The only thing worse than Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government appointing Chelsea Manning as fellow was the school’s withdraw of the fellowship. The school today succeeded in demonstrating to the world that its fellowships have zero intellectual content by first appointing Manning without a clear explanation of her expected academic contributions and then terminating the appointment under pressure. As academics, we are not supposed to remove academic appointments because individuals are controversial or unpopular. If Harvard was sticking by its academic reasons for the appointment, it should stick by its appointee.
I have long been confused by the school’s choices for fellows for many years. It seems like an academic version of Keeping Up With The Karadasians. Notoriety alone seems the driving force for many of these selections rather than any real intellectual contribution. I felt that way about Manning’s appointment.
However, the decision to withdraw its invitation raises the countervailing concern that the school is allowing public pressure to dictate appointments. Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf insisted that Manning was invited to talk with students and then host a forum to answer “hard questions.” about her story. He then added “I apologize to her and to the many concerned people from whom I have heard … for not recognizing upfront the full implications of our original invitation.”
Everything about that statement is curious. The School did not recognize the controversy that would erupt over such an appointment? Moreover, Elmendorf explains the academic value of Manning’s participation but then abandons that purpose because people are upset.
My concerns are not really focused on Manning but the danger of universities tailoring its academic programs to public opinion. I have written extensively about the hostile environment for conservative speakers on campus. Invitations have been withdrawn due to opposition groups and protests. This case is even more concerning because it was a formal invitation to join the program as a fellow.
The invitation and then the withdrawal leave total confusion as to the purpose and academic content of these fellowship positions. Harvard appears to have carefully avoided any principled ground in both the appointment and the withdrawal.
What do you think?