Metro

Governor during Flint, Mich., water crisis won’t take Harvard fellowship following backlash

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, whose one-year fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School sparked a national backlash, has withdrawn and will not be on campus this fall, the school’s dean announced Wednesday.
Al Goldis/Associated Press/File 2018
Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, whose one-year fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School sparked a national backlash, has withdrawn and will not be on campus this fall, the school’s dean announced Wednesday.

Former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, whose one-year fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School sparked a national backlash, has withdrawn and will not be on campus this fall, the school’s dean said Wednesday.

Snyder’s appointment ended just five days after it was announced. Harvard students and activists around the country expressed outrage that Snyder, who oversaw the Flint water crisis, was awarded the prestigious post at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.

Many took to social media and sent angry missives to Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf and other officials, objecting to Snyder’s appointment as Flint’s poor and black residents continue to struggle with the water crisis and its aftermath.

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Elmendorf said in an e-mail Wednesday to the academic community that he and others at the school believed that students would learn from Snyder about the failures and successes of government, including the decisions he made on Flint. But after hearing from students and people in Flint, Elmendorf said he and Snyder questioned whether learning would take place from this fellowship.

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“We appreciate Governor Snyder’s interest in participating in such discussions in our community, but we and he now believe that having him on campus would not enhance education here in the ways we intended,” Elmendorf said in his e-mail.

Snyder, in a tweet, said he turned down Harvard’s offer.

“It would have been exciting to share my experiences, both positive and negative; our current political environment and its lack of civility makes this too disruptive,” Snyder announced just before Elmendorf sent his e-mail. “I wish them the best.”

Snyder served as governor of Michigan for two terms, from 2011 through early 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.

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A University of Michigan report last year said 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 is the latest in a series of fellows who have caused controversy at the Kennedy School.

Its Institute of Politics 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, but the university declined.

That same year, the Kennedy School 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. After pressure from military and national security leaders and conservative critics, Harvard rescinded Manning’s invitation. As a result, the Kennedy School adopted more rigorous reviews of potential fellow candidates, according to university officials.

However, the anger over Snyder seems to have caught officials there off guard. Until Wednesday, Harvard officials stood by Snyder’s appointment and pointed out that, unlike Manning, Snyder has not been charged criminally.

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The Kennedy School could have invited Snyder for a panel discussion, not given him a full-year, honorary post if it wanted students to learn about the decisions made in Flint, said Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder and executive director of Human Utility, an organization that helps low-income residents in Michigan and Maryland pay their water bills.

“This isn’t a lightweight appointment,” said Bell, a former Kennedy fellow.

Those who protested the appointment weren’t being uncivil, Bell added, they were “holding Harvard’s feet to the fire about what the Kennedy School stands for . . . the public is reminding them of their role.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.