On January 5, just hours after The Nation posted my article revealing why the Harvard Kennedy School had rescinded its offer of a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, I received an e-mail from Roth saying that The Guardian had already contacted him for an article. “Maybe the Kennedy School will re-invite you,” I jokingly wrote back. “Fat Chance!” he replied.
Two weeks later, the Kennedy School did re-invite Roth. The reinstatement followed a wave of protest and media coverage directed at Dean Douglas Elmendorf, who had vetoed the offer from the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights on the grounds that Human Rights Watch has an “anti-Israel bias” (as a faculty member described it to me). On January 7, Mathias Risse, the center’s faculty director, sent around a letter observing that “Ken is articulate and really quite brilliant, and never shies away from debate,” and noting that his conversation with him to explain the dean’s decision “was one of the lowest moments in my professional life.”
PEN America issued a statement expressing “dismay” at the dean’s decision, saying it “raises serious questions about the credibility” of Harvard’s human rights program. More than 1,000 Harvard students, faculty, and alumni signed a letter criticizing the “shameful decision to blacklist Kenneth Roth” and calling on Elmendorf to resign. Among the faculty members protesting his decision was Larry Summers, who tweeted that while he loathed Ken Roth’s views on Israel, he thought that preventing a leading human rights advocate from joining a leading human rights center “on the grounds of the person’s views/modes of expression is not consistent w/profound commitment to intellectual diversity that should be a bedrock value in universities.”
The controversy was covered by not only The Guardian but also The Harvard Crimson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Boston Globe, which, in a scorching editorial, chastised the dean for sending “a chilling message that there are significant limits at Harvard on which ideas count as acceptable. In this case, it seems that if someone criticizes the Israeli government too harshly, it could lead to consequences for their career…. That’s why Elmendorf owes Roth and, more important, Harvard’s students and faculty a proper explanation—lest he risk contributing to an environment of self-censorship.”
Roth himself ran a tireless campaign against the dean, applying the same tactics he had used against autocratic rulers while directing Human Rights Watch. In dozens of interviews and talk-show appearances, he demanded that Elmendorf reveal the reasons behind his decision. “Being denied this fellowship will not significantly impede my future,” he wrote in a Guardian opinion piece. “But I worry about younger academics who are less known. If I can be canceled because of my criticism of Israel, will they risk taking the issue on?”
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A few scattered voices did express support for Elmendorf. Gerald Steinberg, the founder of the vocally pro-Israel NGO Monitor, congratulated the dean on not being fooled “by the moral façade granted to Roth and HRW.” And Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, charged me in an article in The Times of Israel with going down “the antisemitic rabbit hole” and feeding “antisemitic tropes” about “Jewish control, power, and financial influence.” It’s all part of the ADL’s campaign to tar critics of Israel—including Jewish ones—with the brush of anti-Semitism in a desperate bid to intimidate them into silence. Not only will it not work—it also discredits the ADL at a time when the fight against anti-Semitism is as urgent as ever.
At a January 17 faculty meeting called to discuss the matter, the sentiment expressed against Elmendorf was nearly unanimous. Pressed to disclose the reasons behind his decision, the dean declined. Two days later, however, he sent an e-mail to the Kennedy School community insisting that his decision to rescind the invitation to Roth “was not influenced by donors” but rather “was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the School.” He added, though, that he was going to create a faculty committee to develop a process for evaluating the appointment of future fellows. As for Roth himself, “I now believe that I made an error in my decision not to appoint him as a Fellow,” Elmendorf wrote, adding that the invitation to him would be reinstated. “I am so sorry that the decision inadvertently cast doubt on the mission of the School and to our commitment to open debate in ways I had not intended and do not believe to be true.”
In early February, Roth spent several days taking a victory lap at the school—giving talks, appearing in classes, meeting with Elmendorf himself. At every opportunity, he called on the dean to explain his initial decision. “It clearly looks like this is donor influence undermining intellectual independence,” Roth told The New York Times. To me he said, “I think it’s all about Israel.”
Is it? While it’s impossible to peer into the dean’s mind, a close examination of the Kennedy School’s operations can help illuminate Elmendorf’s decision while also suggesting some deeper, structural problems at the nation’s wealthiest and most esteemed school of public policy.
A good place to begin is the large Israeli presence at the school. At its core is the Wexner Israel Fellowship. Since 1989, the Wexner Foundation has sent nine or 10 mid-career Israelis to the school every year, underwriting their tuition, air fare, lodging, even textbooks. An analysis of the program’s 300-plus alumni shows that the overwhelming majority are Jewish Israelis. The 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab and the nearly 5 percent that is non-Arab Christian or does not otherwise identify as Jewish account for only a tiny percentage of the fellows. Even within the Israeli Jewish population, the range of fellows is narrow. Mizrahim (Jewish Israelis from Arab or North African countries) constitute nearly 45 percent of Israel’s population but make up only a handful of Wexner fellows. The great bulk of the fellows come from the same sociological stratum and are not even representative of Israeli Jewish society.
That stratum consists mostly of professionals and civil servants who are being groomed for higher positions. About 10 percent of the alumni have worked in education, philanthropy, or social justice. Another 10 percent have worked in health, medicine, or hospitals, and a similar proportion have worked in academia, journalism, and the arts. About 20 percent have been attached to government ministries—from transportation and energy to finance and foreign affairs. Most of the rest have worked in the military, intelligence, law enforcement, or criminal justice. Of the 250 fellows whose occupations can be identified, about a dozen have worked for the police or domestic intelligence, including three openly affiliated with Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service. The largest contingent—about 40—have worked for the Israel Defense Forces or the Ministry of Defense. Three of the Wexner fellows are identified as members of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, but there are no doubt many more, including a number vaguely listed as working for the prime minister’s office, a sprawling administrative structure whose nearly two dozen subdivisions include the spy agency.
Applicants for a Wexner fellowship must first be accepted by the Kennedy School, but the Wexner Foundation has substantial say over who is chosen. It has a sizable office in Jerusalem that works closely with Israeli officials in determining who will get the privilege of attending Harvard. It’s remarkable that the Kennedy School would allow an outside organization to have such influence over its admissions process—especially when so many of those admitted work for the security services of a foreign government.
In addition to the Wexner fellows, the Wexner Foundation funds a senior leadership program that offers Israeli executives four weeks of training at the Kennedy School. Since it began, in 2015, more than 250 have participated. On graduating, they join the foundation’s extensive alumni networks in Israel and the US, helping to reinforce the privileged status of the Israeli elite. (The Wexner association may have lost some of its luster, however, after revelations about Leslie Wexner’s long involvement with Jeffrey Epstein.)
Many Wexner fellows are engaging students whom the faculty say they enjoy teaching. But they’re coming to Cambridge not simply as individuals but also as part of a program to strengthen the Israeli state.
A Palestinian graduate of the school told me how “scary” it is to be a Palestinian there. The Israeli presence “is extremely visible—there are the donors, the names on buildings. And your classmates are literally from the army, the military, the prime minister’s office—Netanyahu. They’re surveilling you. It can have direct consequences for your well-being and your family’s well-being. When Palestinians go back to Palestine, they have to go through border crossings and checkpoints. They have files on everybody. You can be questioned for hours at a time.”
In the wake of the Roth affair, much has emerged about the difficulties that Palestinians have had holding events at the Kennedy School. Joseph Leone, a recent graduate of the school, described in an article in Jewish Currents how its administration has used “red tape and long delays” to “shut down speech, demoralizing Palestinian students into forgoing the school as a venue for discussing important topics.” In 2020, for instance, the school’s Palestine Caucus sought to schedule an event featuring Sa’ed Atshan, a Kennedy School alumnus (now at Emory) who has a PhD in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. Fifty-five days before the event was to be held, the caucus filed a request with the administration to reserve a room. Usually, the school approves such requests within days, but six weeks later it said it would not approve this one until the students agreed to restrict attendance to holders of Harvard student IDs and arrange for security. The administration also demanded that Tarek Masoud, the director of the school’s Middle Eastern Initiative, serve as the sole moderator. The students eventually gave up and moved the event to the law school.
Sofiya Cabalquinto, a spokesperson for the Kennedy School, says that all of its 117 student organizations must follow university guidelines for campus events, including “prior approval from the school and a review of safety considerations.” As for fellows attending the Kennedy School, she says, “We have students from all over the world, representing half of our student body, and our executive education programs draw participants from around the world. Some of those who come to HKS to learn are supported by their governments or their organizations to earn HKS degrees or to attend our executive education programs.”
The Roth affair “was the hair that broke the camel’s back,” Atshan told me. “People are fed up. They said, ‘Oh my God—if someone like Ken Roth is getting canceled, then we have to get organized.’” The Palestine Caucus has since been holding Zoom sessions, issuing statements, and meeting with school officials.
Every year at spring break, hundreds of Harvard students—many of them from the Kennedy School—go on a Middle East “trek,” one group to Israel and the other to Palestine. When they return, they’re excited, filled with impressions—and often suspicious of those who went on the other trek. Amid the contention, some trekking students have sought a form of debriefing at the school, and to lead it, they have approached Timothy McCarthy. An affiliate of the Carr Center for 13 years and the school’s first openly gay faculty member, McCarthy—a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights—was eager to help, seeing an opportunity to create a dialogue between the two groups, but at every step he faced resistance from members of the administration, who, he says, “felt that I was trying to stoke some kind of fire.” They are “afraid” of the issue and have made it clear that the school “doesn’t want anything to do with it.” He considers the school’s lack of engagement on the issue to be an “abdication of moral responsibility” that reflects a more general “blinkered” attitude that can help explain how “an unforced error” like the Roth decision could occur.
That experience reinforced McCarthy’s sense of being a “misfit” at the school, and his status as the school’s only openly gay faculty member for so many years contributed to a feeling of being “very alone.” So when the Harvard Graduate School of Education asked him to join its faculty, he accepted without hesitation. The “amazingly supportive” atmosphere there, he says, has made him realize how “toxic” the workplace at the Kennedy School is. The school “is not a place that welcomes people like me. They saw me as a constant problem, a thorn in their side. I had to get out of there—it was slowly killing me.”
The Kennedy School in general is not hospitable to misfits. Those who too sharply question the established ways or stray too far outside the accepted parameters of thought can find themselves pushed to the sidelines, marginalized, and denied tenure or influential posts. The school’s close ties to Washington and the heavy presence of generals and admirals, intelligence officers and geostrategists, diplomats and thought leaders, create a climate unsupportive of those who are too outspoken on human rights, the Israel-Palestinian issue, or US foreign policy.
On February 21, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—the school’s main foreign policy hub—named a new director: Meghan O’Sullivan. The Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, O’Sullivan served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007, including two years as the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. She spent a year in Baghdad, becoming a top aide to Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, whose policies helped plunge Iraq into years of sectarian violence. Upon her departure from the administration, Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post that O’Sullivan “has been at the heart of the most important project of the Bush presidency—the invasion, occupation, and continuing war in Iraq—from the beginning.” Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor who worked for the CPA and became a strong critic of Bush policy in Iraq, was quoted in the Post as saying that this policy “has been a tragic failure, and she has been a central element of our policymaking” (though he said that most of the blame had to be directed at higher officials, especially Bush).
A year after leaving the administration, O’Sullivan joined the Kennedy School. On her Kennedy School web page, she lists among her “outside professional activities” Capital Group (investment management), CEO Academy (training chief executives), Citigroup (banking), the Hess Corporation (oil), Linklaters (corporate law), Macro Advisory Partners (strategic consulting), McKinsey (management consulting), PIMCO (investment management), and Raytheon Technologies.
Raytheon, on whose board O’Sullivan sits, is one of the five largest US defense contractors. Its top customers include Saudi Arabia. Since the start of Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen in 2015, Raytheon has made at least a dozen major arms sales to the kingdom and its partners valued at more than $5 billion. Raytheon ordnance has been connected by human rights groups to at least a dozen attacks on Yemeni civilians. According to The New York Times, on three occasions several US officials, both Democratic and Republican, tried to put a halt to the killing by ending arms sales to the Saudis, but their efforts were blocked by the Trump White House, largely at Raytheon’s urging.
From 2020 to 2022, O’Sullivan received more than $900,000 in compensation from Raytheon for her board service. Last October, about a dozen activists invaded her classroom to protest her ties to the company and her role in the Iraq invasion. In an editorial, the Crimson called her connection to Raytheon “a stain on our institution.” While condemning the protesters’ disruption of her class, the Crimson said that by “continuing her involvement with Raytheon, O’Sullivan has demonstrated extraordinarily bad judgment at best and frank, dark immorality at worst,” and it urged her to resign. The Kennedy School nonetheless decided that she was the best person to lead its top center on international affairs. (O’Sullivan says she plans to step down from Raytheon’s board in May.)
As my interviews made clear, the Kennedy School has long been concerned with appearing too liberal and so losing its credibility in Washington; it’s always on the lookout for good moderate Republicans. A similar dynamic seems to have been at work with Roth: Elmendorf was worried about a backlash from those who think Israel is unfairly criticized.
The concern about appearing too liberal extends beyond international affairs. On domestic policy, too, the Kennedy School is dominated by solidly establishmentarian views—especially when it comes to such urgent matters as inequality, the concentration of wealth, corporate governance, and the influence of finance. The main place at the Kennedy School where you might expect to find such matters addressed is the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government. Established in 1982, it was renamed in 2005 after receiving an endowment gift from Sharmin Mossavar-Rahmani, the chief investment officer for Goldman Sachs’s private wealth management group, and her husband, Bijan, the chair of two oil and gas companies in the United Arab Emirates and Norway. “The 2008 recession and the global surge in populism have highlighted deep divisions between Main Street and Wall Street,” the center’s website states. “How do we create a growing economy and rebuild elements of shared and sustainable prosperity for our societies?”
The center’s director is Larry Summers. He is one of about two dozen University Professors at Harvard, a distinction that allows him to pursue his research free of the usual academic encumbrances. But he faces constraints of other kinds, including a thicket of outside ties extending from Washington to Wall Street. After Summers was forced to resign as Harvard’s president in 2006, he was hired as a managing partner by the New York–based hedge fund D.E. Shaw, receiving $5.2 million in salary and other compensation over a period of two years. He also earned $2.8 million in speaking fees from such financial institutions as JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs (which paid him $135,000 for a single speech).
Those paydays earned Summers a mention in the 2010 documentary Inside Job, which discussed the many economists who had testified to the soundness of the financial system in the run-up to the 2008 crisis while receiving payments from banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies. In an accompanying article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Charles Ferguson, the film’s director, wrote of how, over the previous 30 years, the economics profession “has become so compromised by conflicts of interest that it now functions almost as a support group for financial services and other industries whose profits depend heavily on government policy.” Ferguson cited Summers’s career as illustrating an “extraordinary and underappreciated” convergence of “academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.”
Inside Job prompted much soul-searching in the academy about the propriety of the lucrative sidelines many professors pursued. Since 2012, the Kennedy School has required faculty members to disclose annually their outside activities and encouraged them to post them on their websites. From those listings, it’s clear that serious conflicts remain. For instance, Richard Zeckhauser, a professor of political economy at the school since 1972, is a partner and senior adviser at Equity Resource Investments, a private equity firm specializing in real estate; according to his bio on that firm’s site, he has also been “a principal in two investment-banking firms and a director of a number of high technology companies[,] two of which were sold to Fortune 500 companies.”
In 2012, Iris Bohnet, a professor of business and government who served as the Kennedy School’s academic dean from 2011 to 2014 and 2018 to 2021, joined the board of Credit Suisse, Switzerland’s second-largest bank. Since then, the bank has been repeatedly embroiled in scandals, including the manipulation of foreign exchanges rates (2013), conspiring to help US clients hide offshore assets and income from the IRS (2014), the looting of 1MDB in Malaysia (2015), secret loans including kickbacks and bribes in Mozambique (2017), the violation of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (2018), the collapse of both Greensill Capital and Archegos Capital (2021), and money laundering for a Bulgarian cocaine-trafficking ring (2022), culminating this March in a decline in its stock price so steep that the Swiss government forced the bank’s sale to UBS, its longtime rival. For years, Bohnet sat on Credit Suisse’s compensation committee, approving large executive pay packages despite the bank’s egregious record of mismanagement; she herself received nearly $3.5 million in compensation for her board membership. In an e-mail, Bohnet wrote that “my research and teaching as a behavioral economist at Harvard Kennedy School are not related to banking or financial markets. I have disclosed my outside activities and am compliant with the Kennedy School’s policies, which like the policies of most universities, allow faculty members to spend a specified amount of time on outside activities, including serving on boards of public companies.”
Larry Summers sits on the boards of Block Inc., a fintech company, for which he received $1.2 million in compensation from 2018 to 2021 while also holding 201,019 shares valued at about $20 million; Doma, a real estate technology company, in which he holds 1,236,351 shares valued at nearly $1 million; and, since May, Skillsoft, which offers “corporate digital learning” to the Fortune 1,000. He also continues to consult for D.E. Shaw as well as for Citigroup and Atlas Merchant Capital, a global investment firm.
Of the 45 members of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center’s advisory council, some 33 work or have worked for financial institutions; four are corporate executives; and two work in luxury real estate. Its members include Steven Rattner, a former New York Times reporter who became a private equity partner until he had to pay millions of dollars in fines and face a multiyear ban on some Wall Street activities for (according to the SEC) delivering special favors and conducting sham transactions when seeking investments from New York State’s retirement fund, after which he created an investment house to manage billionaire businessman and three-term New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg’s money; Michael Klein, a prominent behind-the-scenes dealmaker who ran Citigroup’s investment banking division for more than two decades before starting his own boutique firm, which has handled more than $1.5 trillion in deals for clients, including Aramco, the Saudi national oil company; and Thomas Healey, the council’s chair, who formerly taught at the Kennedy School while also serving as a partner at Goldman Sachs.
According to Summers, the main concern at the Kennedy School as an institution is that “the perspectives of only half the political spectrum are represented, given that 90 percent of the faculty are Democrats.” In general, he says, “universities are places where people go to work if they don’t like business, so the worry is much more in the anti-business direction than in the pro-business direction.”
Among those faculty Democrats, however, the tight triangle of ties between Washington, Wall Street, and Cambridge allows little room for heterodoxy. For years, the school had only one faculty member who consistently challenged the prevailing pro-globalization, pro-trade-liberalization, pro-deregulation consensus: Dani Rodrik. Since the 1990s, Rodrik has produced a series of books with titles like Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (1997), in which he has examined the gap between winners and losers in the global economy. In 2022, he and his colleague Gordon Hanson received $7.5 million from the Hewlett Foundation for a “Reimagining the Economy” project aimed at freeing political and economic discourse from what Rodrik calls the “prison of ideology” favoring market-centric approaches. That project is housed at the Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, which in recent years has expanded its research on the causes of and remedies for inequality. Rodrik now worries about what he sees as the obsessive concern among the school’s national security specialists about China’s growing economic power and their conviction that the United States must retain its dominance.
In 2019, the Kennedy School faculty moved to broaden its ideological range by voting to recommend Gabriel Zucman for tenure. A French-born assistant professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, Zucman, then 32, had gained global notice for his work on inequality, wealth, and taxation. While earning a PhD from the Paris School of Economics, he helped his adviser, Thomas Piketty, gather the data for Piketty’s 2014 bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The following year Zucman published The Hidden Wealth of Nations, in which he estimated that about 8 percent of the global financial wealth of households—at least $7.6 trillion—was held in tax havens, three-quarters of it undeclared. In 2016, he teamed up with his fellow Frenchman and Berkeley colleague Emmanuel Saez to produce a paper on wealth inequality in the United States since 1913, which became the basis for their book The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. In it, they proposed a tax on wealth, a version of which was later adopted by both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In 2018, Zucman was named the best young economist in France.
Zucman was an active and sometimes contentious presence on Twitter, vigorously engaging critics and defending his positions with statistics, emojis, and scorn. At the Kennedy School faculty meeting on his tenure bid, some expressed reservations about this. Still, his candidacy was endorsed and sent to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow and provost Alan Garber for approval. In June 2019, the provost announced that Zucman’s tenure bid had been rejected. Almost simultaneously, Berkeley granted him tenure.
As was the norm, no explanation was offered for the decision. The New York Times, in a 2020 story about Zucman and Saez, noted that his candidacy had been rejected “partly over fears that Mr. Zucman’s research could not support the arguments he was making in the political arena.” Larry Summers had publicly stated such fears. In an April 2019 Washington Post op-ed, for instance, he and Natasha Sarin of the University of Pennsylvania criticized Zucman and Saez for overestimating by two and a half times the amount that a Warren wealth tax would likely raise. “Common-sense revenue estimates by economists who are not very deeply steeped in revenue estimation tend to be overly optimistic,” they gibed. On Twitter, Zucman dismissed their revenue estimates as “unserious.”
In the Times article about the Berkeley economists, Summers was quoted as saying that “most serious professionals in the tax policy area think that the polemical urge at some points has gotten the better of Gabriel and Emmanuel, especially when Gabriel starts to tweet.” But Summers also called Zucman highly talented and said that he “was among the economists who argued strongly in favor of his hiring at Harvard.” It nonetheless seems highly improbable that the president and provost, in making their decision, would not have been influenced by Summers’s very public clashes with Zucman. (Some members of the economics department also expressed concern about Zucman’s high public profile.)
The parallels between the rejection of Zucman’s candidacy and the veto of Ken Roth’s fellowship are hard to overlook. Both were vigorous advocates who could disrupt the smooth and seamless functioning of the school and complicate its ties to donors, policy-makers, and other powerful figures.
In recent years, economic policy-making has been freshened by an infusion of new thinking—about trade and taxation, antitrust and labor rights, dividends and buybacks—that has shaped the Biden administration. Very little of that has come out of Harvard, whose influence with the administration is small when compared with past Democratic administrations. Instead, the new ideas have emerged from such institutions as UC Berkeley (Zucman, Saez, Robert Reich), Columbia (Joseph Stiglitz, Lina Khan, Tim Wu), MIT (David Autor), Princeton (Cecilia Rouse), the New School (Heather Boushey), and the Roosevelt Institute. (Dani Rodrik also belongs on the list.) Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights team at Harvard has produced some worthwhile studies of poverty and social mobility, but it generally steers clear of larger, systemic issues.
Measured against its prestige and resources, the Kennedy School seriously underperforms. Thanks to its revolving door with Washington and Wall Street, the lucrative sidelines of its professors, the weight of its donors, the allure of the Harvard name, and the many status seekers eager to be associated with it, the school has become so wedded to the system that it is unable to offer an independent critique of it. Though it’s a school of public policy, the Kennedy School has confused serving the public with serving power. It’s so wealthy—why would anyone want to change how things work?
As this article was going to press, Harvard announced that Kenneth Griffin had given $300 million to the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences “to support the School’s mission and to advance cutting-edge research and expand access and excellence in education for students and scholars regardless of economic circumstances.” In recognition, the school’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was being renamed the Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The CEO of Citadel, Griffin has an estimated net worth of $35 billion, good for 36th on the Forbes 400. Perhaps that “cutting edge research” could include a look how the nation’s financial barons have increasingly insinuated their way into American academia, gaining not only prestige but also a form of protection against those who might take a closer look at how they make their money and what they do with it.