The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Douglas W. Elmendorf, posted a letter explaining why he was rescinding a visiting fellowship for Chelsea Manning after midnight last Friday. The four incoming fellowships had been announced two days prior; over the subsequent 48 hours Michael Morell, ex-deputy director of the CIA, resigned his position at the school in protest, and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo canceled an appearance there, calling Manning a “traitor” for her release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and military reports to WikiLeaks in 2010, for which she spent seven years in prison. (Never mind that Manning was brought in to discuss “issues of LGBTQ identity in the military.”)
Elmendorf’s letter about his decision is the press release equivalent of the self-destruct button in a James Bond villain’s headquarters. It’s a thoughtful, calm, and reasonable explanation of an act of moral cowardice that undercuts the very mission of the school it’s supposed to represent.
In theory, the Visiting Fellows program exists for “engaging students in discourse on topical issues” with “thought-provoking viewpoints,” within the project of the school to encourage them “to examine critically and think creatively about politics and public issues” on their way to a career in politics and public service. That is its mission: to inspire, inform, and groom the next generation of politicians—one of the offered programs is “From Harvard Square to the Oval Office”—and put students into the biggest debates of our time.
With that in mind, consider the inspiring political timber of another visiting fellow: Sean Spicer, whose career as a communications director and occasional public relations flack went off a cliff during his comical, short-lived stint as White House press secretary. In this capacity he delivered “alternative facts,” random speculations, and straight-up lies with the evasive, embattled air of late-stage Richard Nixon crossed with Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, while being fact-checked in real time by reporters in the room. He often seemed to be the last person made aware of White House events, and, lest we forget, once hid in the bushes to avoid meeting with the press corps.
Or consider the profile in courage that is visiting fellow Corey Lewandowski: lobbyist, unsuccessful politician, and Donald Trump campaign manager for 16 months until he was marched to the gallows by incoming manager Paul Manafort. With his gift for selective disclosure, Lewandowski pivoted to punditry while under a non-disclosure agreement with Trump and receiving severance pay, and his subsequent career has been notable for his hustle in pay-for-play influence-peddling for payday lenders and others who want “access” to the president and his various relatives and cronies.
It’s not that Spicer and Lewandowski should be out, though. They perfectly exemplify the “post-truth” playbook at work in our current politics. Likewise, Manning is among a handful of people in the world best-positioned to provoke and engage students around some of the biggest questions of our time: whistleblowing and leaking, surveillance and privacy, and the public’s right to know what their government is doing (to say nothing of her original remit on LGBTQ in the military). Dialogue should have begun there, not ended.
You don’t have to agree with Manning to understand her historic significance and the unique perspective she brings. To take her fellowship back while keeping the likes of Spicer and Lewandowski around gives the lie to the school’s mission, calls its purpose into question, and reflects a fundamental failure of character. To restore the offer—and have the nerve to stick to it—would close this shameful chapter, and start the real conversation.
Finn Brunton is an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.