Harvard must have known that selecting Chelsea Manning for a fellowship would incite controversy, because there’s virtually no other reason to choose her. Unlike the people traditionally selected for the university’s prestigious Institute of Politics fellowship, Manning has no political experience to share with students. Her claim to fame — or infamy, depending on your point of view — was her role in leaking 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks, a crime for which she was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison.
So it’s a bit unconvincing for university officials to act like they’ve been blindsided by criticism of the appointment. In a midnight press release Friday, the university announced it was withdrawing the offer with a head-scratching explanation. “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,” said the dean of Harvard’s school of government, Douglas W. Elmendorf.
Harvard backtracked from Manning’s offer after a former intelligence official resigned from the school in protest, and the current CIA director cancelled an appearance. Intelligence officials view Manning, whose indiscriminate leaks purportedly put lives at risk and bolstered WikiLeaks, an organization that has since been linked to Russian intelligence, as a traitor. Dumping sensitive documents onto the Internet, without regard to whether the disclosures served any public interest, sets her apart from bona fide whistleblowers. Whether or not one agrees with Manning’s critics, their views have been widely known, especially after President Barack Obama commuted her sentence.
Once Harvard chose to offer the fellowship, though, it should have stuck to its guns. By reversing itself in the way it did, the university leaves itself open to accusations that the CIA gets some sort of voice in the university’s hiring decisions. Hiring Manning may have been questionable, but firing her under pressure was disturbing.
The decision also opens the university to legitimate questions about double standards. The school also offered fellowships to former White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Spicer, a serial liar and national laughingstock, doesn’t belong anywhere near an institution whose motto is the Latin word for truth. Lewandowski, meanwhile, was charged with misdemeanor battery during the campaign for yanking the arm of a female journalist. Now that Harvard has realized that its fellowships constitute an honorific, what’s its rationale for continuing to honor such a disgraceful pair?
The university clearly knows how to say no to potential fellows; it spurned an overture by Carmen Ortiz, the controversial former US attorney. By instead blundering into a fiasco that raises serious doubts about the school’s independence from government interference, Harvard did a lot more harm to the university than Ortiz ever would have.