Many a hallowed figure has walked the halls of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. (Does it have halls? As I did not attend Harvard, I do not know.) The program, which is operated by the university’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government, has extended shelter to a number of Donald Trump’s castoffs. Sean Spicer was a fellow. So was Corey Lewandowski, and Reince Priebus, and Gary Cohn. A thorough survey of the institute’s current and former fellows suggests one qualification for employment: a person must have been in power. What they did with that power matters significantly less.
So Representative Elise Stefanik of New York must have been a little surprised to learn she no longer has a place at the Institute. Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf announced on Tuesday that he had asked the Republican congresswoman to leave the Institute’s senior advisory committee, citing Stefanik’s decision to repeat Trump’s lies about election fraud. When Stefanik, a Harvard alumna, refused to step down, Elmendorf removed her. The Kennedy School has standards after all.
Stefanik, meanwhile, is unhappy. By removing her, Harvard caved to the “woke Left,” she complained in a press release, and warned, “The Ivory Tower’s march toward a monoculture of like-minded, intolerant liberal views will continue to erode diversity of thought, public discourse, and ultimately the student experience.” Though Stefanik’s free-speech worries contain about as much substance as her election-fraud fears, her spat with Harvard is of moderate interest. She’ll be fine without Harvard — conservative universities would welcome her on campus — but her alma mater is in a trickier spot.
In his note to Stefanik’s former colleagues at the Institute of Politics, Elmendorf stressed that her removal had nothing to do with “political parties, political ideology, or her choice of candidate for president.” But such a fiction will be difficult for Elmendorf to maintain. The GOP did not collapse into an anti-democratic party overnight. The signs have been present, and during the Trump years, they were uniquely difficult to ignore. But the IOP did ignore them. Though a single institute at an American university arguably should not matter this much, Harvard is a brand as much as it’s a school. The presence of Spicer and Lewandowski on campus thus sent a message: Trump officials were still part of the club. They mattered, and so they belonged. The boundaries of acceptable discourse were whatever Harvard decided they should be.
But the ivory tower, as Stefanik called it, can no longer pretend that ideology and partisan affiliation do not matter. They will have to decide whether their function is principally academic, or whether it is social; whether they exist to foster critical inquiry, or whether they are finishing schools for elites. (Stefanik comes from money and attended an expensive private high school before heading to Harvard.) A version of this dilemma afflicts think tanks and Big Law and yes, major media outlets, who will all have to reconsider their relationships to power. They’ll need to make value judgments they’ve avoided until now. Is it possible to hire any former Trump official, or host any lawmaker who promoted the election-fraud lie, without undermining democratic norms? And how complicit in today’s crisis are institutions themselves? Trump is the first president to set a mob on the U.S. Capitol, but his predecessors presided over torture and illegal wars and faced no meaningful consequences for any of it. The past cannot repeat. The club will have to get smaller and the bar for entry higher. Actions must have consequences at last.