They say the hardest thing about Harvard University is getting in, but for Chelsea Manning it was staying there. On Wednesday, the university announced the former Army intelligence analyst would serve as a visiting fellow at its Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics. On Friday, the school withdrew the invitation.
That was a mistake.
Manning’s appointment immediately provoked ire from some students at Harvard, but it was public pushback from power players in the intelligence community that seems to have changed Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf’s mind. After former CIA deputy director Mike Morell resigned from a separate Harvard fellowship in protest and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo canceled a planned appearance, Manning was out. She will still have a chance to speak and take questions at the IOP, but she has been stripped of her “visiting fellow” title and the resources that would have come with it.
Yes, Manning is controversial. Some, such as Pompeo, see her as an “American traitor” who turned state secrets over to the enemy in an act of treason. Others see her as a whistleblower who shouldered the consequences of her actions and served her time. And outside of the choices that led to her imprisonment, Manning has now become a high-profile champion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
When it comes to “engaging students in discourse on topical issues of today,” as the Institute of Politics says it aims to do with its programming, Manning has a lot to bring to the table. When it comes to “fulfilling the values of public service to which we aspire,” there’s more room for debate.
But look at the rest of Harvard’s slate of fellows. There’s Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager charged with assaulting a reporter. (The charges were later dropped.) There’s Sean Spicer, who stood at the White House podium and lied to the press and the public. These actions quite clearly cut against the lofty American ideals the Kennedy School claims to champion. Morell is controversial, too: Since his service in the CIA, he has defended “enhanced interrogation” methods that he “doesn’t like calling torture.”
Elmendorf said that the Kennedy School’s approach has always been to include “people who have significantly influenced events in the world … and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community.” Though title of visiting fellow was never intended as an endorsement or an “honorific,” he said, the hullabaloo over Manning has made it clear that’s exactly how some view it. He concluded that “we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations.”
When offering future invitations, sure. Harvard has a bad habit of inviting buzzy figures to be IOP fellows not because of their sterling commitment to the values the school holds dear but because of prestige or publicity. Establishing an explicit set of principles — one that distinguishes between the Mannings and Spicers of the world — to determine whether someone deserves the designation of fellow is not a bad idea. Neither is laying out exactly what statement Harvard makes when it invites someone to spend time at the Institute of Politics.
But Harvard didn’t do, and still has not done, any of that. And the IOP’s leaders didn’t express any ambivalence up front about Manning’s actions, just as they didn’t about Lewandowski, Spicer or any other undesirable. The biggest difference between Manning and the controversial figures who will remain fellows this fall is that important people objected to Manning’s presence. That seems to prove plenty of other things people say about Harvard.