The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration.

Here is what the Kennedy School’s website says about visiting fellows:

Each semester the Institute of Politics invites a select number of prominent political practitioners to Harvard serve as Visiting Fellows for a shorter period of time than a full academic semester of a resident fellowship. The Visiting Fellows program brings distinguished veterans of public life for a short, yet comprehensive stay.

But when criticised for the selection of Manning, Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf said

In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor.

They call them “distinguished veterans”, but this is not intended as an “honor”. So the not-honor — also granted to Trump associates Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski — was publicly revoked. In order to be gratuitously insulting he added

But 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.

In other words, we don’t intend it to be an honor, but since someone might think it’s an honor I want to make absolutely clear that we don’t want to honor Chelsea Manning, unlike the liars and war criminals who you are welcome to (mistakenly) think we are honoring.

All to no avail, as the very honorable former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell — who as Executive Assistant to the CIA director during the GW Bush years helped guide the agency through the honorable commission of torture and other war crimes — resigned his Kennedy School fellowship, since an unindicted war criminal finds his reputation besmirched by sharing an institutional affiliation with someone who went to prison for revealing the crimes that he participated in. It could lead to uncomfortable discussions. And we know, when the Harvard president talks about free speech and preaches

commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established — established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges

she is talking about the discomfort of the undergraduates, not of the distinguished CIA fellow for torture studies.

Michelle Jones is a less prominent case, but even more embarrassing, as the university administration took the extraordinary step of overruling the history department’s admissions decision, after representations by two professors of American Studies (departmental competitors?) that really don’t look very good:

“We didn’t have some preconceived idea about crucifying Michelle,” said John Stauffer, one of the two American studies professors. “But frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”

C’mon, indeed. The Fox News angle has gotten a lot of attention, but I haven’t seen anyone point out that he is explicitly using her race as a reason for denying her admission.

Anyway, it’s poetic justice when the university’s smarmy attempt to avoid negative attention attracts worldwide negative attention. The best thing is, if they’d stuck with the original decision they would have held the high ground of unswerving devotion to academic standards, where no one could really challenge them. Instead they’re forced to defend themselves on the soft ground of character and moral rectitude, where they have a distinctly dodgy record, and where the relevant facts — what she wrote in her application — are confidential.

One further memory: Back when I was a student there was a press scandal over a young woman who had her undergraduate admission to Harvard revoked after it was discovered that she had concealed her conviction for killing her mother. (This was in the pre-WWW days, when uncovering the information required that someone post a pile of press clippings to the admissions office. I’m not sure if it was ever revealed who did that.) She argued that she felt justified in concealing it as her mother had abused her and her juvenile record was sealed precisely so that she could make a fresh start. Harvard argued, fresh starts are all well and good for the rest of society, but not for Harvard. As I recall, Tufts offered her a place, and I’m sure she got a fine education, and did not suffer for the lack of Harvard-ness.

One thought on “The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day”

  1. Hits the nail on the head, David, unlike the Harvardoids who seem unable to avoid hitting the nail into their temple.

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