After Harvard University’s recent decision to rescind its fellowship offer to Chelsea Manning, following backlash from CIA Director Mike Pompeo as well as others, it has become evident that, once more, the fight for academic freedom and university autonomy is more important than ever. While Harvard’s decision demonstrates the university’s unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to grapple with difficult ideas, controversial figures, and important public debate, Princeton University should demonstrate its maturity and commitment to academic freedom by extending an invitation to Manning.
I’m not the only one who recognizes the importance of Manning’s decision in 2010, and I’m certainly not the first to praise her for it. The choice she made to leak classified information, information that exposed many of the atrocities undertaken by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, offered an invaluable collection of evidence illustrating our misdeeds, and our general failure, in that region. While the conflict in Afghanistan rages on with little end in sight and little direction in mind, Manning risked personal safety and personal liberty to bring to the attention of the American people the excesses of U.S. military engagement, and she will forever be a hero to those who believe in human rights and peace. While many of the architects of the legally dubious Iraq War have yet to stand trial or face investigation, Manning served time in prison and endured physical and psychological torment for her actions. Manning, unlike so many in American politics and around the world, was held to account.
Her release from prison and her willingness to speak openly about her experiences and her decision offers the public, and the American intellectual community, important insight into the inner workings of the U.S. military and the extent to which the it will go to repress information about its wrongdoings. Her insight is invaluable and touches on the precise kinds of controversial ideas universities, particularly in this moment of calls for renewed commitments to academic freedom, are tasked to engage with. While there are many who might disagree with what she did and what she believes in, such disagreements are exactly why she deserves a role in the academy and why there must be an opportunity for dialogue and exchange. The American people’s discontent with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, their horror at the human rights abuses committed by our troops, and their fatigue with an endless war on terror are what make Manning’s perspective so relevant.
The decision by Harvard to cowardly back away from such discussions speaks to the increasing concern of universities for their public image. While in some cases, such as overt racism, this can be important, it is when that concern seeks to stifle meaningful, intellectual discussion that it becomes dangerous. The history around this is complicated, as universities have always been the targets of those who believe that free expression runs counter to the interests of American national security. From the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s to the backlash against those who have criticized the more recent failed military campaigns in the Middle East, preserving the university as an autonomous space for critical discussion and questioning has proven challenging. Where some universities, like Harvard, have failed this test, acquiescing to public pressure and shying away from polemical discussions, others have invited it.
If the experience of the Iraq War taught us anything, it is that lies, misdirection, and manipulation can lead to pretty horrific foreign policy blunders. Choosing conformity over informed debate is a recipe for disaster and runs counter to our national values of public deliberation and free expression. While there are many who would offer uncritical deference to the decisions of our policymakers, especially with respect to national security, universities do not have this luxury. They instead must be willing to provide the space for thoughtful, meaningful, and critical debate on topics that affect the general welfare and concern the public. In doing so, they risk public disapproval, but in failing to live up to those goals, they also risk losing respect and legitimacy as institutions integral to our society. Where Harvard failed to rise to the occasion, Princeton can once more demonstrate the meaning of academic freedom by extending an invitation to Ms. Manning and providing a space for critical debate and dialogue.
Brandon Hunter is a third year graduate student in the Department of Anthropology from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.