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.