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As it became apparent that the United States presidential race would be called in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr., a tweet concerning the fate of outgoing Trump administration officials read: “Today’s game is, ‘Who goes to jail and who gets to be visiting faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government?’” For many students at the Kennedy School, this was no joke.
While such hires are expected as presidential administrations shift from one party to another, the prospect of Donald J. Trump’s officials finding a home at Harvard has students concerned about the normalization of anti-democratic behavior and the future of American democracy.
This is why I led an effort to launch an open letter demanding the University set up clear and transparent guidelines about hiring any former Trump officials that ensure accountability for their work in this administration.
The letter calls on Harvard to uphold its foundational principles as outlined in a letter signed by multiple University administrators, including University President Lawrence S. Bacow, shortly before the election, “Reaffirming our Commitments”: First, a “free and honest inquiry in the unfettered pursuit of truth;” second, “practices and institutions that enhance the common good;” and third, “a just Harvard and a just world where all people’s rights and dignity are respected and honored.” Students should be worried that Trump administration officials would irrevocably corrupt these principles as Harvard faculty members.
As students, we have the right to demand a fact-based education. The Trump administration has not simply disregarded truth, it has embraced lying. President Trump’s campaign was built as a disinformation apparatus, designed to drown out the truth with noise and conspiracy theories. This strategy creates a haze of conflicting versions of the truth that leaves Americans grasping in the dark for what to believe. Those involved in any of these perverse schemes do not deserve to have the Harvard “veritas” in their credentials.
The Trump administration has also attacked the institutions and norms that have been regarded as sacrosanct by Americans for as long as this country has existed. “The success of America depends on the right to vote, a free and independent press, checks and balances, the peaceful transfer of power, and the rule of law with equal justice for all,” the University administrators wrote. In addition to attacks on the press, refusals to cooperate with Congressional oversight, and interference with independent investigators, members of this administration also carried out an extortion scheme in Ukraine, attempting to influence U.S. elections — a scheme for which the president was impeached.
Most alarming is the president’s attack on the credibility of our own elections, making claims of voter fraud without evidence as its central strategy. It is still unclear whether he will peacefully transfer power in January. Normalization of these actions, especially at a place like Harvard, is a real threat to American democracy, and incentivizes authoritarian power grabs that destabilize democracies around the world.
My most personal objection that is not mentioned in the open letter lies with the unacceptable ethical lines that members of this administration have crossed through the implementation of cruel, immoral policies for purely political purposes. The president’s Cabinet is reported to have voted to implement the child separation policy at the border that left more than 500 children without parents. Similarly, as the pandemic accelerated, the president’s top advisers allegedly suggested a policy that dropped COVID-19 testing plans for states governed by Democrats so the administration could profit politically from these deaths. This administration has also targeted our own community of international students relentlessly, first through a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries and then by attempting to kick students out of the country in the middle of the pandemic. Trump administration officials must be held accountable for these egregious breaches of ethical lines.
I support this request while remaining wholly committed to freedom of speech and diversity of thought at Harvard. An integral part of our educational experience includes being challenged with viewpoints that differ from our own. This petition does not call for censorship of that dialogue; it is asking for more of it. Supporting freedom of speech does not mean we must allow lying with impunity.
Furthermore, this petition is not requesting a ban, but is asking for accountability and transparency. The fact that such a measured and reasonable request is harangued and mischaracterized as a ban demonstrates an inability to have a nuanced discussion about responsibility.
Those of us signing on to the open letter understand that many people in the administration are career officials who put country first and fought against these harmful policies from the inside. This situation is nuanced and many Trump administration officials have a lot to offer the student body. We are simply asking for guidelines that ensure people in the administration are held accountable for their actions, and transparency of how that accountability affects the hiring process.
Diego A. Garcia Blum is a second-year student in the M.P.P. program and is the president of the Kennedy School Student Government.
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