Grenell hiring stirs campus controversy

On June 9, the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) at Carnegie Mellon announced the hiring of Richard Grenell as a Senior Fellow. Grenell had formerly served as the United States Ambassador to Germany and the acting Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration. The appointment sparked nearly instant backlash among students and faculty. Many felt Grenell’s divisive rhetoric, particularly on his Twitter account, had no place at Carnegie Mellon.

Much of Grenell’s controversial punditry takes place on Twitter. He frequently tweets in defense of President Donald Trump, calling the president’s June photo op at St. John's Church amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests “a triumphant moment of hope over fear.” He has called the coronavirus “the Chinese flu”, and he has supported anti-mask rhetoric in statements made after he officially began his position on July 1, which is at odds with official university policies

Some feel that even without his divisive rhetoric, Grenell’s record is questionable. He has been criticized for saying he wanted to “empower” Germany’s conservative movement while serving as the US ambassador to Germany, and he has strained relations with German diplomats. Grenell has been accused of failing to disclose payments he received from Vladimir Plahotniuc, a Moldovan oligarch accused of corruption by the United States. Grenell was also paid for consulting work at the Magyar Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit funded mostly by the Hungarian government, without having registered the work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Another point of contention for those against his appointment was that Grenell was hired after Carnegie Mellon implemented a hiring freeze.

In the weeks that followed, multiple petitions to rescind Grenell’s appointment made the rounds, including a faculty-led open letter with 325 faculty signatories and a student-led petition with 1505 signatures. In response to the calls to rescind Grenell’s hiring Director of IPS Kiron Skinner released a statement defending the department’s decision.

In the statement, Skinner said that the “Institute for Politics and Strategy is fully committed to intellectual diversity, which is the hallmark of the Academy” and that “as the nation’s first openly gay member of a president’s cabinet, a political conservative, a Christian, and a ten-year veteran of the State Department, Ambassador Grenell brings a unique perspective to the practice of US diplomacy and politics.”

Following Skinner’s statement, Carnegie Mellon President Farnam Jahanian released a statement backing the department’s decision, stating that “as an academic community that values the free exchange of ideas, we respect the variety of viewpoints expressed by members of the community on this matter.”

President Jahanian also announced the formation of a special committee to review whether the appointment was consistent with university practice. The committee’s report was made available in a campus-wide email from Jahanian on Aug. 20.

In an interview with The Tartan, Skinner elaborated on the department’s decision to hire Grenell. She clarified that Grenell would not be in a teaching position. Rather, he would engage the campus community on “intellectual and policy projects” focusing on the emergence of a “New Europe” and the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide through campus forums and seminars.

Skinner told The Tartan that it is standard to bring former government officials into academia, citing the Kennedy School’s appointment of Sean Spicer and Corey Lewandowski as fellows. “We’ve always had political figures and former officials on campus. This will be no different,” she said.

Skinner says she “hired [Grenell] not for his viewpoint but for his background.” She said that “his viewpoints would contribute to the diversity of thought” at Carnegie Mellon, opining that intellectual diversity is “where American academia is overall weakest.” She also emphasized that Grenell will be required to abandon his political views when he comes to campus.

In response to the controversy that surrounded Grenell’s appointment at IPS, Skinner stated “people who are writing petitions and letters and signing them are not coming to me to have a conversation to get a download on the facts about how and why I hired [Grenell].”

“There needs to be exhaustive research on the individual and what is being claimed about them and then we can return to our first amendment conversation,” she said.

Skinner added that it would be irresponsible for her to be the go-between for students and Grenell, saying she is “encouraging students to talk with Grenell themselves.” The Tartan requested comment from Grenell through IPS, but Grenell declined to comment.

In the faculty open letter opposing the hiring, the signatories disagreed with the administration’s use of the term academic freedom, stating “academic freedom does not in fact comprise an individual right to make appointments in a university, and it certainly does not remove the obligation to properly vet candidates for faculty positions (including visiting faculty) to ensure that they meet our university standards.”

Paul Eiss, an associate professor of history and one of the signatories of the letter, said the mischaracterization and misapplication of academic freedom “threw fuel on the fire” and was part of the reason many faculty signed the open letter.

“When you fundamentally mischaracterize that freedom, you weaken that freedom,” Eiss said.

He stated that academic freedom has three main applications: teaching, having the freedom to publish and research without reprisal, and inviting speakers. He emphasized that appointments do not fall under any of these categories.

“It is a profound misuse of the term to use it, in effect, to say ‘you can’t question this, you can’t look at it.’ Not only are you misusing academic freedom for the purpose of preventing transparency, which is exactly what it’s not supposed to be used for, but in the process, you introduce a great deal of confusion into the campus community about what academic freedom is,” said Eiss.

Later, a separate open letter was published with 11 signatories, of whom only two are tenured faculty, titled “Defending Academic Freedom and Intellectual Diversity at CMU”, which lauded the administration’s decision to allow Grenell to stay.

The letter reads, “Those demanding the appointment be rescinded are trying to redefine the meaning of ‘academic freedom’ to curtail this right, an action which would be extremely detrimental to the university. Furthermore, rescinding this appointment would create a chilling environment with respect to differences of opinion.”

Professor David Touretzky, a research professor of computer science and one of the co-authors of the letter supporting the administration’s decision, elaborated that the appointments should be the responsibility of the person in charge of hiring, rather than it being a group decision.

Touretzky told The Tartan, “if it’s a group decision, then you’re forced to the lowest common denominator, the least controversial people that everybody can agree on. What you really want is for someone to be interesting enough that at least one person whose judgement you respect thinks they’re worth having on campus.”

In response to the criticism that Grenell’s opponents have raised of his record, Touretzky found it to be “irrelevant” in the discussion about what Grenell could contribute to the campus discourse since they involve “political and professional decisions” made by Grenell.

He further adds that “the real dishonesty” is coming from Grenell’s opponents. He cites a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that included a tweet from Jeff Bigham, an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. The tweet states that “people who propped up Trump, helped to execute his agenda, should not be welcome to CMU.”

“That’s what this is about,” he said. “Anyone who remains a Trump supporter should not be welcome on the CMU campus. That is what is really motivating them.”

Touretzky added, “it’s the job of the adults to run the institution. Students don’t get to throw people off campus because they lose a popularity vote.”

However, in wake of the controversy, Skinner reaffirmed her “serious commitment to the students in IPS,” which included starting a student advisory committee so the department can “include their perspectives and ideas.”

The IPS department also held a virtual town hall on July 10 to directly communicate her decision with students. In the town hall, Skinner gave a timeline for Grenell’s hiring process. She discussed how Grenell had called her sometime after Carnegie Mellon’s hiring freeze to discuss a new book he was working on, as well as a project on the decriminalization of homosexuality. There was no search for a senior fellow position at the time.

Skinner told students that she hired Grenell with a pot of money she received from donors to the department that was not affiliated with the university’s funds. She used this same money to invite past speakers such as Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica, as well as Howard Dean.

Mark Dempsey, a Class of 2020 alumni who attended the virtual IPS town hall, still felt skeptical about the hiring. Dempsey told The Tartan that “a charitable reading of Grenell’s hiring was that it is hubris and an uncharitable reading of it would be that it’s corrupt.”

Later statements from President Jahanian, as well as the committee review report on Grenell’s hiring, confirmed Skinner’s statements about the funding sources and showed that Skinner had followed the proper protocol to get approval for the hiring process. In addition, she had received approval from Deans Schienes, Hebert, and Sanders, as well as Provost Garrett.

In the midst of the debate over Grenell’s hiring, student activists have felt that their concerns about Grenell’s record have been misrepresented, and that the conversation had become too centered around the debate of academic freedom and partisan politics.

Liam O’Connell, a junior in IPS, said that “people’s concerns are about Grenell’s record and reputation, not his ideology. I don’t think there has been much of a conversation about the issues that have been brought up.”

O’Connell hoped that the conversation over the hiring could shift away from “liberals versus conservatives.” He stated that debate and “diversity of opinion” are good, but if the debate is “lies and misinformation, then I don’t see how it’s useful.”

“I don’t see how any academic institution, let alone one that talks about our prestige, would benefit.”

He also added that Grenell is a “US government alum whose focus is national security”, which is “not a new perspective that is being brought into IPS.”

Catherine Taipe, a junior in IPS and one of the co-authors of the student-led petition, told The Tartan that “this is not an issue of whether or not he’s affiliated with the Trump administration or even being in far-right groups. It’s that he got so many complaints about his performance and wasn’t found to be competent at his job.”

She added that “his Twitter account promotes harmful rhetoric, which is far different than having an opposing view.”

Taipe also expressed her disappointment with the university’s mischaracterization of diversity, stating that “I don’t care about his identity or his background, but rather that he is a corrupt person.”

“The co-opting of the term ‘diversity’ to mean the embracing of racist and dangerous rhetoric in institutions of higher education is the most shameless, disgusting phenomenon that has come out of 21st-century performative and corporate wokeness. The goal of diversity, equity and inclusion is to uplift and empower the most marginalized voices –– and the way our university has twisted this goal in its favor is telling of its true values,” Taipe told The Tartan.

Taipe’s disappointment ventured beyond the university’s response to Mr Grenell’s hiring.

“Carnegie Mellon University so badly wants to exist in this moral gray area for the sake of ‘diversity of thought’ that it ignores the active harm it is doing to its community members. This appointment is a slap in the face as a woman of color, as an IPS student, as a person who genuinely cares about the wellbeing of my classmates who are equally as disappointed,” Taipe said.

As the semester begins, Grenell has continued to cause controversy among the student body. His tweet supporting anti-mask rhetoric was made on Aug. 20, the same day the committee report overseeing his hiring was made available by President Jahanian.

That committee report states that Grenell will be expected to follow university policies and that it will “be incumbent on Prof. Skinner to make sure he understands this requirement and holds him accountable.”

However, Taipe sees the university’s promise of accountability differently. “CMU has a lot of platitudes about creating a diverse, enriching, and equitable environment, but the actions they take don’t show it.... I just don’t really trust CMU’s promise on keeping Grenell accountable.”

Catherine Taipe is a staffwriter for The Tartan. She was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.