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“Welcome everyone, just a reminder, our class today will be off the record.”
“Good morning, welcome to this invite-only breakfast, this event will be off the record.”
“Today’s private forum will be off the record.”
“This lunch is off the record.”
“This dinner is off the record.”
Off the record, off the record, off the record. Sean Spicer was publicly offered a Visiting Fellowship here at the Harvard Kennedy School—and then allowed to speak entirely off the record.
During his time on campus, Spicer had closed-door forums with select faculty and fellows, spoke in a few chosen classes, and attended invite-only meals with selected groups of students. In total, 11 events over three days, all off the record, none open to the general student body or public. Not a single word Sean Spicer spoke during his Visiting Fellowship at Harvard was on the record, nor could a single word could be heard without an explicit invite.
This was Sean Spicer’s secret Harvard fellowship. All of us should push the School to not allow this level of secrecy for a Fellow again.
In his memo to the student body rescinding the Visiting Fellowship of Chelsea Manning, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf defended inviting provocative speakers like Spicer to campus, saying, “We do not shy away from that controversy, we insist that all speakers take questions, and these questions are often hard and challenging ones. Hearing a very wide range of views, regardless of what members of our community think about the people offering those views, is fundamental to the learning process at the Kennedy School.”
Why then did Harvard shy away from controversy while Spicer was here on campus? When given the opportunity to have an open dialogue with a controversial figure, the School chose to secretly shuttle Sean Spicer from restricted event to restricted event. What lessons does this teach future leaders and policymakers about accountability and transparency? And was this secretive policy even successful in allowing Spicer to be more candid?
I was in a classroom session with Spicer and he told the same stories, including several easily refutable lies, that he’s told publicly since leaving the White House (some items were leaked). The classroom session followed the same playbook as his Press Secretary tenure: Dodge hard questions, make a few false statements, attack the media, claim that Trump is treated unfairly, etc. The off the record policy did not make him particularly candid.
The School’s desire to have tight control when a controversial speaker visits the campus makes sense: It’s easier for both the School and the guest. Harvard didn’t have to deal with protestors or worry about negative media attention. Sean Spicer, likewise, didn’t have to worry about being factual in his remarks or confronted with difficult questions. This tight control creates a low risk environment for both stakeholders.
But this low risk environment is also low reward for the community. First, most students didn’t get the chance to hear Sean Spicer out, let alone ask him questions. Second, Spicer’s comments in these meetings aren’t available to fact check and challenge publicly, leaving tweets like this as the final public record. I understand that it’s uncomfortable to invite someone to campus and then have students publicly challenge that person’s actions. However, constructive civil discourse isn’t comfortable and easy; it’s awkward and challenging. Unfortunately, Harvard valued the comfort of itself and its guest more than it valued providing a learning opportunity for its students.
The next controversial Visiting Fellow to grace Harvard’s campus is Corey Lewandowski, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager who physically assaulted a female reporter on the campaign trail. Additionally, according to The New Yorker, “On his first CNN appearance, on June 25th, Lewandowski would neither confirm nor deny having signed a ‘non-disparagement’ agreement of the kind other former Trump employees have,” which calls into question the potential level of his candor and the value of his visit. Students haven’t been notified yet about when he will be here, let alone what opportunities there will be to engage with him. It seems that Harvard plans to give Lewandowski the same secret treatment they gave Sean Spicer.
Students deserve better from Harvard. For Lewandowski’s visit, and any other Fellows in the future, public appearances should be required. If Dean Elmendorf states that civil discourse is “fundamental to the learning process at the Kennedy School,” then the School should let the student body take part in that process, out in the open and on the record.
Let’s put an end to secret Harvard fellowships.
Daniel C. Drabik is a mid-career Master in Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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