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Controversy enveloped the Kennedy School of Government this weekend as critics on campus and around the country castigated the school for rescinding Chelsea Manning’s appointment as a visiting fellow this fall.
Last week, after the Institute of Politics announced that Manning—a former Army soldier who went to prison for leaking classified military documents to WikiLeaks—was a visiting fellow this fall, conservatives and national security officials quickly denounced her selection as misguided and unpatriotic. CIA Director Mike Pompeo did not show up to a scheduled speaking appearance at the IOP Thursday in protest of Manning’s selection, and Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, resigned from his fellowship at the school because of the appointment.
Facing criticism on-campus and nationwide, Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas W. Elmendorf rescinded Manning’s invitation in a statement issued in the early hours of Friday, calling her selection a “mistake.”
Now the school faces a fresh wave of controversy as commentators lambast Harvard’s decision to disinvite Manning, a transgender activist whose prison sentence former President Barack Obama commuted in 2017.
Several campus organizations co-signed a letter Sunday criticizing the school’s about-face, arguing that Manning’s experience as a transgender prisoner and efforts as a whistleblower merited a place on campus.
“In light of her selfless sacrifices as a whistleblower, her dedication to the truth, and her commitment to human rights, we call upon the Harvard Kennedy School to reinstate Chelsea Manning’s designation as a fellow at the Institute of Politics,” read the letter, signed by the Trans Task Force, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Anti-Islamophobia Network, among several other groups.
Some commentators accused Harvard of having a double standard for selecting its fellows, saying it was wrong to give the fellowship to embattled former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, but not Manning. Several hundred alumni have signed a petition for Spicer and Lewandowski’s fellowships to be revoked.
Lewandowski was charged with misdemeanor battery of a reporter before he was fired from the Trump campaign, and Spicer was routinely accused of lying during his engagements with the press.
The backlash was not limited to campus: Opinion pieces quickly sprang up in several national publications, slamming Harvard for kowtowing to the federal government.
“Hiring Manning may have been questionable, but firing her under pressure was disturbing,” the Boston Globe Editorial Board wrote.
The Young Turks, an online liberal news show, urged its viewers to boycott Harvard, circulating a petition asking people to “not have any affiliation with Harvard or provide any support for it whatsoever if they do not reverse their disgraceful decision on Chelsea Manning.”
“To bow your head to the CIA says that basically you think that whatever the CIA says is what Harvard should do,” the show’s host Cenk Uygur said in a video.
In the New Yorker, Nathan J. Heller ’06, a former Crimson editor, accused Elmendorf of prioritizing optics over free ideas.
“Elmendorf nods to pieties about Harvard being in the ideas business but concedes that, even more, Harvard is in the image business,” Heller wrote.
And speaking at a conference in Nantucket, Mass. Sunday, Manning herself addressed the controversy and called Harvard a "police state," according to the Associated Press.
“I’m not ashamed of being disinvited,” Manning said. “I view that just as much of an honored distinction as the fellowship itself.”
A spokesperson for the IOP did not respond to a request for comment.
Logan E. Leslie ’15, a special forces veteran currently pursuing a joint degree at the Law and Business Schools, said that although it was the right decision to rescind Manning’s fellowship, it made the Kennedy School look “even weaker”.
“It’s a sign of weakness for Harvard to bend to public opinion, I’d say. It shows that they didn’t feel the moral high ground to begin with,” Leslie said.
Still, several conservative politicians commended Harvard for its change of heart.
“Harvard's about-face deserves credit; not easy to admit being wrong,” former presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted. Romney was one of several conservative figures who took to Twitter to criticize Harvard for hiring Manning.
Jason E. Chaffetz, a former Republican Congressman who is an IOP fellow this fall, said Harvard should have never considered hiring Manning, and ultimately made the right choice to rescind her fellowship. Chaffetz also said he saw no parallel between selecting Manning and Lewandowski for fellowships.
“I think you have to take each situation differently and assess it. I don’t think there is a litmus test,” Chaffetz said.
Leslie said there is a difference between being committed to free speech and honoring someone with a fellowship.
“I don’t think there should be limits on who comes here to speak, to have their ideas see the light of day, in the forum, I one hundred percent support that. Once you start naming them a fellow, you’re putting Harvard’s name on that person,” he said.
—Staff writer Graham W. Bishai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBishai.
—Staff writer Lucas Ward can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @LucaspfWard.
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