Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
September 22, 2017
I graduated from Harvard in 1968. (Officially, my diploma was from Radcliffe, the now disbanded women’s college, but all of our classes were at Harvard.) That year, Harvard’s graduation speaker was the shah of Iran, and many of us wore black armbands and boycotted the ceremony to protest against the oppressive Iranian government’s human rights violations.
In 1993, I returned for our 25th reunion. The graduation speaker was Colin Powell, the defense secretary, who had supported the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay members of the military. And my class (along with the rest of the audience) gave him a standing ovation.
I recall wondering what had happened to the students who had so passionately demonstrated against the Vietnam war and disrupted the campus visit of one of its major architects, Robert McNamara.
Not only were they (to paraphrase Proust) wearing the masks of middle age – but many of them wore elegant three-piece suits, and I overheard several women commiserating about the tribulations of their second-home renovations.
In fact the masks – of radicalism, of a commitment to social justice – had been removed, revealing the true faces of the (mostly) ruling class students who had returned to the values with which they had been raised, the worlds they’d been schooled to reenter. Because the big news that spring – the main event, so to speak – was that my classmates had collectively donated $7m to their alma mater.
Having witnessed this, I wasn’t much surprised to hear that Harvard’s institute of politics had invited Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to serve as fellows, and rescinded a similar invitation to whistleblower and trans activist Chelsea Manning.
Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the the university’s Kennedy school of government, cited the need to weigh what the “community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire”.
Was Elmendorf suggesting that students could learn more from two men who had lied in service of a liar than from Manning – who had gone to jail for bravely leaking documents that revealed the truth about (among other things) our use of torture and the number of civilian deaths in Iraq?
This was not Harvard’s only execrable recent decision. Michelle Jones, who had served a long prison sentence for murdering her child and proceeded to become a serious scholar, was admitted to, then rejected from, Harvard’s graduate program. Does the university have so little belief in the possibility of second chances – and in the redemptive power of education?
All of these decisions were explained – justified – on political and moral grounds. But I would argue that they had even more to do with economics. The sort of alumni who might donate millions to their alma mater are, I’d imagine, less likely to be offended by the presence of Spicer and Lewandowski than by that of Manning and Jones.
Harvard’s fear of alienating donors (or potential donors) was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article in which Sarah Ruden, a classical philologist, described being humiliated by a Harvard professor in the presence of a wealthy student (“a likely future donor”) for having given that student an A-minus instead of an A.
“Genuine rigor,” wrote Ruden, “which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students – isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.”
Admittedly, universities are enormously expensive to run; small colleges have closed because of their inability to raise a sufficiently large endowment. But aren’t our educational institutions supposed to teach their students to work hard, to think independently, to weigh alternative opinions, to make considered ethical judgments – to do any of the things that are denied them when a college puts money above morality and achievement?
Every year, I get a call from an earnest Harvard undergraduate soliciting donations from graduates. Most often I demur, or make a modest pledge. I appreciate the education I received, but I feel that many charities and causes need my money more desperately than Harvard does. But this year I plan to refuse outright, and when I’m asked why, I’ll answer with two names: Sean Spicer. Chelsea Manning.
I understand that I, and others like me, are hardly at the top of Harvard’s list. Major donors are taken to lunch by employees of the university development office, not cold-called by undergraduate volunteers or work study students.
But the sum total of our relatively small donations adds up, and I encourage those who, like me, are appalled by Harvard’s recent decisions to express our views by refusing to support Harvard until it makes an effort to become the sort of place we can be proud to have attended.
Francine Prose is a former president of PEN American Center
by E. Chaplin, Jason Beckfield and Khalil Gibran Muhammad
History News Network
September 17, 2017
We, the undersigned faculty, write to protest the University’s decisions to overturn Michelle Jones’s admission to the Ph.D. program in History and to rescind a fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning at the Kennedy School. With both decisions, Harvard has prioritized political expediency over scholarly values. Rather than stand on principle and procedure, Harvard has undermined the pursuit of its core academic mission by acting out of fear of negative publicity.
From what we have been able to glean from the public record, the decisions in these cases have been made not by following standardized procedure, but by reacting in an ad hoc manner to a climate of anxiety and intimidation. With Michelle Jones, the administration took the highly unusual step of overturning the History Department’s decision to admit Jones to its doctoral program. In doing so, it not only violated departmental autonomy in evaluating and admitting students, it disregarded the labor and expertise of its faculty. Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators appear to have arrived at this decision not because they questioned the Department’s judgment of Jones’s scholarly merits, but out of concern over a potential backlash for admitting a formerly incarcerated student to the University. This comes at a time when mass incarceration and criminal justice reform are of utmost scholarly importance in a number of academic disciplines, including history.
In the case of Chelsea Manning, there was more overt intimidation by the federal government. Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo cancelled an appearance at Harvard and former deputy director Mike Morell resigned his own visiting fellowship, both in protest at what the two men described as the honoring of a “traitor.” The same day, Dean of the Kennedy School Douglas W. Elmendorf rescinded Manning’s offer while retaining former Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer, notorious for his mendacity and attacks on the press, and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, captured on film assaulting a female reporter, as visiting fellows.
Each of these cases posed the question of how to address the lasting stigma following Jones and Manning due to their convictions on charges of murder and espionage, respectively. In each case, the administration appears to have allowed the fear of public opinion and political interference to determine its actions. But we are educators committed to the open, critical exchange of ideas. Rather than allowing these women to come to campus and speak for themselves, the administration accepted as true the account of events provided by the prosecuting attorneys and acted at their behest.
Universities should set an example to follow. Instead of bowing to pressure, they should have the courage to take principled stances, especially when it is politically impractical to do so. This is particularly the case for institutions like Harvard that have the standing and resources to withstand public and political backlash.
Ironically, the administration’s choice to play it safe has only augmented the public outcry. Nathan J. Heller ’06, a former Crimson editor, argued in the New Yorker that, in rejecting Jones and Manning, Harvard has shown itself to be more in the “image business” than the “ideas business.” James Forman, a Yale law professor, went further, arguing that Harvard’s stance on Jones aligns it with a societal mainstream that pays mere lip service to rehabilitation. “Mass incarceration and its never-ending human toll will be with us,” Forman wrote in the New York Times, until we choose a just society over “permanent civic death.” “N.Y.U.’s acceptance of Michelle Jones is an example of an institution leading the way toward a more forgiving nation,” he continued, while “Harvard’s rejection of her shows just how far we still have to go.”
These sentiments are echoed within the University. A group of History Ph.D. students who would have been Jones’s peers condemned, in The New York Times, the University’s “hypocrisy and cowardice” in “reinforc[ing] the institutional barriers and social stigmas that sustain mass incarceration in the United States and that disproportionately affect communities of color.” Such reactions speak to how starkly these decisions contradict Harvard’s own expressed support for socially vulnerable populations, be they minorities, Dreamers, the poor, or the formerly incarcerated.
These are contentious and fearful times. At times such as these, our institution must adhere to its research and teaching mission and stand by its own stated values of intellectual excellence, equal opportunity, open debate, and non-discrimination. Accordingly, we ask that the administration immediately do the following:
First, cooperate with the faculties of the various divisions to add “criminal history” to the University’s existing non-discrimination policies, including those governing financial aid.
This op-ed has been signed by 159 faculty members. Their names can be found here.
Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History and Chair of American Studies. Jason Beckfield is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology Department. Khalil Gibran Muhammad is Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.