Harvard University’s coat of arms is perhaps one of the most recognizable in the world today — bold, yet simple, a plain crimson shield with three books in the foreground, across them inscribed in bold serif a single Latin word: “veritas,” meaning “truth.”
I remember being in awe of the Harvard shield when I was younger. It seemed remarkable to me that any institution could be so prominent as to have “truth,” unbridled by any other words, as its motto. It also seemed noble — pursuit of the truth, regardless of the political consequences — something only suited to the most prominent educational institution in America, if not the world.
I wonder if Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, had that seal — likely emblazoned all over the school’s promotional materials — in mind when he disinvited leaker Chelsea Manning from a visiting fellowship last week.
Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked a massive trove of State and Defense Department documents to WikiLeaks, was recently released from a 35-year prison term after former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence at the end of his term. Last Wednesday, she was announced as a visiting fellow at the invitation of the school’s Institute of Politics.
The backlash was swift and severe. The next day, Michael Morell, a deputy director of the CIA in the Obama administration, resigned his fellowship in protest, and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo pulled out of a scheduled speaking engagement at the school. Within a scant few hours, Elmendorf had informed Manning that she would be stripped of her fellow title.
As Trevor Timm of The New York Times pointed out, almost no one has done more to inform the public about foreign policy around the world, ever. The documents she leaked have proved critical for reporting on international affairs, and revealed — to list just a few — that the U.S. military had killed far more than it disclosed in Iraq; that the military had covered up killing of Iraqi civilians by American troops; and, perhaps most notoriously, a video of an Apache helicopter opening re on a group of men — among them two war correspondents for Reuters, one of whom was killed in the strike.
Just a few days earlier, too, Harvard administrators made the rare move of overturning a recommendation of admission from its history department for Michelle Jones, also recently released from prison. Jones was convicted of the murder of her four-year-old son. While in prison, Jones got a bachelor’s degree and began auditing graduate level courses, and in 2012 made a research discovery that would eventually win the project for best prize from the Indiana State Historical Society. That’s not best amongst prisoners in the state — it was best in the state, period.
Both committed crimes, both served their time and were released, and both have made tremendous contributions to public discourse and academic knowledge. Isn’t that enough?
To Harvard, the answer seems to be a resounding “No,” and the university should be ashamed.
“Frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority,” said John Stauffer, one of the two professors that flagged Jones’ application, ultimately leading to her rejection. “I mean, c’mon.”
Harvard could have done the right thing. Instead, administrators decided that its reputation with Fox News is more important than the students it purports to serve and the values it claims to embody. In doing so, Harvard has staked its claim on the wrong side of history, failing to support the prisoner reintegration that the professors Jones wanted to study with have written so much about.
With these decisions, Harvard has shown that maintaining its guarded old boys’ club and appeasing the wealthy and powerful is far more important than the actual truth. After all, how else could Sean Spicer, the President’s noted former lie-monger of a Press Secretary, and Corey Lewandowski be fellows while Chelsea Manning is disinvited?
Forget “veritas.” It’s not much of a motto if you don’t live up to it.