Trouble in Laputa

The Schmidt-Daly Memos By Robin Schmidt and Charles U. Daly

ONE OF THE nicest things about exams is the way they cut through convention and go right to the heart of the matter--any matter. Take the idea of a university. Most of the time, nobody admits to knowing what it is. President Bok announces the time has come to revolutionize it and re-establish a consensus that will last 20 years, Dean Rosovsky sets up six or seven task forces to discuss it. In the meantime things limp along somehow without their assistance, and late in December everyone goes off, still in the dark, to celebrate the season of peace and goodwill. Bok says an important point of the idea of a university, whatever it is, is to enable people to acquire moral values. However, he rarely indicates what values he has in mind. But once exams start, all the nonsense is forgotten. Frivolous questions like "Do you need anything from the Square?" evoke not trivial requests for cookies or soap but sober, serious replies, like "Yes, the Monarch Notes for The Red and the Black." And as students settle down to serious work, Harvard, too, turns to serious business-administering the grades so essential to rational decision-making by law schools and banks.

Another nice thing about exams is their reassurance that the law schools and banks will get their money's worth. This is especially important this month, because of President Ford's recent suggestion that the country may soon run into some economic problems. Will the folks who run the economy be equal to the occasion? These are the times that try rising young men's souls. The summer aide and the sunshine executive vice president shrink in this hour from the service of their country, and the aides and executive vice presidents of tomorrow will have to learn quickly, so as to take their falling comrades' places in time.

If you concentrated on Harvard administration memos, you might not even be aware that Harvard provided many of these important people--although you would know that even without exams, the administrators are learning, too. The improvement in administration memos over the last three years is absolutely astonishing. It's hard to believe the memos published by The Crimson this month in which Robin Schmidt and Charles U. Daly talk about upgrading President Bok's public image come from the same administration as the memo on Harvard's attitude toward its investment in Portuguese Africa, written by Stephen B. Farber '63 and published by The Gazette in the spring of 1972, That memo was solemn and uninspired.

Students had just taken over Mass Hall, demanding that the University sell its stock in Gulf Oil, whose tax payments helped prop up Portuguese rule in Angola. Student picketers circled Mass Hall, 24 hours a day, mindful of what had happened to the occupiers of University Hall a few years back and the mining of Haiphong harbor earlier in the week. The Kuumba Singers sang and six or a dozen people played bongo drums. If Farber had been thinking about Harvard's image, there might have been some reason for it. But the Gazette memo talked only of much loftier issues: the real forces at war in Angola, the attitudes proper to large businesses with imperialist interests, and the problems in institutional ethics forced on large universities with imperialist investments. The memo was higher-minded than Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and almost as boring. Bok came out with a statement shortly thereafter, to the effect that much as the University would like to sell its stock in Gulf, its conscience would not permit it to turn its back on black Angolans' problems. With Farber's memo in The Gazette to prepare people, the statement didn't even seem anticlimactic.

THE ADMINISTRATION has learned a lot since then. The Schmidt-Daly memos may not be as funny as, say, the GSA's Kennedy Library report, but they come a lot closer than Farber did. From the coy disclaimer of Daly's opening call for "improving dissemination of news--particularly but not exclusively good news" to the calm, reasoned reiteration with which Schmidt finishes up ("And, as I said before, I think that rapport is important to the accomplishment of his goals"), the memos sparkle with wit and good humor. Concentrating on the memos' recommendations--to make "conscious use" of Dean Rosovsky for presenting "controversial" ideas, to "keep the scholarly concerns in mind," to "continue to head off" Stephen S.J. Hall's "pronouncements," to "do a drop by" occasional faculty functions so as to "show the flag"--can obscure the style that makes them so enjoyable. It obscures the allusions to literature ("They, for the most part, are also non-College. Worse yet, they are also non-Harvard. What greater sin could one commit in Lilliputia?"), religion ("Pusey was viewed as a stern Puritan who could raise money and handle things"), and political analysis ("I am sure the faculty would call it 'anti-intellectualism.' We can see it in such areas of society as disenchanted students, angry congressmen, disappointed parents, Gallup polls, etc."). Also high finance (the faculty, Schmidt says, wonders why Harvard has "suddenly become General Motors," while "faculty wives are just as vociferous about the weekly trip to Sage's as the ladies are in Southie, if somewhat more genteel.")

Like all good literature, the memos are as interesting for what they imply as for what they say outright. For example, the reasons most frequently given for inviting congressmen to the Institute of Politics are educational--to let students get a look at their elected representatives, and to let the elected representatives learn about the accumulated wisdom of American scholarship. In Daly's memo, though, congressional seminars are listed in the paragraph on how to "increase our participation in development of appropriate policies and legislation"--lobbying. Schmidt's memo cuts even deeper, straight to the weaknesses inherent in an electoral government. "I have always found," he remarks,

that the other side of a giant, arrogant ego is a painful desire to be petted and stroked. Where else would that apply more? (Except perhaps on Capitol Hill, but there they have to get used to having a shoe clerk tell them what dumb jerks they are every two years.)

At least the administration hasn't got that kind of giant, arrogant ego. No one could say that it isn't willing to learn fast. As recently as last spring, Bok would have been bewildered by this fall's memos. "That's disappointing," he remarked, referring to an earlier question about criticisms of the University as too much like a corporation. "Are there still these people raising this analogy to IBM and that sort of thing?"

AND THIS FALL, in a speech to the 40th alumni class, Bok indicated that time has also erased his earlier doubts about co-educational living. According to the class book, he explained that it helps people who would have been "wallflowers" under previous housing arrangements. On the other hand, the class book says Bok insisted that, although one of the dangers facing Harvard is pressure to accept unqualified minority applicants, Harvard has--so far--not compromised on this issue. Bok wasn't available last week to verify the report's account of his talk--he is on a two-week trip to Nigeria, Zaire and Kenya, where he is checking up on public health. May be this isn't the kind of particularly but not exclusively good news Daly had in mind. At least, no one in Bok's office or Harvard's news office last week seemed to know who is paying for the trip.

Anyway, it's nice to know someone's out there thinking about these things. It's hard to see what any of it will do for public health, or any of Africa's or America's other problems, or the idea of a university, or education at Harvard. But midway through exams, it certainly seems preferable to getting bogged down in Lilliputia. The administration is far beyond that kind of thing: If anything it might be compared to the third country Gulliver visited, the floating island of Laputa. Laputa's scholarly inhabitants crushed rebels by landing the island on their heads, built houses starting with the roofs and working down to the foundations, and attempted to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. Gulliver said he had never seen anyone more "awkward, clumsy and unhandy."