fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harvard rescinds Chelsea Manning’s invitation, draws fresh criticism

Chelsea Manning was sentenced to prison for sharing a massive cache of government documents.BALESTRAMEDIA / HOHO/AFP/Getty Images

Chelsea Manning’s title as visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government lasted less than 48 hours.

The school’s dean, Douglas W. Elmendorf, revoked the invitation to the Army intelligence analyst-turned-whistle-blower early Friday morning and said the school had made a mistake in offering her a prestigious fellowship position.

Harvard’s initial invitation to Manning had drawn considerable criticism and anger, including from CIA Director Mike Pompeo. But the quick reversal brought a fresh wave of protest from new quarters on Friday.

“Chelsea Manning viewed herself as a whistle-blower. I happen to disagree with that point of view, but it is an issue worth debating,” said P.J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state and a fellow at George Washington University. “This is what academia is supposed to do.”


The firestorm underscores the debate raging at university campuses across the country over how to discuss controversial ideas and who should be invited to speak to students.

Several students and alumni said Harvard is bowing to political pressure and that Manning’s presence would have allowed students to explore the issues of the day, including government leaks.

“It’s playing to the politics,” said Catia Sharp, a graduate student at the Kennedy School. “The school exists to educate people who plan on improving government and society. . . . But we can get so distracted by the politicization of individual people that we forget that.”

The controversy over Manning’s appointment as a visiting fellow to the school’s Institute of Politics boiled over Thursday evening when Pompeo scrapped a speaking event at Harvard in protest. Earlier, Michael Morell, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, had resigned as a senior fellow at the Kennedy School, saying that Harvard was legitimizing Manning’s “criminal path” and that the leaks endangered US security.

In taking the unprecedented step of canceling Manning’s visiting fellow appointment, Elmendorf said school officials did not recognize the implications of its invitation.


“Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong,” Elmendorf said in a statement. “This decision now is not intended as a compromise between competing interest groups but as the correct way for the Kennedy School to emphasize its longstanding approach to visiting speakers while recognizing that the title of Visiting Fellow implies a certain recognition.”

Manning, who is transgender, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sharing a massive cache of government documents with Wikileaks, exposing US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning served seven years in prison, before President Barack Obama commuted her sentence before leaving office.

On Twitter Friday, Manning panned Harvard’s decision, which became public shortly after midnight Friday morning.

“This is what military/police/intel state looks like,” Manning wrote. “The @cia determines what is and is not taught @harvard.”

The appointment of a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School rarely draws as much controversy as it has this year.

Aside from Manning, Harvard also named Corey Lewandowski, the onetime campaign manager of Donald Trump’s presidential run who was seen on video grabbing a female reporter during a campaign event last year; and the president’s former press secretary, Sean Spicer. More than 150 alumni by Friday evening had signed an open letter to Harvard president Drew Faust urging her and the school’s leadership to rescind those appointments, too.


Visiting fellows have been a longstanding and key part of Harvard’s Kennedy School program. Every semester, influential national and international policy makers spend anywhere between a few days to a month at the school, sharing their experiences with small groups of students in their residence halls or classrooms, meeting with faculty members, and giving lectures.

For example, former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush sat around and ate pizza with about 30 first-year students and fielded questions about his political ambitions when he was a visiting fellow in 2010. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was invited to meet with Harvard students from his home state in a small gathering.

“It was an opportunity to ask questions and engage on an exciting level with somebody who had a notable career, with somebody you would only see on TV,” said Paul Leroux, who graduated from Harvard College in 2014 and is now studying law at New York University.

Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of the commonwealth who ran the Institute of Politics between 2011 and 2014, said the school tried to ensure that visiting fellows were ideologically and racially diverse and had taken prominent leadership roles. Many were vetted through conversations with the dean of the Kennedy School, faculty members, alumni and advisers to the school.

The school didn’t shy away from controversy, Grayson said, but, “you don’t want to be embarrassed.”

“There wasn’t a playbook. It was an art,” he said. “It’s different than coming to speak at the school. The fellowship is special.”


Grayson said Harvard made a mistake in initially bestowing the title of fellow to Manning, since she remains a convicted felon. It would have been more appropriate to have her come to the university as a speaker or panelist, he said.

The Manning case and the recent flareups over speakers, such as libertarian author Charles Murray, who spoke at Harvard this month, point to the struggle many universities face over issues of free speech, said Crowley, the former assistant secretary of state who has been teaching since leaving government.

Crowley had to resign from his State Department job in 2011 after he publicly criticized the Pentagon’s treatment of Manning in a military base, including the leaker’s solitary confinement.

“We have to find ways to promote legitimate debate without making that debate seem that we are condoning things that are contrary to laws and our values,” Crowley said. “Academia needs to have the ability to wrestle with controversial issues. We’re having trouble finding that sweet spot.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.