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Dr. Kiron Skinner steps down as director of IPS

In an email on Thursday, Feb. 25, Provost Jim Garrett announced that Dr. Kiron Skinner has decided to step down as director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Politics and Strategy (CMU IPS). As its inaugural director, she was instrumental in the creation and development of IPS and the degree-granting programs it offers. She has also directed the Center for International Relations and Politics, Carnegie Mellon University’s Washington Semester Program, and the Institute for Strategic Analysis. Thanking her for her contributions, Garrett noted that she will continue to serve as the Taube Professor for international relations and politics.

He wrote in the announcement, addressed to faculty, staff, and students of IPS, that she made this decision to “enable increased focus on the completion of two books currently in process, her work with The Heritage Foundation on an Atlantic Strategy initiative, and her involvement with the newly formed Forum for America and the World.” Skinner declined a request for an interview for this article.

This move came weeks after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that she is considering running as a Republican for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat in 2022. A well-known academic, especially in conservative circles, Skinner had served as a member of former President Trump’s national security transition team in 2016. She also worked on the presidential campaigns of former President George W. Bush, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

Skinner had previously taken leave of her post at Carnegie Mellon in September 2018 to work in the Trump administration’s State Department as director of Policy Planning, a move she termed as her “first real deep dive into government.” She worked on advancing former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy agenda and diversifying the State Department. However, she returned to campus in less than a year after being dismissed from the State Department, which Politico reported was due to allegations of an “abusive” management style. Anonymous State Department sources alleged that she made homophobic comments, accused people of having affairs, and abused her authority, all charges that Skinner denied. In an interview with The Tartan, she characterized some of the reporting as “out of context” and denied making any homophobic remarks. She claimed that most of the internal conflict had stemmed from her big plans for the Office of Policy Planning. She also noted that no official State Department investigation has been made prior to her departure. Several high-profile diplomats and colleagues, including some at Carnegie Mellon, came to her defense over these reports.

In October 2019, some current and former IPS students spoke to The Tartan under the condition of anonymity about the circumstances around her dismissal from the State Department, and expressed mixed feelings about her return to Carnegie Mellon University and disappointment at her controversial remarks on China.

More recently, Skinner has come under scrutiny for her appointment of former Ambassador to Germany and Acting Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration Richard Grenell as a senior fellow at IPS, which sparked swift backlash among students and faculty members. The announcement of the appointment in June 2020 was met with condemnation as many felt that Grenell’s highly divisive rhetoric had no place at Carnegie Mellon. As calls increased to rescind the appointment, including signed petitions from thousands of students and hundreds of faculty members, Skinner released a statement defending her department’s decision, citing her commitment to “intellectual diversity.” In an interview with The Tartan, elaborating on her department’s decision to hire Grenell, she stated that she hired Grenell not for his viewpoints but because of his background. She also explained that it is standard to bring former government officials into academia, a practice that is now being scrutinized as universities face pressure to vet ex-officials from the Trump administration. The controversy surrounding his hiring reignited, drawing local and national press coverage, after the 2020 presidential election when Grenell started spreading election misinformation about voter fraud after Trump’s defeat.

On Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol Hill riots, Skinner sent an email to colleagues who expressed their disappointment at a press release that IPS put out congratulating Grenell on being awarded the National Security Medal on the same day of the riots. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that when presented with Grenell’s false claims about the election, she wrote that “Many people are seeing different facts and parts of the story about what happened in each state” in an email chain, redacted screenshots of which were leaked on the Overlooked at Carnegie Mellon Facebook group. While she conceded that she had made “process fouls" in terms of the timing of the press release, she rejected claims that Grenell’s incendiary tweets could have had an effect on the Capitol Hill violence. She also did not respond to the questions in the email chain on whether she believes Biden won (she admitted later that she believes Biden won when pressed in an interview by The Chronicle of Higher Education).

In the announcement email about Skinner stepping down, Garrett wrote that Carnegie Mellon University and Skinner “remain unwavering in their commitment to the mission of IPS and to fostering an environment where all viewpoints and the free exchange of ideas are welcomed as the bedrock of our academic community.” He also announced that Dr. Mark Kamlet, university professor of economics and public policy and provost emeritus, will assume interim leadership of IPS.