UPDATED: September 19, 2017 at 11:25 a.m.
Amid tensions over the Institute of Politics’ choices for this semester’s visiting fellows, more than 600 Harvard alumni have signed an open letter calling on the IOP to retract its fellowships for Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, two former aides to President Donald Trump.
The petition, delivered Monday to University President Drew G. Faust, Kennedy School of Government Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, and IOP staff, argues that inviting Lewandowski and Spicer to be fellows gives “intellectual and moral legitimacy – in this case, to those who have done much to degrade public discourse in this country, re-ignite white nationalism, and further reactionary policies that harm millions.”
“We thought that as Alumni, Harvard reflects on us, as well,” said Talia B. Lavin ’12, one of the organizers of the petition. “And I think we should have a voice, and an extra responsibility to raise our voices and say, ‘You know, this is not an action that is fitting of the University that I got my degree from, and that I chose.’”
Lavin, Paul B. VanKoughnett ’12, and Pete D. Davis ’12, who have been friends since they were undergraduates, said they decided to take action when they heard Lewandowski and Spicer had been appointed as fellows. They drafted a petition and circulated it to fellow alumni.
“Harvard’s motto is Veritas. You cannot hold that up and invite Sean Spicer, an incompetent liar,” Lavin said.
The IOP has come under fire in the last week over its selection of visiting fellows for the semester. Selected fellows occasionally come to campus to engage with students and faculty on political work.
Last week, the appointment of Chelsea E. Manning, a former U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, as a visiting fellow drew conservative backlash, escalating when CIA director Mike Pompeo refused to attend a speaking engagement at the IOP in protest.
Hours later, the IOP withdrew its fellowship invitation to Manning.
The reversal unleashed an even larger backlash, this time mainly from liberals who accused Harvard of caving to government pressure in snubbing Manning.
“When they rescinded Chelsea Manning’s fellowship they admitted that the title of visiting fellow conveys a certain imprimatur of legitimacy. So they’re tacitly granting the same imprimatur of legitimacy to Spicer and Lewandowski, and I just don’t think that’s acceptable,” Lavin argued.
VanKoughnet said ultimately, his team acted out of a worry that the IOP featuring Spicer and Lewandowski would normalize political stances they found troubling.
“There’s this idea...that it’s just speech, just people talking, and they can disagree at the end of the day, and whatever. But it actually has a real-world effect, and that’s what we’re worried about,” VanKoughnet said. “We’re worried that the further normalization of these men and of Trumpist ideas are going to have awful material effects on people in the real world.”
An IOP spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
—Staff writer Graham W. Bishai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBishai.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: September 19, 2017
A previous version of this story misstated Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf's middle initial.
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