Harvard’s Political Fellowships Have Long Been Lightning Rods

September 15, 2017

Heidi Gutman/ABC via Getty Images
Facing an outcry, Harvard U. revoked the fellowship of Chelsea Manning, the convicted Wikileaker, to the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics. Among those whose fellowships remain intact are Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, President Trump’s former campaign manager and press secretary, respectively.

Harvard University created a stir this week when it announced a roster of fellows for its Institute of Politics that included a handful of notorious political celebrities, including President Trump’s former campaign manager and his former press secretary, as well as Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who gave classified documents to WikiLeaks.

That stir became a full-body tremor on Friday when the university, facing a backlash from Harvard-connected former U.S. intelligence officials, revoked Ms. Manning’s fellowship to the institute.

"I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School 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," wrote Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in a statement.

Ms. Manning was convicted of espionage by a court martial and sentenced to military prison for 35 years, of which she served seven before President Obama commuted her sentence in January. Mr. Elmendorf, who had signed off on Ms. Manning’s fellowship, said in his statement that he had made an error in judgment.

The debate over who in politics deserves the imprimatur of the world’s most famous university raises the question: What is Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and when did it become such a lightning rod?

Housed in the Kennedy School, the institute was founded in 1966 as a way to ensure Harvard would not become isolated from contemporary politics and the personalities driving it. The institute resolved to remain nonpartisan, and over the years it has attracted criticism from many corners for gifting controversial pols the dignity of a Harvard stage.

It did not always generate such heat. A 1972 article in The Harvard Crimson painted the young institute as well-funded but irrelevant, its fellows aloof and uninterested in the students they were supposed to inspire. "To most undergraduates, the Institute is an obscure yellow building nestled on Mount Auburn Street which makes a big entrance every fall when it introduces its extravagant seminar program dotted with famous names," according to the paper. "After this initial splash, it is never heard-from again."

The Institute of Politics eventually started attracting attention from the rest of campus. In 1991, the president of Harvard’s Black Student Association told the Crimson that a representative from the institute had approached him to ask if his organization would sponsor a talk by David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who had recently mounted a losing campaign for governor of Louisiana. The black students said no. (The institute invited Mr. Duke anyway, according to the paper, and he declined.) A few years later, the political scientist Charles Murray spoke at the institute in support of his latest book, The Bell Curve, a popular text whose suggestion that ethnicity is tied to intelligence made Mr. Murray a sinister figure in academic circles.

The institute has not limited its controversial invitations to U.S. politicians. In 2000 it extended a fellowship to Jamil Mahuad, a Kennedy School alumnus and former president of Ecuador, who was wanted on corruption charges in his home country. "We bring in people involved with politics and public service to teach students what it’s like," Jennifer Phillips, then the coordinator of the visiting-fellows program, was quoted as saying in the Crimson. (Years later an Ecuadorean court found Mr. Mahuad guilty of embezzlement; he denied wrongdoing.)

Late last fall, several weeks after the presidential election, a forum at the Institute of Politics became the staging ground for a contentious standoff between advisers to Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, now a Harvard fellow, was there.

Mr. Trump’s voters knew not to take everything their candidate said at face value, Mr. Lewandowski said at the time. "They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things," he said, "and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up."

Ms. Manning had been scheduled to appear on campus for only one day this fall. But after receiving complaints from Michael Morell, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Mike Pompeo, the agency’s current director, university officials decided they did not want Harvard to appear to be endorsing her values. Mr. Lewandowski and Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, who have been criticized for misleading the public on behalf of President Trump, were judged more worthy of a Harvard affiliation.

Steve Kolowich writes about writes about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and extraordinary people in ordinary times. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at