Earlier this month, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University announced their list of visiting fellows for the 2017-18 school year. The list included people from across the political spectrum, including strategists who worked on both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. However, one name on the list stood separate from the rest, attracting immediate attention nationwide — Chelsea Manning.
Manning served as a private in the U.S. Army before being sentenced to 35 years in prison under the Espionage Act for the release of classified information in 2013. In January, Manning found herself in the spotlight once again when former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence — an action which was greeted with great controversy.
As Harvard made their announcement this month, the controversy was quick to resurface. The news of the fellowship was less than 48 hours old when the university rescinded their offer to Manning — responding to the decision by two top CIA officials to sever their ties with Harvard in protest of the program’s offer to Manning. An article in The Boston Globe Thursday reported that since the retraction, more than 15,000 people have signed a petition denouncing the decision, and plan to bring the signatures to the Kennedy School on Friday.
The whole series of events was, in short, a mess. The fact that an institution as respected as Harvard could have fumbled this situation so badly is embarrassing to everyone involved. Manning has been a deeply contentious figure ever since she first made headlines nearly a decade ago. It should have been clear to Harvard that inviting Manning to be a fellow would ruffle a few feathers, especially when they’re working with CIA officials. It is unfathomable how it wasn’t until after Harvard announced the fellowship to the public that they realized this might be the case.
Harvard should have held their ground once they extended the invitation to Manning, regardless of the backlash that followed. It looks incredibly bad for Harvard to give in to that kind of bullying, even if it is from the CIA. Obviously, a considerable amount of thought and planning went into deciding to reach out to Manning, and yet somehow they were utterly caught off guard when it came time to deal with the consequences.
However, the problem started much earlier than that. It started when Harvard offered the fellowship to Manning in the first place. This never should have happened.
Manning isn’t controversial because she leans pretty far to the left or pretty far to the right. She isn’t controversial because she has made a few bold statements, or a few edgy tweets. She’s controversial because she committed treason. That’s uncomparable. And somehow, Harvard didn’t realize this.
It should have been clear to the university that they would lose more than just a donor or two on this one. They would lose dozens, and important ones at that. The way these past several weeks have played out has made it blatantly obvious that a cooperation between Manning and the university was never going to work. It is important to note that by no means does this mean the school should stop collaborating with controversial people. Controversy is often what sparks great discussion and debate. Academic discourse is built on it.
The New York Times reported that when Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School, called Manning rescinding their offer for the position, he invited her to instead speak at Harvard without the title of “fellow” — fearing it signified a kind of support or endorsement they did not intend — an offer she was quick to refuse. When Manning asked Elmendorf why the school was alright with “endorsing” Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, who were also offered fellowship positions, Elmendorf said they “had something to bring to the table.”
This is just plain wrong. It’s not that Spicer and Lewandowski don’t have anything to bring to the table; they absolutely do. But Chelsea Manning does too — her lectures would have undoubtedly been packed wall to wall, had she come to Harvard this fall. However, this is not the point. For all the things she would have brought to the table, she would have taken things away, too. The value of all the knowledge, information and funds that Manning’s critics could bring to the university just outweigh what Manning would have brought in her own right. It’s just the unfortunate truth.
Today, Harvard will face the wrath of 15,000 signatures. Good. They probably won’t change anything — they almost definitely won’t. But maybe Harvard will learn something. Next time someone like Manning comes along, maybe they will have thought through the ramifications and the repercussions, maybe they will take things a little more slowly, and maybe, just maybe, they will be ready.