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We, the undersigned faculty, write to protest the University’s decisions to overturn Michelle Jones’s admission to the Ph.D. program in History and to rescind a fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning at the Kennedy School. With both decisions, Harvard has prioritized political expediency over scholarly values. Rather than stand on principle and procedure, Harvard has undermined the pursuit of its core academic mission by acting out of fear of negative publicity.
From what we have been able to glean from the public record, the decisions in these cases have been made not by following standardized procedure, but by reacting in an ad hoc manner to a climate of anxiety and intimidation. With Michelle Jones, the administration took the highly unusual step of overturning the History Department’s decision to admit Jones to its doctoral program. In doing so, it not only violated departmental autonomy in evaluating and admitting students, it disregarded the labor and expertise of its faculty. Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators appear to have arrived at this decision not because they questioned the Department’s judgment of Jones’s scholarly merits, but out of concern over a potential backlash for admitting a formerly incarcerated student to the University. This comes at a time when mass incarceration and criminal justice reform are of utmost scholarly importance in a number of academic disciplines, including history.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, there was more overt intimidation by the federal government. Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo cancelled an appearance at Harvard and former deputy director Mike Morell resigned his own visiting fellowship, both in protest at what the two men described as the honoring of a “traitor.” The same day, Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas W. Elmendorf rescinded Manning’s offer while retaining former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer, notorious for his mendacity and attacks on the press, and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, captured on film assaulting a female reporter, as visiting fellows.
Each of these cases posed the question of how to address the lasting stigma following Jones and Manning due to their convictions on charges of murder and espionage, respectively. In each case, the administration appears to have allowed the fear of public opinion and political interference to determine its actions. But we are educators committed to the open, critical exchange of ideas. Rather than allowing these women to come to campus and speak for themselves, the administration accepted as true the account of events provided by the prosecuting attorneys and acted at their behest.
Universities should set an example to follow. Instead of bowing to pressure, they should have the courage to take principled stances, especially when it is politically impractical to do so. This is particularly the case for institutions like Harvard that have the standing and resources to withstand public and political backlash.
Ironically, the administration’s choice to play it safe has only augmented the public outcry. Nathan J. Heller ’06, a former Crimson editor, argued in the New Yorker that, in rejecting Jones and Manning, Harvard has shown itself to be more in the “image business” than the “ideas business.” James Forman, a Yale law professor, went further, arguing that Harvard’s stance on Jones aligns it with a societal mainstream that pays mere lip service to rehabilitation. “Mass incarceration and its never-ending human toll will be with us,” Forman wrote in the New York Times, until we choose a just society over “permanent civic death.” “N.Y.U.’s acceptance of Michelle Jones is an example of an institution leading the way toward a more forgiving nation,” he continued, while “Harvard’s rejection of her shows just how far we still have to go.”
These sentiments are echoed within the University. A group of History Ph.D. students who would have been Jones’s peers condemned, in The New York Times, the University’s “hypocrisy and cowardice” in “reinforc[ing] the institutional barriers and social stigmas that sustain mass incarceration in the United States and that disproportionately affect communities of color.” Such reactions speak to how starkly these decisions contradict Harvard’s own expressed support for socially vulnerable populations, be they minorities, Dreamers, the poor, or the formerly incarcerated.
These are contentious and fearful times. At times such as these, our institution must adhere to its research and teaching mission and stand by its own stated values of intellectual excellence, equal opportunity, open debate, and non-discrimination. Accordingly, we ask that the administration immediately do the following:
First, cooperate with the faculties of the various divisions to add “criminal history” to the University’s existing non-discrimination policies, including those governing financial aid.
Second, support Harvard faculty interested in prison education. This could involve giving faculty teaching credit for participating in programs such as the one that Emerson College conducts at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, or supporting faculty in an initiative to offer for-credit courses in nearby prisons.
Finally, invite Chelsea Manning to a public forum to discuss her work and advocacy for LGBTQ rights.
These steps will go some distance towards ensuring that, in the future, our University does not allow a misguided and moralistic notion of indelible stigma—or a fear of media controversy—to divert us from our core values.
Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and Chair of American Studies. Jason Beckfield is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department. Khalil Gibran Muhammad is Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.
This op-ed has been signed by 159 faculty members. Their names can be found here.
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