Harvard University, whose seal bears the motto “Veritas” (Latin for truth), is having a very bad week.
First, on Wednesday, the New York Times and the Marshall Project revealed the damning story of Michelle Jones, a convicted murderer recently released from prison after “a breathtaking feat of rehabilitation.” Jones, who is black and now 45, spent two decades behind bars in deep study of American history, earning a college degree and, last year, winning the Indiana Historical Society’s award for best research project. She applied to the Harvard history department’s Ph.D. program and was among the 18 students admitted from a pool of more than 300 applicants. But then the graduate school’s brass—including its president, provost, and dean—took the unusual step of reversing the admission, “out of concern,” the Times reported, “that her background would cause a backlash among rejected applicants, conservative news outlets, or parents of students.”
Elizabeth Hinton, one of the Harvard historians who backed Jones’ admission, called her “one of the strongest candidates in the country last year, period.” Hinton added that the case “throws into relief” the question of “how much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?” In the case of the heads of Harvard’s graduate studies department, it seems, not much. (Jones has since been admitted at New York University.)
Then on Friday came the news that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government was revoking a visiting fellowship that it had, only days earlier, granted to Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army private who had served one-fifth of a 35-year sentence for providing secrets to WikiLeaks. (In his final days, President Obama commuted her sentence after seven years in a military prison.) The rebuke came hours after Mike Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, resigned in protest as a senior fellow at the Kennedy School, and Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director (and a Harvard Law School alumnus), canceled a speech at Harvard, saying that Manning’s appointment tells “students that you too can be a fellow at Harvard and a felon under United States law.”
It seemed to many that Harvard had caved under CIA pressure. Manning tweeted:
Let us dispel a couple of notions. First, if Manning thinks that her treatment is the action of a “military/police/intel state,” or that the CIA has an iron grip on Harvard’s academic practices, she had no business getting the fellowship to begin with.
Second, a visiting fellowship at the Kennedy School is not as grand as it may sound. It is not an academic appointment; rather, a fellow comes to talk to a forum of students and faculty for a few days. Manning’s deal was to come for one day and to receive an honorarium of $1,000, according to a source familiar with the arrangement.
Still, a statement released on Friday by Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, raises eyebrows. “I now think that designating Chelsea Manning as a Visiting Fellow was a mistake,” he wrote. Visiting fellowships, he explained, are offered to people who “significantly influenced events in the world even if they do not share our values and even if their actions or words are abhorrent to some members of our community. We do this not to endorse those actions or legitimize those words, but because engaging with people with fundamentally different worldviews can help us to become better public leaders.”
He went on, “I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. … I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. … This decision now is not intended as a compromise between competing interest groups but as the correct way for … recognizing that the title of Visiting Fellow implies a certain recognition.” (Italics added.)
It is hard to believe that the dean of the Kennedy School sees only now that the title of visiting fellow—or, for that matter, any title bestowed by the hallowed halls of Harvard—might imply a form of recognition and a badge of legitimacy. True-blue Harvardians understand the equation implicitly; they know it in their bones.
This was why Morell, who was a senior fellow attached for a year-term appointment to one of the Kennedy School’s centers, protested the title bestowed to Manning. Morell was a career CIA officer, imbued with the agency’s trademark abhorrence of anyone who leaks secrets. He and Pompeo exaggerated when they said Manning’s leaks put American troops in danger; a few senior military-intelligence officers have admitted to me that the leaks were embarrassing but not really damaging to national security. Manning’s bad luck was that she underwent trial in the military court system, which is explicitly designed to enforce discipline at least as much as justice. By that standard, a leak is a leak, and Manning leaked a lot. (Even presidents pay some fealty to this distinction; it’s worth emphasizing that Obama didn’t pardon Manning but rather commuted her sentence.) Morell’s statement prodded Elmendorf to rethink Manning’s fellowship; talk things over with fellow faculty, students, and prominent alumni; and very quickly come down on the other side.
The real lesson of this story is that it may be time to rethink the whole vaguely corrupting business of visiting fellows. The difference between a guest speaker and a visiting fellow is that guest speakers don’t get paid (presumably they accept the invitation for the honor of speaking at Harvard). Visiting fellows at Harvard do get paid, albeit a pittance, and they get to lace their résumés with a title that sounds a lot more glorious than it actually is. In this sense, Elmendorf’s statement is true: People do misperceive the title as an honorific. But he’s also being disingenuous: Surely he knows that the title is meant to sound like an honorific; it’s a way of luring people—some of them worthy, others merely headline-worthy—to campus.
Manning was clearly one of the headline-worthy names bestowed the title for the coming semester. Others in the same category (but, obviously, for different reasons) include Sean Spicer, President Trump’s first press secretary, and Corey Lewandowski, one of Trump’s campaign managers. Both rank among the most disreputable figures of the Trump era in American politics. The fact that they’re allowed the Harvard imprimatur while a genuine reformed scholar such as Jones is denied it speaks poorly for the university’s judgment and even its decency. Presumably Spicer and Lewandowski could teach students of government a thing or two about the way things work, if they told the truth. The problem is that their time as public figures suggests that they’re not in the truth-telling business.
So much for Veritas.