Shortly after Harvard publicly rescinded whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s visiting fellowship, the dean of her would-be school called her personally to break the news.
According to Manning, Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, began by reading what she later learned was a statement the school had already posted online. But as Manning pressed for more of an explanation, and noted some of the other controversial fellows at the school, he told her simply that “Sean Spicer has something to contribute to American policy,” and “you can’t really bring that to the table.”
Manning relayed her story to filmmaker Eugene Jarecki during an interview with the Nantucket Project on Sunday, two days after Harvard took away her fellowship.
Manning took the call from Elmendorf after receiving an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As soon as she stepped off the stage, her assistant pulled her aside and asked her to take the call.
“Basically he started to read the statement that was posted on the Harvard website, and had already actually been posted on the website,” Manning said.
“After hearing what he had to say, basically, we were asking, what does this mean? Why are you disinviting me to the fellowship program?”
Manning quickly pointed out that Harvard had appointed other controversial figures as fellows in the past.
“We were like, what about these people, they are controversial as well. He was like, oh well, we don’t want to insinuate any kind of connection with the school with this kind of stuff. We looked at other fellows in the past that were controversial figures in American public discourse. And there was no answer to that. And the answer we got back from him was, specifically, Sean Spicer has something to contribute to American policy, to discuss before students. And you can’t really bring that to the table.”
Manning said that after hearing that, she hung up the phone.
Through his assistant, Elmendorf declined to comment on Manning’s remarks. In a previous statement, Elmendorf said the decision to name Manning a visiting fellow was a “mistake” and “we did not intend to honor her in any way.”
Harvard reversed its decision after caving to pressure from the CIA. Mike Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, resigned from his position at Harvard, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo refused to speak at a forum, both in protest of Manning’s recognition.
The move prompted an instant backlash. One hundred and fifty-nine Harvard faculty members signed a letter protesting the decision, saying that Harvard “accepted as true the account of … prosecuting attorneys and acted at their behest.” Several hundred alumni also signed a petition calling on Harvard to rescind Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s fellowships.
The events have also sparked a debate about how elite schools court U.S. government officials to teach, despite their dark histories. John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush administration’s torture memos, is a tenured professor of law at UC Berkeley. And John Negroponte, who oversaw the CIA’s brutal dirty war in Nicaragua and death squads in Honduras, is a distinguished fellow of “grand strategy” at Yale. Fordham’s decision to name former CIA Director John Brennan as a fellow has prompted backlash from students and faculty who object to his past statements on torture.
While serving as an Army intelligence analyst, Manning sent scores of documents to WikiLeaks, exposing a higher civilian death count in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush administration lies about Guantánamo Bay, and evidence of war crimes.
Manning was arrested in 2010 and released from detention earlier this year, after former President Barack Obama commuted her 35-year sentence.