Harvard petition demands scrutiny of ex-Trump officials

·4 min read

BOSTON — A petition circulating at Harvard University demands new accountability standards for former Trump administration officials who seek to work or speak on campus, an idea that has drawn outrage from prominent conservatives.

The online open letter calls for a new “system of accountability” to review top political appointees who served under Republican President Donald Trump and could come to campus as professors, fellows or speakers after Trump leaves office.

Those who failed to uphold traditional democratic principles should be disqualified, the petition says.

“A complete disregard for the truth is a defining feature of many decisions made by this administration,” according to the petition. “That alone should be enough to draw a line.”

It was unclear who created the petition or how many students have signed it. Harvard declined to comment on it.

Carter Estes, a Republican member of the student government at Harvard's Kennedy School, said the letter was put forward by students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It's being taken up by student governments across the university, he said. The Kennedy School's government voted not to endorse it on Tuesday, he said, but some others have approved it.

Harvard and its Kennedy School — which focuses on government and public policy — often hire former politicians and political staffers to teach as professors or temporary fellows. The university has welcomed figures from both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past.

The school's Institute of Politics fellowships have attracted figures including Reince Priebus, Trump's former chief of staff, and Sarah Hurwitz, the former chief speechwriter for former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Harvard has faced blowback over some past fellows, including its selection of former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer in 2017. The decision drew opposition from more than 1,000 alumni who petitioned against it, but Spicer was allowed to serve as a fellow.

The new petition argues that Trump officials deserves more scrutiny than those tied to past presidents. It says Trump has trampled democratic norms, and that those who were complicit “have disqualified themselves from being hired by the school as faculty or fellows.”

It demands that the university develop accountability guidelines and share them publicly by the end of the calendar year.

Prominent Republicans blasted the petition as an attack on free speech and open discourse. Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard law professor who represented Trump in his impeachment trial, said he would offer free legal help to anyone who would be excluded by new policies.

“Will I be banned from speaking at Harvard?” Dershowitz asked on Twitter.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary and a Harvard Law School graduate, urged Harvard to reject the petition.

“I will happily walk back on campus and challenge this,” she told Fox Business. “Censorship should not be tolerated. Our academic communities should be bastions of free speech.”

Estes, who is studying public policy at Harvard, opposed the petition when it went to a vote before his student government. He described it as the result of “progressive anger” over four years of Trump administration policies.

“If Harvard wants to have guidelines for speakers, that’s OK," he said. “But those guidelines better apply to everyone equally.”

The Harvard Graduate Students Union, a labour group that represents campus graduate workers, said it supports calls to block Trump officials.

Marisa Borreggine, the union's vice-president , said it would be disappointing if Harvard hired former officials from a “blatantly anti-democratic, anti-science, and anti-labour administration.”

The petition at Harvard began circulating weeks after a University of Massachusetts professor tweeted that faculty at prestigious universities should oppose the hiring of Trump officials.

Paul Musgrave, who teaches political science at UMass-Amherst, is calling on schools not to hire Trump's high-level appointees as members of their faculty. Welcoming them, he said, would be a betrayal of the same values universities traditionally espouse.

“This is an abnormal administration that has been hostile to science, to universities, to immigrants,” Musgrave said in an interview. “This is not an administration whose officers can be treated normally.”

The Harvard petition goes further in demanding additional scrutiny of speakers and fellows, not just faculty. Before bringing speakers, it says, Harvard should vet speakers to determine their role in undermining democratic institutions.

Harvard has a duty to “boldly confront” those who were complicit, it says, “or not invite them to speak at all.”

Collin Binkley, The Associated Press