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Former Michigan Governor Snyder Withdraws from Kennedy School Fellowship Following Backlash

The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in December 2017.
The Harvard Kennedy School, pictured in December 2017. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Alexandra A. Chaidez and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder withdrew from a Harvard Kennedy School senior research fellowship Wednesday after an outpouring of criticism from students, faculty, and University affiliates.

“I have informed the HKennedy Sch that I am turning down its offer as Snr Res Fellow,” Snyder tweeted Wednesday. “It would have been exciting to share my experiences, both positive and negative; our current political environment and its lack of civility makes this too disruptive. I wish them the best.”

The former governor is widely known for his role in the Flint, Mich. water crisis. As governor, Snyder appointed the officials who oversaw changes to the city’s water source that caused fatal lead contamination, and resulted in an outbreak of Legionnaires disease infecting 90 people and killing 12.

Snyder did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf announced the news in an email to Kennedy School affiliates Wednesday. Elmendorf wrote that he was “deeply moved” by the messages he received from Flint residents, but added that students would have learned from questioning Snyder about his “consequential role in decisions regarding Flint.”

“We appreciate Governor Snyder’s interest in participating in such discussions in our community, but we and he now believe that having him on campus would not enhance education here in the ways we intended,” Elmendorf wrote.

Snyder’s appointment was at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The center’s director Jeffrey B. Liebman wrote in a press release Friday announcing Snyder’s appointment that the former governor would bring “significant expertise” in management and public policy.

Liebman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about Snyder’s resignation.

Snyder’s appointment last week quickly drew backlash on social media. Harvard students and faculty were among those who rebuked the school’s decision, launching an email campaign and online petition calling on Liebman to rescind Snyder’s fellowship.

The petition — started by former Kennedy School fellow Tiffani A. Bell — had received nearly 7,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

Bell said she was “moved” by all the individuals who signed her petition and participated in the email campaign.

“Human rights should supersede ‘civility’,” she said, in reference to Snyder’s tweet.

Kennedy School lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy also questioned Snyder’s comment about civility.

“Respect is one thing. Silence is another,” he said. “And I worry that civility has become a weapon that is being used by people in power to silence those of us who speak truth to power.”

Over the past few days, a group of Kennedy School faculty members had been collecting signatures for a public letter — addressed to Elmendorf, Liebman, and University President Lawrence S. Bacow — asking them to revoke Snyder’s fellowship.

The night before the 23 signatories intended to send the letter, a faculty member who declined to sign informed Elmendorf of the group’s plans, according to McCarthy, who signed the letter.

The signatories wrote that “in honoring [Snyder] the school dishonors itself.

“What lesson does his fellowship appointment teach our students? That public leaders and powerful elites should be honored for the choices they make, regardless of the harm they inflict on those whom they serve?” the letter reads. “And what message does this send to the people of Flint, Michigan, already over-exposed to poverty, policing, and poisonous water? That their lives really don’t matter? Rick Snyder has already made this clear to them.”

McCarthy said he believes that the pending letter influenced the Kennedy School and Snyder’s decision for him to withdraw from the fellowship.

“There's no way in which the prospect of a public letter from faculty to cancel it was not a factor in the decision making that took place in the last 24 hours,” McCarthy said.

“I also find it striking that this seems to be the result of Snyder withdrawing, not the Kennedy School revoking the original offer,” he added. “And I think that's a crucial detail. Snyder declined to come to us. We did not deny him the opportunity to do so.”

Elmendorf declined to comment on Snyder’s withdrawal. University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on behalf of Bacow.

The Kennedy School has faced criticism in the past for bringing controversial public figures to campus. Hundreds of alumni protested the Institute of Politics for choosing former aides to President Donald Trump Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer as visiting fellows in 2017.

Mo Torres, a doctoral fellow in the Kennedy School’s Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy, said that the Kennedy School appointing Snyder is symptomatic of its failure to meet a “certain degree of ethical standards” when choosing fellows.

"It seems like HKS brings controversial figure after controversial figure,” he said. “But at what point does HKS think well, we only need to bring people who care about the public good and care about public health and care about protecting people.”

“HKS just wants to do a lot of the ‘both sides-ism’ and just bring people from all different perspectives together, which is fine, but that can't be divorced from ethical considerations,” he added.

In 2017, the Institute of Politics rescinded a fellowship from Chelsea E. Manning — a former U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks — after CIA director Mike Pompeo called off a speaking engagement at the IOP in protest.

Elmendorf closed his email to affiliates Wednesday by assuring them that the school will continue their efforts to study government failures.

“Harvard Kennedy School will continue to look for ways to learn from and address the failures of government in Flint and elsewhere,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

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