Following the announcement that Institute of Politics Director Margaret A. “Maggie” Williams will take a temporary unpaid leave of absence to work on Hillary Clinton’s transition team, a handful of alumni have called for her to step down, citing concerns over her ability to remain nonpartisan.
In a letter published in The Crimson and addressed to Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, a group of 15 University alumni—including Sean P. David, associate professor of medicine at Stanford, and Richard A. Grenell, a former U.S. spokesperson at the United Nations—wrote that Williams’s decision to join “the political fight forces us to therefore call for her immediate resignation.”
“Although she has taken unpaid leave,” the signatories wrote that “this conflict of interest” between Williams’s nonpartisan role at the IOP and her political appointment “is troubling.”
The Clinton campaign announced last Tuesday that Williams, a longtime ally of the Democratic presidential nominee, will be a co-chair of Clinton’s White House transition team, a type of committee generally tasked with ensuring the candidate can make the potential move from from campaigning to governing as seamlessly as possible. While on the transition team, Williams will take an unpaid leave from her position as IOP director, and is expected to return after the end of the current calendar year.
Kennedy School spokesperson Doug Gavel wrote in an emailed statement that Williams will begin her unpaid leave of absence starting Oct. 1, but “in the meantime she will be working with the IOP team to allow for an orderly leadership transition while she is on leave.”
“Maggie Williams has an accomplished record in public service, and her experience working in the White House for two presidential administrations is widely known,” Gavel said. “[I]t provides her with a unique perspective to work with students at the IOP.”
Some student leaders said they do not believe Williams’s new position will compromise her ability to be nonpartisan at the IOP.
Kathryn A. Bussey ’17, president of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee, said that Williams has remained nonpartisan in the past, and that Williams and the IOP are taking measures to ensure the Institute will remain nonpartisan going forward.
“My understanding is… Maggie is intending to adhere closely to Dean Elmendorf’s recommendation of her temporary leave,” Bussey said. “My experiences have been that Maggie has dedicated an effort to upholding the nonpartisan nature of the IOP.”
Bussey also said that she and the Student Advisory Committee’s executive team will still communicate regularly with Williams “as deemed appropriate given the upholding of the nonpartisan nature of the IOP.”
In an email obtained by The Crimson, Bussey wrote to other members of the IOP’s student leadership last Thursday that “Maggie will still operate in an advisory capacity to the IOP since she is planning to return after leading the transition team,” and that “she will be as involved as the Dean deems appropriate given her partisan role in the "still-political" Clinton transition.”
“Any advice or oversight she has, to my understanding, will be largely informal as the transition team’s work ramps up,” Bussey added in an interview.
Declan P. Garvey ’17, president of the Harvard Republican Club and a member of the IOP’s Fellows Selection Committee, also said he was largely unconcerned about Williams’s decision to join the transition team and her partisan background.
“Being in politics is inherently a partisan job, and I think that the IOP has been better served by having someone who has actual experience in campaigns and in the trenches,” Garvey said.
Garvey cited previous IOP Director C. M. Trey Grayson ’94, a Republican and former Kentucky Secretary of State, and two of this semester’s fellows—Sarah M. Isgur Flores, who served as deputy campaign manager for former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina and David Kochel, who was the senior strategist for former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush—as what he considered evidence that the IOP remains nonpartisan.
—Staff writer Nathaniel J. Hiatt can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nathaniel_hiatt.
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