Harvard is arguably the most elite of America’s elite universities, so how it positions itself in relation to official power reveals much of what we need to know about the balance between supposedly liberal academia and the illiberal officials who would narrow the national debate. This is why stories about how Harvard maintains that balance have for decades generated headlines not just in the education sections of great newspapers but on their front pages. When Cambridge tips too hard toward Washington, when it bends to political or media pressure, that’s newsworthy—and unsettling.
Harvard made a lot of unsettling news in mid-September. The most jarring reports came after CIA director Mike Pompeo used the bully pulpit afforded him as a docile member of Donald Trump’s administration to attack whistle-blower Chelsea Manning’s selection as a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Within hours of Pompeo’s pronouncement, Harvard distanced itself from Manning—an all-too glaring indication of the influence that the Trump administration and its allies have even over the most respected institutions of higher learning and over the intellectual discourse that is supposed to flourish beyond the boundaries of inside-the-Beltway politics.
Pompeo announced on September 14 that he would not appear at Harvard for a speaking engagement in protest over Manning’s appointment. Attacking the former US Army intelligence analyst—who provided WikiLeaks with nearly 750,000 military and diplomatic documents that she said revealed details of the “death, destruction and mayhem” in Iraq—as “a traitor to the United States of America,” the CIA director told Harvard officials: “Ms. Manning betrayed her country and was found guilty of 17 serious crimes for leaking classified information to Wikileaks. Wikileaks is an enemy of the United States.”
The next morning, the Institute of Politics revoked Manning’s fellowship and apologized for offering it to her.
Manning tweeted that Harvard had decided to “chill marginalized voices under @cia pressure.” That’s a harsh assessment. But another set of headlines lent credence to concerns that the university was kowtowing to the right: The same week that saw Manning, a trans activist, dismissed by the Kennedy School also brought word that Harvard administrators had reversed the history department’s recommendation to admit Michelle Jones, a PhD applicant who’d been released from prison after serving 20 years for killing her young son. Jones went to college and began doing academic research while still incarcerated, emerging as a paragon of the “model prisoner.” Yet she was rejected by Harvard officials who, The New York Times reported, were concerned about “a backlash [from] conservative news outlets.” Jones is now in a PhD program at New York University.
Manning offered another harsh assessment of Harvard when she wrote that the revocation of her fellowship illustrated “what a military/police/intel state looks like—the @cia determines what is and is not taught at @harvard.” But the facts were just as harsh: The CIA director raised an objection to Harvard’s invitation to a sharp critic of the agency, and within hours that invitation was rescinded.
It is true that Manning was sent to prison for her actions, and it is true that she’s a controversial figure. But President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in January—cutting decades off her 35-year sentence. The 29-year-old analyst turned activist walked free in May. Upon her release, Sarah Harrison, the acting director of the Courage Foundation and a former WikiLeaks editor, said: “Chelsea deserves her freedom, and the world’s respect, for her courageous, inspiring actions in 2010. Chelsea’s releases through WikiLeaks helped bring an end to the US war on Iraq, galvanized Arab Spring protesters and inspired subsequent truthtellers.” Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, has spoken of Manning as a “hero” and suggested that she was the victim of “an unprecedented campaign to crack down on public servants who reveal information that Congress and American citizens have a need to know.” Manning has been honored as a whistle-blower by the German section of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and by the Federation of German Scientists, and she has been awarded the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the International Peace Bureau and the Sam Adams Award by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence.
In other words, Manning’s selection for a Kennedy School fellowship made perfect sense if the university intended to foster a serious dialogue about war and peace, intelligence gathering, and the public’s right to know. Yet there was no serious dialogue about maintaining Manning’s fellowship after Pompeo objected and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell resigned his Kennedy School fellowship in protest. There was barely enough time for Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney—the daughter of the former vice president who famously obtained five deferments to avoid military service during the Vietnam War—to label Manning a “spy/traitor” and call for cutting federal funds for Harvard to protest its association with someone who actually served in the Iraq War.
Cheney made noise. But Pompeo, as a key player in the Trump administration, shook Harvard officials with a letter that growled: “Ms. Manning swore an oath to the United States Constitution, promised to protect her fellow soldiers, and signed a commitment to abide by the law. She did none of that and yet Harvard has placed her in a position of honor.”
Recognition by the Kennedy School is viewed as an honor. But this honor has often gone to controversial figures. The Institute of Politics that disinvited Manning welcomed as its first “honorary associate” in 1966 the sitting defense secretary, Robert McNamara. That visit sparked campus protests against McNamara’s management of the Vietnam War. Harvard officials apologized to the defense secretary for the student outburst, but McNamara would eventually acknowledge that he and his Pentagon team “were wrong, terribly wrong” about the war that the students had protested. McNamara would also admit to filmmaker Errol Morris that when he and Army Air Forces Gen. Curtis LeMay plotted the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, they “were behaving as war criminals.” Yet McNamara returned frequently to Harvard in his later “apology tour” years, even as the Times editorialized with regard to his role in Vietnam that “Mr. McNamara must not escape the lasting moral condemnation of his countrymen. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late.”
This year, while Manning has been deemed unacceptable, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer—whose blundering prevarications on behalf of the Trump administration made him a national laughingstock—is being welcomed as an Institute of Politics fellow. So, too, is Corey Lewandowski, whom Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi accurately identified as “the Donald Trump acolyte known for bullying the press and selling influence on behalf of the president.”
When he announced this year’s fellows, Institute of Politics interim director Bill Delahunt claimed that the “diverse group of policymakers, journalists, political advisers and activists provides a robust platform for dynamic interaction with our students and the larger Harvard community.” But now, the fellow who risked and then endured imprisonment in order to let the American people know what was being done in their name in Iraq—the fellow who has emerged as an outspoken dissenter from the Washington consensus regarding military policy, intelligence gathering, and official secrecy—has been rejected. That didn’t happen because of new revelations regarding Chelsea Manning. It happened because of the objections raised most loudly and prominently by Pompeo, a secretive and conflicted Trump administration appointee whose attacks on Manning confirm his determination to silence open and honest debate about intelligence gathering. When Harvard took its marching orders from Mike Pompeo, the university was wrong, terribly wrong.