Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, who oversaw the Flint water crisis, began a one-year fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School on Monday under a swell of criticism.
Harvard’s decision to award Snyder a prestigious post at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government spurred an immediate backlash on social media, with calls for Harvard to rescind it.
Harvard announced the fellowship on Friday, and by Monday morning activists had launched a website urging the public to call and e-mail Harvard, and demand #NoSnyderFellowship.
“The problem? Snyder is the man responsible for poisoning Flint, Michigan,” said a Twitter account tied with the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, an activist group.
Melissa Mays, a Flint resident who has been active on water issue, wrote on Twitter: “I’m sure he can teach so much about poisoning innocent people while bankrupting cities & corporations. BONUS!!”
Jasmine Hall, who graduated from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health this spring and is a resident of Flint, said the university’s choice of Snyder as a fellow was disheartening.
“It was a betrayal,” Hall said. “It almost seems he is being awarded.”
Meanwhile, Hall said her family members still feel unsafe drinking the water in Flint.
“My younger nieces and nephews know nothing but bottled water,” she said.
Snyder was governor of Michigan from 2011 through the first of this year. During his tenure, lead-tainted water in Flint triggered a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in 2014. Residents, many of them black, had complained for months about the quality of the water, but government officials initially dismissed their concerns.
A University of Michigan report last year found that Snyder “bears significant legal responsibility” for the water crisis because he failed to declare a state of emergency sooner and did not intervene to ensure that state agencies and their directors investigated problems quickly.
Snyder, a Republican, has not been charged in relation to the case, but he has been named in civil suits. Earlier this year, Michigan’s attorney general seized Snyder’s cellphone records for a criminal probe into the water problems.
The Kennedy School’s initial announcement about the fellowship touted Snyder’s work on Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, his expansion of workforce training and investments, and “expertise in management, public policy, and promoting civility.” The announcement made no mention of Flint.
After social media outrage, Kennedy School officials acknowledged Snyder’s controversial leadership during the Flint water crisis.
Jeffrey Liebman, the director of the Taubman Center at the Kennedy School, said, “We do not endorse the words and deeds of our fellows.”
“The abject failures of governance that caused such terrible harm to residents of Flint raise profound questions about public policy and administration, and especially about the interaction of racial injustice and public-sector decision making,” Liebman said in an e-mail to public complaints on Monday. “When Governor Snyder is here, he will undoubtedly face hard questions from students and others about his actions and inactions regarding the situation in Flint.”
Snyder will teach classes, meet with students, and have office hours during his time at the Kennedy School.
Harvard chooses its fellows based on how much students can learn from their experience and expertise, university officials said.
“At the Kennedy School, we aim to learn from both the successes and failures of public officials,” said Liebman, a former Obama administration official.
In the past, the Kennedy School has been criticized for a dearth of conservative voices and has in recent years tried to draw more Republican leaders for its fellows program. However, that effort has also come under fire.
The Kennedy School named Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski, both former aides to President Trump, fellows in 2017. Alumni, students, and the public demanded that Harvard rescind those fellowships.
That same year, the Kennedy School also offered a visiting fellow invitation to Chelsea Manning, a former US soldier who leaked a trove of documents about government surveillance and served several years in prison. But after pressure from military and national security leaders and conservative critics, Harvard revoked Manning’s invitation.
Harvard officials stood by Snyder’s appointment and pointed out that unlike Manning, Snyder has not been charged criminally.
In a statement announcing his fellowship, Snyder said he was excited to join Harvard.
“I look forward to sharing my experiences in helping take Michigan to national leadership in job creation, improved government performance, and civility,” Snyder said.
Students such as Hall remained skeptical about how willing Snyder would be to talk publicly about Flint considering the ongoing lawsuits and investigations.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.