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Harvard Kennedy School Faces Backlash After Choosing Ex-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for Fellowship

Harvard Kennedy School
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in 2017.

In the days following the Harvard Kennedy School’s announcement Friday that former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder had been named a senior research fellow, Harvard students, faculty, and those unaffiliated with the University quickly jumped to criticize the move.

Snyder, who left office Jan. 1, is widely known for his role in the Flint, Mich. water crisis. During his time as governor, he appointed the officials who oversaw changes to the city’s water source that led to dangerous lead contamination. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the city resulted from the change, infecting 90 people and killing 12.

Snyder’s appointment Friday at the Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government swiftly led to backlash on social media. Harvard students and faculty were among those who voiced outrage about the decision, calling on Taubman Center director Jeffrey B. Liebman to rescind Snyder’s fellowship through an email campaign and change.org petition.

In the Kennedy School’s initial press release announcing Snyder’s appointment, Liebman said that he expects Snyder will bring “significant expertise” in management and public policy. The release referenced Snyder leading Detroit through the “largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history,” and expanding Michigan’s workforce training and STEM education programs. It made no mention of the Flint water crisis.

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Mo Torres, a doctoral fellow in the Kennedy School’s Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, said he was in “disbelief” when he heard about Snyder’s appointment. In 2017, Torres said the Taubman Center offered him $2,500 to study the consequences of Michigan's Public Act 4, which Torres said sparked Flint’s water crisis.

“As a direct consequence of Rick Snyder's actions, there's been an entire generation of Flint children that have been poisoned with lead contaminated water,” Torres said.

“I would love to see a governor appointed to HKS who has aimed to live up to high ethical standards, who has learned from their mistakes, who always privileges vulnerable people in society,” he added. “Governor Snyder is just not any of those things.”

Timothy P. McCarthy — a lecturer at the Kennedy School — took to Twitter to question the school’s decision. In a response to a tweet questioning the appointment, he wrote that the decision was “beyond me.”

“Perhaps you should ask the administration at @Kennedy_School — they may be able to tell you why a man who is under legal investigation for poisoning a city full of black folks is coming to teach our students,” he wrote. “It’s honestly beyond me.”

In an effort to cut costs, Michigan shifted Flint’s water source from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the polluted Flint River in 2014. Investigations later revealed that Snyder lied about when he first knew that Flint’s water was unsafe, and implemented emergency procedures only months after he was made aware.

Kennedy School affiliates have not been alone in questioning the school’s decision to appoint Snyder — in a public statement on their website, the Harvard College Democrats wrote that Snyder’s appointment was a “direct endorsement of Governor Snyder’s racist legacy.”

The group’s president, Henry “Hank” R. Sparks ’21, said the organization issued the statement knowing the “devastating” impact that Snyder’s decisions had on the city.

“We're really disappointed to see Harvard not only give a platform to someone with that record but also to honor him,” Sparks said. “Fellowships can be a way to honor people. And in our case, we don't think he's deserving of the honor.”

Tiffani A. Bell, a former fellow at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center, said she thought the school was sending the “wrong message” by expecting students to learn from Snyder.

“It’s telling people you can basically fail up,” she said. “You can literally kill people in your governing and fail and Harvard will still think that you have something to offer people.

Bell created a change.org petition — which garnered over 5,500 signatures as of Tuesday evening — asking Liebman to rescind Snyder’s fellowship.

In a message Liebman sent to many who have written to him, he wrote that the Kennedy School does not “endorse” its fellows’ words or actions. He added that Snyder will “undoubtedly face hard questions” from students during his time at Harvard.

“At the Kennedy School, we aim to learn from both the successes and failures of public officials,” he wrote. “Having public officials on campus allows our students to ask those officials hard questions, and we believe that it prepares our students to have more successes and fewer failures when they become leaders.”

Kennedy School spokesperson Norah Delaney declined to comment on criticism’s about Snyder’s appointment. Snyder did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

This is not the first time Harvard has invited controversial public figures to its campus. In 2017, hundreds of alumni protested the Institute of Politics for choosing Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer — two former aides to President Donald Trump — as visiting fellows.

Though the IOP did not rescind their fellowships, it did withdraw another appointment in 2017: Chelsea E. Manning, a former U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks lost her fellowship after CIA director Mike Pompeo refused to attend a speaking engagement at the IOP in protest.

Snyder began his appointment Monday. As a fellow, he will study, teach, and write about issues related to state and local governments, according to the original announcement.

—Staff Writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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