What the Kennedy School Got Wrong about Rick Snyder

Howard Husock

I ncompetent local officials in Newark have followed in the footsteps of their counterparts in Flint, Mich., and failed to prevent lead from tainting the city’s water supply. Don’t hold your breath waiting for liberal criticism of current mayor Ras Baraka (or his predecessor, Cory Booker) for their indifference to the health of black children. But perhaps this should be the occasion for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to revisit its cowardly decision to withdraw its fellowship offer to former Michigan governor Rick Snyder for what’s falsely portrayed as his venal indifference to the plight of Flint.

Here’s the background. The Kennedy School did not formally rescind its appointment of Snyder to be a fellow at the school’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Instead, in the wake of the public backlash over his role in the handling of the infamous — though exaggerated — lead-poisoning crisis over the Flint water supply, Snyder took the high road and withdrew. But Kennedy School dean Douglas Elmendorf effectively threw Snyder under the bus by saying, in the wake of a petition drive against the appointment, that “having him on campus would not enhance education here in the ways we intended.” The school, said Elmendorf, must study both successes and failures of government — but would look elsewhere for a study of failure, notwithstanding Snyder’s openness to discussing what he’s publicly called a failure of government at all levels.

Harvard — both Elmendorf and students — might have looked more deeply into the Flint situation before rushing to judgment. There is no doubt that Flint children were exposed to more lead than desirable in the city’s drinking water — but, as Drs. Hernán Gómez and Kim Dietrich, specialists in toxicology and environmental health, wrote in the New York Times , that is no reason to conclude they were “poisoned.” Who knows but that the situation in Newark — which is receiving far less notoriety — might not turn out to be worse? It lacks, however, the storyline of a Republican governor and a majority-African-American city.

The dean, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, had an obligation to separate fact from spin. Instead, he has not only acquiesced amidst another storm of academic illiberality — he has misunderstood the school’s educational mission. It was my role for almost two decades to lead the Kennedy School’s development of case studies in public policy and management, such as the one that played out in Flint. The goal of our cases was consistent: not to identify good guys and bad guys, but to frame discussion of the complexity of public leadership.

Should the mayor of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, permit neo-Nazis to march in the city? The case involved the complex balancing of the First Amendment, the city’s public reputation, and its tourist economy. Should Hong Kong force relatively affluent tenants out of its public-housing system? The case involved the question of who deserves subsidies versus whether an income mix helped the public-housing system succeed. Should Seattle strive to recycle all its refuse — even if it’s less expensive to bury some of it in the deserts of eastern Washington? The case raised the question of the sometimes-conflicting goals between environmental preservation and cost — as borne by local taxpayers of various views and incomes.

When I first was appointed as case-program director, the goals of such elements of the school’s curriculum were explained to me by the late Richard Neustadt, a member of the school’s founding group and a renowned presidential historian. The question, he said, is the important thing. What’s more, he continued, the more difficult the question, the better. Because governing, thanks to competing interests, financial limitations, and lack of full information, is inherently difficult — while public judgment can be unforgiving, as Rick Snyder has found.

The Flint water crisis, with its tragic consequences for children harmed by lead in old pipes, is a potential classic Kennedy School case, one that would only be enriched by the contributions of an official deeply involved in it. One can envision the teaching plan. Let’s start by assuming that neither local officials nor Governor Snyder set out to devise the best way to poison the citizens of Flint. So why did the crisis occur? International students would have profited by their exposure to the U.S. municipal-finance system: A local budget deficit played a role in the city’s opting out of the safe water supplied by Detroit. Who should have intervened to correct the problem and when? Students with career plans in state government would confront the question of when they should push aside local officials. Why did Flint become a cause célèbre? Did the politics of the situation help or hinder resolution of the crisis?

There are enough questions in the Flint water case to fruitfully engage public-management students for multiple class sessions — not because it’s a matter of a simplistic morality play in which Rick Snyder is the villain, but because it’s so complicated. Because it’s hard — hard enough to be part of a Harvard curriculum.

It’s worth noting that Governor Snyder may have failed the citizens of Flint — as did its local officials, state environmental-quality officials, and arguably the federal EPA — but his record in office merits more than harsh judgment. By pushing Detroit into bankruptcy and appointing a capable emergency manager, he put that city on the road to economic recovery and growth. That’s not the record of someone unconcerned about minority citizens of a city that didn’t support him politically.

One would hope the Kennedy School and Snyder will reconsider, and he will be brought to Cambridge to share and reflect and his experience. At the same time, the school might want to invite one of its own alumni, Patrick Nip, Hong Kong’s secretary of constitutional and mainland affairs, who is at the center of the current crisis in that “special administrative region” (under Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was herself once the subject of a Kennedy School case about Hong Kong social services). Somehow one doubts that either would be quite as willing to answer tough questions as Rick Snyder.

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