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Open Letter Calls on Harvard to Develop ‘Accountability Guidelines’ on Hiring Former Trump Administration Officials

An open letter is calling on Harvard to tread cautiously when considering whether to hire former Trump Administration officials.
An open letter is calling on Harvard to tread cautiously when considering whether to hire former Trump Administration officials. By Camille G. Caldera
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

An open letter calling on Harvard to develop “accountability guidelines” for inviting former members of President Donald J. Trump’s administration to campus as professors, fellows, or speakers circulated online this week, sparking outrage from some who have ties both to Harvard and to Trump.

The letter condemns Trump and his associates for having “trampled norms of free and fair elections and peaceful transfer of power” and exhibiting “a complete disregard for the truth.”

“We worry that in following tradition and inviting members of the Trump administration to Harvard, the school would be legitimizing this subversion of democratic principles,” it reads. “That is why today we are asking you to set up a system of accountability for high-level political appointees and Trump administration consultants before they are invited as fellows or to teach or speak on campus.”

The letter requests that Harvard share such guidelines with students before the end of 2020. It also asks the University to “fully vet speakers for their role in undermining these commitments and hold them fully accountable for that complicity.”

“The Institute of Politics at HKS, or any other center, has the responsibility to boldly confront Trump administration alumni invited to speak at Harvard about their collaboration or passive acceptance of this attack on truth and fundamental democratic principles — or not invite them to speak at all,” the letter reads.

Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has previously invited individuals who served in the Trump administration to campus.

In fall 2017, the Institute hosted former Press Secretary Sean M. Spicer as a visiting fellow. Spicer participated in 11 off-the-record events at the time, and returned to speak at another off-the-record event in April 2018.

The IOP also hosted Gary D. Cohn, who served as director of Trump’s National Economic Council between January 2017 and March 2018, as a fellow in spring 2019.

It remains unclear who started the open letter, or how many affiliates have signed onto it.

Marisa J. Borreggine, the vice president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers, wrote that the union agrees with the petition’s aim to “stand for democratic principles and not hire any outgoing Trump officials.”

“It would be disappointing and disheartening for an institution like Harvard that is meant to uphold these principles to hire officials from a blatantly anti-democratic, anti-science, and anti-labor administration,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

So far, the University has stayed quiet on the issue. Its spokesperson, Jason A. Newton, said “the University is aware of this student petition,” but had no further comment. James F. Smith, a spokesperson for the Kennedy School, also declined to comment.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh M. McEnany, a graduate of Harvard Law School, urged Harvard to reject the petition, according to a tweet from Fox Business reporter Lydia Moynihan.

“I hope the school administrators rebukes [sic] this movement,” McEnany said, per the tweet. “Academic communities should be bastions of free speech. I will happily walk back on campus and challenge this.”

The open letter claims its signatories are “fully committed to free speech and debate of difficult subjects — especially the damage being done to democratic governance around the world.”

“We do not believe, however, that individuals who engage in this behavior should be legitimized or rewarded by the university,” the letter reads. “An institution dedicated to the fostering of good democratic government should remain apart from those who were willing to bring it down for their own benefit.”

Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan M. Dershowitz, who represented Trump in his impeachment trial, also spoke out against the open letter.

“Will I be banned from speaking at Harvard?” he wrote on Twitter.

In an interview with The Crimson, Dershowitz said the open letter is “a terrible idea.”

“A university can't pick sides, Republican or Democrat, or Trump or Biden. A university must remain politically neutral,” he said. “The idea that having people express different views from the consensus on the university, is somehow going to corrupt and destroy the university, is pure McCarthyism.”

Dershowitz also said that if the University enacted the policies the open letter advocates, he will challenge them under civil rights law.

“If it comes into being I will challenge it,” he said. “I will represent, pro bono, students and faculty and potential faculty, who are victimized by this McCarthyism.”

“My only regret in having retired from Harvard after 50 years is not being there to stand up to these student bullies,” Dershowitz added.

Paul Musgrave — a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — took to Twitter on Nov. 7 to call on “prestigious public policy schools to do an open letter, right now, today stating that they object to hiring Trump officials.”

In an interview with The Crimson, he defended the open letter.

“It is a call for the Harvard administration to publish transparent accountability standards about why and how some people will be given the opportunity to come to Cambridge, and why others won't. That is a minimal demand,” he said.

Musgrave said he himself is concerned about the role of public policy schools as “white-washing facilities” for people's reputations, and emphasized that Harvard “sets precedents for how other institutions will act.”

“The Trump administration has not just had bad policies or bad response to COVID,” he said. “It has specifically attacked ideals of democratic integrity and academic freedom that institutions like Harvard claim to respect above all else. If Harvard's motto really is ‘Veritas,’ then how can you take people from an administration that has undermined truth at every turn?”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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