Friday, February 23, 2024

Harvard, seen during a 2008 tour of the campus. (Photo: Geofrey Flores)

Harvard is doing solid work solidifying its public image as an institution dedicated to perpetuating institutions. If its leaders wanted to ensure personification as a rich, white, conservative prig puffing on cigars in a back room and plotting to stay that way forever, this was a very good week.

Rejected at Harvard – their invitations as scholars and fellows rescinded – were Chelsea Manning, a leaker of military documents pardoned in the final days of President Barack Obama after serving six years in prison, and Michelle Jones, who became an honored scholar while serving more than two decades in prison for murdering her child. Manning is transgender. Jones is black. Manning was to be a visiting fellow but is now invited for only a short visit because Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School, wanted to remove “the perceived honor that [a fellowship] implies to some people.” Jones applied to eight schools to get her doctorate (she got her bachelor’s in prison) and was accepted to Harvard by its history department, only to see that decision reversed by the university’s president, provost and graduate school deans. Since her release from prison last month, she has begun studies at New York University.

What was behind Harvard’s reversal? There were concerns over bad publicity and how Jones would fare at a school “where everyone is an elite among elites,” American Studies professor John Stauffer told The New York Times.

In defending the week’s decisions, Elmendorf is as weak as Stauffer is offensive, saying Manning’s invitation had been effectively rescinded because Elmendorf sees “more clearly now that many people view a visiting fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations … We did not intend to honor her in any way or to endorse any of her words or deeds, as we do not honor or endorse any fellow.”

But if Manning’s invitation has been cut, or cut back, to correct the misperception of an endorsement – those who remain must be acceptable as receiving that implicit endorsement.

And those still being welcomed to Harvard as new visiting fellows are Sean Spicer, famous for being briefly employed as an indifferently talented liar but accomplished producer of gaffes for President Donald Trump, and Corey Lewandowski, the president’s brutish former (meaning: fired) campaign manager. Already on campus as teacher of a required introductory economics course is N. Gregory Mankiw, proud 1 Percenter and former economic adviser to President George W. Bush. That is, the guy introducing young Harvard students to economics – including via the pricey textbook the students are required to buy – is the guy who oversaw Bush’s squandering of the Clinton surplus in service of tax cuts to the rich, and the resulting dismal economy; he’s the guy who suggested that making burgers in a minimum-wage fast food gig should be considered equivalent to a manufacturing job.

This is hardly Harvard’s first experience at hiring people with questionable histories, then. But it’s long been okay so long as it’s the right kind of history and you’re the right kind of … guy.

Transgender idealist or black convict redeemed by scholarship? These are not wanted at Harvard. White lickspittles to a race-baiting incompetent with the instincts of a carnival huckster? Come on in.

Of course Harvard remains an American institution – like our politics and our prisons. Its public relations masterstroke just happened to remind us how much it matters who occupies our institutions. A prison can contain our most honorable and inspiring; the White House, and a university, can be tarnished by our worst.