “fees” (which is Romney-speak for “taxes”). To add insult to injury, Romney proposed cuts in local aid that are so severe, localities will be forced to raise taxes in order to keep their schools open and their roads paved. Romney voters who were led to believe their taxes and services would remain the same are now out of luck.

Misleading the public has been a habit for Romney since he entered the public arena. During his campaign, for instance, Romney dishonestly claimed he had filed taxes as a Massachusetts resident while living in Utah, thus making him eligible to run for governor. In actuality, Romney filed as a Utah resident and did not amend his returns until after he began campaigning for governor. This behavior is unfortunate for someone who claims to be above politics as usual.

By inviting Romney to deliver KSG’s commencement address, Dean Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has rewarded the governor’s sad behavior. Regular speakers and visiting fellows can be invited with ambivalence to their record. Commencement addresses are different. The choice of these speakers is a decision to honor them and their careers.

Legions of KSG students are disappointed with the selection of Romney and the closed process which brought it about. Over 100 students have signed a petition expressing their disappointment.

The administration dismisses criticisms as partisan, but they miss the point. Had KSG’s administration wished to invite a token Republican to prove its liberal reputation is undeserved, it could have selected someone who truly exemplifies a lifetime in service or outstanding leadership. People like Sen. John McCain, Loeb Professor Emeritus Archibald Cox, former senator and former KSG professor Alan K. Simpson or Sen. Olympia Snowe, who delivered a past KSG commencement address, all would have been decent conservative choices.

It is ironic that a school training its students to be public leaders does not trust its own students to have input on their commencement speaker. It is more ironic when the invitee is someone whose mantra has been “ask not what I can do for my country, ask what I can do for me.” John Kennedy would be ashamed.

Stephen L. Rabin is a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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