Harvard announces former governor as government fellow to criticism

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 6:02pm

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was announced to be a senior research fellowship at Harvard College’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Friday morning.

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was announced to be a senior research fellowship at Harvard College’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Friday morning. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

This story has been updated to include information about a Harvard alumni open letter opposed to Snyder's appointment. 

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has been awarded a senior research fellowship at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, which operates under Harvard Universitys John F. Kennedy School of Government, the school announced Friday. Snyder, a University of Michigan alum, will work with students, faculty and other fellows in the school’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government to research, write and teach, according to a press release from the Kennedy School. Snyder began his fellowship on Monday despite backlash over his appointment. 

In the release, Taubman Center director Jeffrey Liebman wrote he is confident Snyder will bring “tremendous value” to the school.

“Governor Snyder brings his significant expertise in management, public policy and promoting civility to Harvard Kennedy School,” Liebman said.

Snyder was quoted in the press release saying he was excited to spread his insights of state-level government.

“I look forward to sharing my experiences in helping take Michigan to national leadership in job creation, improved government performance, and civility,” Snyder said. 

The release cited Snyder’s leadership guiding Detroit through the “largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history,” as well as his support of autonomous vehicles, expansion of Michigan workforce and STEM training, investments in infrastructure and improvements to the finances and pension system. 

Snyder’s appointment has prompted backlash on social media by those who note his administration’s role in the Flint water crisis. 

Using #NoSnyderFellowship, the trending hashtag started by activist Mariame Kaba, activists on Twitter urged their followers to directly contact Liebman asking him to rescind Snyder’s fellowship. Readers were also advised to post about the issue, get Harvard alumni to support their cause and donate to Mari Copeny’s fundraising efforts for Flint. 

Those engaged in the social media effort include Piper Kerman, author of the book "Orange is the New Black," which was the basis of Netflix’s show of the same name, and Copeny, also known as "Little Miss Flint."

Abdul El-Sayed, the second-place 2018 Michigan Democrat gubernatorial candidate, also questioned on Twitter why Snyder was awarded the fellowship. El-Sayed’s press team directed The Daily to Adam Joseph, a graduate of the Kennedy School and former communications director for El-Sayed’s gubernatorial campaign, when asked for comment. 

On Sunday, Joseph tweeted Snyder’s fellowship appointment was “beyond astounding” and criticized the school’s decision. El-Sayed retweeted Joseph’s sentiments. 

University alum Hoai An Pham said she joined Kaba’s social media organizing by posting her own email to Liebman as a template for others. Having graduated from the University in the spring, Pham is still active in her collegiate organizing communities, and said she has seen success with email templates in the past.

Pham’s tweet has been liked more than 1,400 times and retweeted almost 850 times as of this article’s publication. She said she believes this shows the power of digital organizing as well as the weight the Flint water crisis carries in activist circles. 

Activists also alleged Snyder contacted the University’s Ford School of Public Policy soliciting a similar fellowship and was dismissed due to his history with Flint. When The Daily asked about the issue, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald neither confirmed nor denied the account.

“What we can tell you is that former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has engaged in a number of activities on our campus throughout his tenure as governor and continuing today,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email to the Daily. “We remain grateful for that and we continue to explore additional opportunities for further engagement.” 

On Monday, Harvard College Democrats released a statement urging Liebman to rescind Snyder’s fellowship, which they claim “betrays the values and mission of the Harvard community.”

“By appointing Governor Snyder as a fellow, Harvard Kennedy School is telling its students and community members that disregard of communities of color is acceptable, that harm caused to communities of color is inconsequential, and that a legacy of racism is synonymous with a legacy of service,” the statement read.

Camille Mancuso, communications director for the University’s chapter of College Democrats, wrote Snyder’s fellowship appointment was “extremely disappointing,” in an email to The Daily.

“This goes beyond policy or ideological disagreements—Governor Snyder is responsible for the poisoning of the city of Flint, which continues to have lasting effects on the city,” Mancuso wrote. “The damage he has done to the city of Flint should not be celebrated or rewarded, it should be condemned.

The University’s chapter of College Republicans declined to comment. 

A Change.org petition demanding the Kennedy School rescind Snyder’s fellowship, created Monday, has over 5,500 signatures as of publication. The petition criticizes Snyder’s policies, such his administration’s decision to stop state provision of free water bottles to Flint residents in 2018. 

“Thanks to Snyder’s ‘leadership,’ people died, countless children were poisoned, and Flint residents still cannot trust the water coming out of their faucets,” the petition says. “Even worse, Flint residents were actually expected to pay water bills for water they couldn’t and shouldn’t drink.”

The petition was created by Tiffani Bell, a former Kennedy School fellow for the work of her organization The Human Utility, which helps pay the water bill for families in need.

Harvard alumni have also began collecting signatures for an open letter addressed to the Harvard president, Kennedy School dean and Liebman urging them to rescind Snyder's fellowship.

Neither Snyder’s press team nor the Harvard Kennedy School replied to the Daily’s request for comment by press time

Flint water crisis 

In October 2015, former Gov. Snyder announced the city of Flint’s drinking water contained elevated levels of lead. This came over a week after local pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha reported a significant rise in the blood lead levels of Flint children. Untreated corrosive chemicals from the Flint River had damaged the city’s old water pipes, introducing high levels of lead into the city’s water supply.

In 2014, Flint, along with the rest of mid-Michigan and the state’s thumb, had planned to join a new pipeline, the Karegnondi Water Authority. They had been receiving water from the Detroit system, but when the Detroit Water and Sewage Department caught wind of Flint’s plans in April of that year, they stopped supplying water to the city.

As the city of Flint was temporarily left without water, state-appointed emergency financial managers found Flint could save money by treating their own water. With approval from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, they made the switch.

Flint residents had always been opposed to treating their water in-house. Soon after the change was implemented, residents raised concerns about the smell, taste and color of their tap water, citing their own rashes and hair loss as side-effects, but state officials refused their requests to switch back to Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

It wasn’t until more than a year and a half after initial complaints that the city advised residents to stop using the tap water for fear of lead contamination. The city issued a water boil advisory in September 2014 when bacteria was found in samples.

In January 2015, the city notified residents they had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act upon discovery of unsafe trihalomethane levels. Against the wishes of the Flint City Council, the state-appointed emergency financial managers elected to continue treating Flint’s water in-house instead of switching back to Detroit’s supply.

However, come October, Snyder and President Barack Obama declared the situation a state of emergency, permitting extended federal and state aid. Even after three and a half years since returning to Detroit’s water supply, Flint residents continue to report problems with their tap water and use bottled water for their everyday needs.

In the aftermath of the crisis, activists like Copeny, Pham and Bell called for greater transparency among government officials, Snyder in particular. These efforts were repeatedly supported by University students and Ann Arbor residents. Their protests in February 2016 pressured the University’s law school to indefinitely postpone a panel event at which Snyder was scheduled to speak.

Awaiting action in Cambridge and Flint

Based on her familiarity with the Kennedy School, Bell said she was surprised to see the school award a paid fellowship to Snyder as opposed to inviting him for some sort of temporary speaker position. 

“He can teach a lot about failure and how to not govern properly,” Bell said. “Someone like that shouldn’t be awarded a full fellowship where … they’re held up as a standard to learn from.”

Bell told The Daily her organization helps some residents in Flint pay their water bills even though she said many still feel the water is unsafe. She explained that if residents choose not to pay, the bill will be added to their property tax, and they may be evicted from their homes. 

Harvard has not publicly addressed the controversy as of yet, and Bell said she’s not surprised. 

“It’d be interesting to see if Harvard actually responds … I mean I’m not holding out hope, but at least this is showing people are aware this is happening and are not happy about it,” Bell said. “We should send a message at least that, if you’re going to be a public servant, you should actually serve the public.”

Pham said she was “insulted” when she saw the Kennedy School cited Snyder’s expertise in public policy as a reason for granting his fellowship.

“If (the fellowship) is about someone who has public policy expertise and is doing the best to empower people,” Pham said. “I cannot imagine why Rick Snyder popped into anybody’s head unless they were also interested in anti-Blackness and white supremacy.”

In an email to the Daily, Joseph characterized Snyder’s work in Flint as “negligence.” He said the damage in Flint resulted from “delayed action until a deafening national outcry forced the former Governors hand.”

“The extent of Governor Snyder's negligence might be worse than is known today; a recent criminal probe led to his phone being seized which might paint a more damning picture than the one already in front of us,” Joseph wrote. “Regardless, Governor Snyders handling of the Flint Water Crisis and the ongoing investigations should disqualify him for a fellowship at Harvard.”

Yohana Beyene will begin the second year of her master’s in Public Policy at Harvard this fall. Beyene also serves as co-president of the Kennedy school’s Black Student Union, though the views she expressed in an email to the Daily are her own. Beyene called Snyder’s fellowship appointment “deeply disturbing.”

“Snyder’s poor decision making to superficially cut costs, failure to listen to warnings by Flint residents of the dangers of contaminated water, and moves to subsequently cover up the crisis led to avoidable catastrophe and death that he should be held accountable for,” Beyene wrote. “This grave neglect highlights Snyder’s inability to govern, lead and prioritize the safety of citizens of Flint, namely its Black residents.”

Pham, an Ann Arbor native, said she did not wish to speak for the residents of Flint and Detroit. However, Pham has observed the crisis “runs along the lines of marginalization.” 

The Daily reached out to U-M Flint student government and Copeny as well as multiple Flint community activists, all of whom did not respond to requests for comment.

Pham believes the money to reverse the crisis is out there, citing Ann Arbor’s quick action to address dioxane plumes in local water sources this May, but forces such as racism and classism are preventing similar funds from being put toward Flint. 

Pham urged others who may not be directly affected by the crisis to pursue alliances with the people of Flint and Detroit and support them in the name of justice everywhere.

“Everyone should care, no matter where you’re from, because if we’re really in solidarity with each other, our liberation is bound to each others’,” Pham said. “If someone from Massachusetts is like, ‘I’ve never stepped foot in Michigan, I’ve never heard of Flint, my water is fine,’ they still have some kind of stake in white supremacy in general being dismantled.”

Beyene said it is the Kennedy School’s explicit and repeated disregard for these issues that prevented administrators from seeing their error in extending a fellowship to Snyder.

“At Harvard Kennedy School we are not taught how to lead with a racial justice lens, which informs why despite causing such harm to a majority Black community, the idea to invite Snyder was not a nonstarter among administration,” Beyene wrote. “His invitation reaffirms that the school’s commitment to racial equity in public life is virtually nonexistent, setting a poor example for students passionate about public service, good governance and social justice.”

Joseph expressed Harvard’s need to send the message that they oppose what he, Beyene and Pham all believe are the root causes of the water crisis.

“Let's be clear: this is not to say that Governor Snyder's free speech rights should be impeded, that bipartisan dialogue at Harvard is not valuable, or that Governor Snyder does not have a right to due process,” Joseph wrote. “But I do not believe he has a right to the honor that a position at Harvard would bestow. Further, rescinding this fellowship sends a signal that the university will not reward the drivers of institutional racism that led to the poisoning of an entire American city.”