Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Chelsea Manning / HKS IOP / "Visiting Fellowship"

Here are some Harvard Crimson headlines from this week:

So here we go...


One of the more annoying things about this affair has been the way the discussion has chased a dramatized, misleading version of the facts. To borrow a phrase, the commentators (in my social bubble) seem content with -- if not actively interested in -- framing the matter to produce heat, instead of light.

The easiest antidote for this is actually to read Dean Elmendorf's statement announcing and explaining the withdrawal of the IOP's Visiting Fellow appointment. I say this not because I agree with the decision or Elmendorf's justification, but because it at least explains what the decision was:

Some visitors to the Kennedy School are invited for just a few hours to give a talk in the School’s Forum or in one of our lecture halls or seminar rooms; other visitors stay for a full day, a few days, a semester, or longer. Among the visitors who stay more than a few hours, some are designated as “Visiting Fellows,” “Resident Fellows,” “Nonresident Fellows,” and the like. At any point in time, the Kennedy School has hundreds of Fellows playing many different roles at the School. In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.

We invited Chelsea Manning to spend a day at the Kennedy School. Specifically, we invited her to meet with students and others who are interested in talking with her, and then to give remarks in the Forum where the audience would have ample opportunity—as with all of our speakers—to ask hard questions and challenge what she has said and done. On that basis, we also named Chelsea Manning a Visiting Fellow. 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 I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, 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... Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum. (...)

Elsewhere, the IOP's site makes it clear that 'Visiting Fellow' appointments are "often a week", but "individually tailored to the background of the visiting fellow" (by which I assume they are often far shorter than a week for particularly high-profile guests):

Each semester the Institute of Politics invites a select number of prominent political practitioners to Harvard serve as Visiting Fellows for a shorter period of time than a full academic semester of a resident fellowship. The Visiting Fellows program brings distinguished veterans of public life for a short, yet comprehensive stay; often a week. The program is designed to provide maximum contact with the University community, particularly undergraduate students. Each fellowship is individually tailored to the background of the visiting fellow, as well as his/her calendar availability.

The experience is compact and the schedule is more intense than a resident fellowship. A Visiting Fellow can expect to participate in at least three events daily. The Fellow often will lead at least one 90-minute study group during the week-long visit. Study groups offer the guest the opportunity to share his/her views and experiences in a meaningful way with students. (...)

The thesaurus linguae harvardianae being what it is, the word 'Fellow' can mean completely different things in different contexts. While the word harkens back to Oxford and Cambridge (where I understand it means something like 'tenured professor'), Harvard uses it for everything from unpaid undergraduate researchers to the University's highest governing office:

  • For two semesters, I assumed the title of Teaching Fellow for teaching a weekly section and grading homework assignments.
  • I spent one summer post-graduation as an Economics Design Fellow -- an unpaid research gig at the CMSA.
  • While there, I was doing research with a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows; here Junior Fellow means, as I understand it, a relatively unknown but outrageously selective fast-track to tenure-track posts for freshly-minted PhDs. (Senior Fellows, meanwhile, serve as faculty mentors to the Junior Fellows, and also include ex officio the President, Provost, and Dean of Arts and Sciences.)
  • The University's highest governing body consists of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. The spokesman and chair -- and the University's highest governing office -- is the Senior Fellow (not to be confused with the President, herself merely a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows).

It's in the context of these wildly inconsistent meanings that Elmendorf attempts to clarify "In general across the School, ... 'Fellow' ... is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School."

Which, I think, is just confusing. The phrase 'Visiting Fellow' suggests to me someone who plans to stick around for a semester, not merely 1-5 days and a study group. I'm sensitive to Dean Elmendorf's claim that "we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor" -- academic institutions should guard their ability to invite discussants without conferring approval on their views -- but it feels like the IOP is just being careless here in using a term that suggests a far deeper relationship than it means.

What's worse, it's difficult for me to shake a cynical sense here that the IOP is all too happy for the outside world to confuse 'Fall 2017 Visiting Fellow' with 'spends all semester at HKS part-time'. After all, it'd be pretty impressive if the Institute had actually arranged visiting residencies from campaign managers from both presidential campaigns, a recent White House press secretary, and Chelsea Manning.

As it is, the Crimson's beat reporter seems to have been basically misled ("Chelsea E. Manning, a transgender activist and former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who was imprisoned for disclosing classified documents, will also serve as a visiting fellow this semester."), and while the newspaper hasn't exactly covered itself in glory here, I think it is less their fault than usual given how actively misleading the IOP's own press releases were:

Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School Announces Additional Visiting Fellows

Class includes first transgender Fellow and former White House Press Secretary

Cambridge, MA – The Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard Kennedy School is pleased to announce additional Visiting Fellows for the 2017-18 academic year at http://iop.harvard.edu/fellows. (...)

Oh, what exactly is a Visiting Fellow? Let me click this useful link that I've been provided...

Established in 1966, the Fellows Program is a cornerstone of Institute life and the only program of its kind at Harvard University or anywhere else. An IOP Fellowship offers the rare opportunity for professionals in politics and public service to spend a semester at Harvard sharing their experiences with students and exploring important public issues with a distinguished group of their peers. (...)



And here it comes back to the (surprisingly difficult) question of what actually happened through the whole affair:

  • The IOP invited Manning for a just packed day of speeches, discussions, and other, and decided that since she'd be on campus for not just a few hours but several hours, it would announce her as a Visiting Fellow (the Institute's first openly transgender Fellow, they were excited to announce!), just to avoid any confusion.
  • The IOP was shocked, just shocked when people both within and outside Harvard mistook a Visiting Fellowship for a heavier-weight relationship than the title suggests, never before having noticed (or at least having bothered to correct) such misunderstandings.
  • Suddenly realizing that 'Visiting Fellow' could possibly be construed as an honorific, HKS decided that it would retract the title 'Visiting Fellow' and "the perceived honor that it implies to some people", but keep Manning's scheduled appointments.
  • They then looked at other Visiting Fellows like Corey Lewandowski (of tackling-Michelle-Fields fame) and Sean Spicer (of straightfacedly-lying-to-the-press fame), asked whether anyone could possibly confuse their Visiting Fellowships with an honor awarded by HKS for their political service, shrugged, and decided they were done with the matter.

Says Elmendorf:

I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, 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.

This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less... This decision now is not intended as a compromise between competing interest groups but as the correct way for the Kennedy School to emphasize its longstanding approach to visiting speakers while recognizing that the title of Visiting Fellow implies a certain recognition. (...)

With all due respect, I think the Dean has it the wrong way around. If people's misconceptions of the Visiting Fellow title interfere with HKS's ability to invite the speakers that best advance its mission, then do away with the title -- for all short-term visitors.

If invitations to speak don't imply an honor, then fine. In the academy, you shouldn't have to honor someone to be willing to listen to them.

If you want to call visitors 'Visiting Fellows' because the only dialect of English you speak is Harvardian, and you're willing to put up with the confusion that that causes, then fine.

But if you invite some people to speak without a title and other people to speak as Visiting Fellows, but insist that 'Visiting Fellow' isn't an honorific, then you're just being coy.


All of that I mean in general terms, but I expect I'll get some flak if I don't come out and say my object-level view on the specifics, so here goes.

I think that HKS's decision to bend to political pressure in this case was craven and unscholarly. The actions of other IOP associates who abandoned speaking engagements without prior notice or resigned their posts in protest suggest that they don't understand the social and professional norms of the academy. While it's unreasonable to expect all academic visitors to act like academics in matters such as these, I expect there's some value in leaning towards engaging with those that want to engage academically, opposing ideas with ideas rather than with political force.

This isn't to say that institutions like the IOP should shun non-academics and those that can't pretend to be academics, but rather that on the margin more ideas get exchanged -- in greater depth -- when you are more accommodating to the people willing to engage in an honest exchange of ideas than those who aren't.

Chelsea, for one, seems to be taking this in characteristically good humor: