Harvard Fellowships Have Always Been a Joke

Harvard Fellowships Have Always Been a Joke

When Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) was established in 1966, its first honorary associate was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Thirty-eight years later, as a low-level employee of the Harvard Kennedy School (now called “HKS”), working as a senior research associate in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs while (very slowly) completing my doctoral dissertation from Brandeis University, I was given the task of shepherding around McNamara for a day. He was at HKS to attend a public event where he would be interviewed while watching clips of Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

I recall the 87-year-old McNamara as being extremely gracious to me but also nervous about how the audience might react to the event. In November 1966, a group of students and nonstudents had angrily confronted McNamara just after he had spoken with Henry Kissinger’s class. Earlier, more than 1,600 students and 52 faculty members had signed a petition demanding that McNamara debate the prominent Vietnam War critic Robert Scheer at the then-Kennedy Institute. The institute’s head, professor Richard Neustadt, refused to sanction the debate on the grounds that it could “embarrass” McNamara and make it difficult to attract high-profile national figures in the future.

Ultimately, the 2004 public event was a respectful and open exchange of ideas. However, there is one clip of the Morris documentary that resonates even more today than it did then. McNamara had been the lead analyst of the B-29 bombers assigned to the Pacific theater under the command of Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay during World War II. After describing the millions of Japanese civilians intentionally targeted and killed, McNamara tells Morris: “LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He and, I’d say, I were behaving as war criminals.” He adds, “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

McNamara’s admission that he presided over war crimes did not lead the IOP to retroactively rescind his status as its first honorary associate nor from honoring him as such after his death in 2009. And, in that way, it sheds important light on Friday’s declaration by HKS dean Douglas Elmendorf that he was withdrawing the invitation to Chelsea Manning to serve as a visiting fellow at IOP.

Elmendorf did so on the grounds that it could be perceived as an “honorific” and that such invitations must balance what can be learned from a person with “the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire.” Friday’s statement came after former acting CIA Director Michael Morell’s resignation as a nonresident senior fellow at the Belfer Center, and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s cancellation of a public HKS talk, in protest of Manning’s visiting fellow position. Pompeo notably declared, “Wikileaks is an enemy of the United States, akin to a hostile intelligence service,” a position at odds with his repeated embrace of WikiLeaks last year when it published negative information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

As someone who spent half a life in various universities and research institutions, I am constantly amazed at the public discourse over what allegedly occurs within these places. Most nonresident or non-academic visiting fellows attend their respective institutions infrequently, contribute little in the way of publications, and leave almost no lasting imprint. They utilize the position as a break from their preceding jobs, often in an effort to expand their social networks and rebrand themselves. The institutions use the fellows’ public profiles to increase awareness about themselves and to raise money from prospective donors. For both, it is less an honorific than a tacit exchange of prominence for access but without the guarantee of any office space.

When former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was an IOP fellow, he would sit in the HKS courtyard chomping on an unlit cigar and decrying the two-party system and the war in Iraq. Although I peppered him with wrestling questions, I mostly recall students being in disbelief that a U.S. Navy sailor and macho action movie star could be so openly opposed to an ongoing American war — he even routinely called George W. Bush administration officials “war criminals.” He was very bright, swore often, and thought unlike anyone else I have ever encountered at such a well-regarded institution. The HKS students and staff were lucky to have him, and he was lucky and grateful to be there.

The truth is that massive research universities such as Harvard function much like large holding companies. They develop tenured professors at thematic colleges as part of their core business practice but also encourage smaller, more nimble research programs staffed by outside experts for limited terms. The former establish the enduring identity of the university, while the latter provide fresher and often more “real-world” perspectives. The HKS leadership has made a judgment about who will be permitted to provide that perspective. Given the wholly unique insights that someone like Manning could contribute, I think it is the wrong call.

But the more important lesson to draw is that such titles don’t merit the honor that institutions attempt to bestow them with in the first place. It is unlikely within a few weeks that anybody at Harvard will remember who was invited, declined, or assumed a Harvard fellowship position. It is also entirely appropriate that we would forget.

Photo credit: Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)