Stephen K. Bannon, Jared C. Kushner ’03, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Michael R. Pompeo, Elaine Chao, R. Alexander Acosta ’90, Rod J. Rosenstein, Anthony Scaramucci, Kayleigh M. McEnany. Those are just the names you’ve heard.
There is also Rachel L. Brand, Sarah I. Flores, Jeffrey A. Rosen, Stacy Cline Amin, John F. Bash III ’03, Ann M. Donaldson, Gregory G. Katsas, Michael H. McGinley, Schuyler J. Schouten, Zina G. Bash ’04, Avrahm Berkowitz, Kenneth I. Juster ’76, Gilbert B. Kaplan ’73, and Henry J. Kerner.
The list of Harvard graduates who have gone on to lead, advise, and staff the Trump administration is extensive. For some, this may seem like business as usual. Harvard has been educating future presidents and Cabinet members from across the political spectrum since before the American Revolution. Those leaders have changed the world in remarkably positive ways, but have also made critical errors, led us into unjustifiable wars, and put forth policies that have destroyed communities.
For better and worse, the impact of Harvard alumni reaches practically every geography and field of study. One University-wide survey claims that, as of 2015, Harvard alumni had started 146,429 organizations, created 20.4 million jobs globally, and served on almost 300,000 boards.
On its website, Harvard boasts over 371,000 living alumni across 202 countries. I’ve spent nine of the past 10 years at Ivy League institutions and hold no illusions that these degree factories are beacons of righteousness. Surely, we cannot expect a university of Harvard’s scale to track and answer for the actions of each of its graduates. I also understand that intellectually rigorous environments celebrate both experiential and ideological diversity. Inevitably, then, alumni will tread a range of paths.
The Trump administration’s critical mass of Harvard alumni, however, is distinct and the University should address it. Dozens of Harvard alumni seem more than eager to assist the Trump administration in its horrific actions, lending Harvard's institutional legitimacy to an administration that opposes the University's mission.
Trump and his army of Harvard graduates hope to dismantle democracy, undermine the very concept of truth, and expunge the scientific community. Harvard owes its past, current, and future community members a statement of its position on the defective alumni it has produced — alumni who are destroying the fields and institutions students came here to study.
The University’s mission is “to advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge.” Jared Kushner had the “new idea” to sacrifice Americans to the market in the face of COVID-19. Steve Bannon had the new idea to defraud taxpayers in a racist “We Build The Wall” scheme. Kayleigh McEnany had the new idea to spread disinformation about vote-by-mail, despite voting by mail 11 times in 10 years, including while at Harvard.
The “enduring knowledge” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been poisoned by disinformation. The enduring knowledge of the Food and Drug Administration is under siege. The enduring knowledge of our country’s Department of Education is being unraveled.
Harvard’s silence on graduates as recent as 2016 using their Harvard degrees to wage a full-fledged assault on the truth is unworthy of the University’s own “Veritas” motto. Failure to take a position or set the record straight on Harvard’s expectations of its alumni is a tacit endorsement that power itself is the school’s only true value. Discussions of ethical and moral leadership in my classes at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School ring hollow against this reality. Harvard should publicly commit to higher expectations for its alumni than achieving the social cachet to dance with the stars (as former Harvard Institute of Politics fellow Sean Spicer quite literally did last year).
Some may argue alumni have engaged with the Trump Administration because they saw themselves as the lesser evil to fill an important position that would otherwise go to a crony. Evidence does not support this claim. Take, for example, Rachel Brand, who NBC reported resigned from the Department of Justice just in time to dodge the responsibility of leading the consequential Russia investigation. Brand was in line to replace fellow Harvard Law School alumni Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should he be fired for standing up to Trump. But Rosenstein ended up abetting Trump instead. We’ll never know the truth, as fellow Harvard Law School alumna and then-DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Flores denied the accusation against Brand.
My call for Harvard to publicly commit to values consistent with its mission by denouncing its cartel of Trump administration alumni must not be conflated with efforts to have prominent universities rescind degrees. Society evolves, attitudes change, and to start revoking degrees based on post-graduation activities could set a dangerous precedent.
But there is little downside to Harvard publicly assuring its community members that it is not proud to have produced a large part of this indefensible regime. Harvard is already under attack from the Trump administration in both courts of law and the court of public opinion. Publicly acknowledging its role in empowering this collective of bad actors could lead to much needed community reflection on ethical principles and standards across University curricula. Who is Harvard admitting and what are they not learning here? Harvard’s students, faculty, and staff deserve to know if the University stands by these leaders whose minds it claims to have crafted — leaders who most likely would not have reached their perch without Harvard’s stamp of approval.
Kaivan K. Shroff is a third-year joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.