A tarnished view of Mass Hall politics
I never really wanted to go to Harvard, it just sort of happened. There was always the sense that I had been too close to it for too long, that it was time for a change. But the inexorable pressure of events had its way.
All through high school kids would ask me where I was going to go and snicker, knowing that whatever I said, the answer was almost predetermined: Harvard, One friend, to my extreme annoyance, always greeted me as John, son of Dean. On the other hand, I never had anything against the place except its proximity, and always thought it must be rather interesting.
I did want to make it here on my own. I was uncertain, during the rating interview, if my interviewer knew who my father was. Naively, I guessed (and hoped) he didn't because for forty-five minutes he gave no indication that he might. At the end of the Interview, however, he asked me if I had any questions, but quickly added "I guess you know more about it than I do." I conceded Harvard a TKO, but in retrospect he was also probably right.
I had at least seen Harvard from another side. A lot of it hadn't been pretty. The University rudely intruded into my life around the time of the strike. There were endless, bitter Faculty meetings on the radio, strained friendships all over, news of broken heads, rumors of student plots, riots, etc. Many faculty members who had strong ties to Harvard felt threatened, and surface tensions brought out more serious problems. What they perceived as a student attitude of "Who needs the University?" was met by an attitude of "Who needs the students?" I imagine that the same aura of crisis that hung over our household afflicted most faculty households.
Many people ask, now as then, if I and my father get along. I had been somewhat of a student activist in high school and it was generally obvious that my sentiments did not lie with administrators. The question must have seemed rather natural to them, but it always bothered me. In fact, we get along fine, and when the question came from someone I didn't know well it always seemed excessively personal. More annoying, although it generally comes from better friends, is the off-hand comment like "How does it feel to be the son of a fascist?" Until today, it was never said completely in jest. Now it is said as if the rejoinder "Isn't everyone?" is understood. Either way, I don't like it.
The strike probably marked the apex of Harvard's crisis, but for me and my family it was just beginning. That summer, while the family was visiting relatives in Los Angeles, President Pusey flew there for an odd and dramatic meeting with my father. On a park bench, with a nearby jack-hammer eliminating the possibility of an eavesdropper, Pusey asked him to become Dean of the College.
Like most teachers here, he did not covet administrative works. At the same time, he did not want to let Harvard down when it called on him. Much later I asked him why he took a job he so obviously didn't like. He said he felt Harvard was the greatest institution of its kind in the world. He didn't want to see it die.
He took it rather well, considering. His hair began to grey and his patience with students to thin, but most of the time there were few signs of stress. He made for himself a host of enemies, not the least of whom was the Crimson, which for years ran a picture of him holding a bull-horn and standing outside University Hall. Many students were more direct in their attacks. I remember vivid, scary accounts of harrassments and building occupation.
My mother took the whole thing much less calmly. She had always been a strong believer in civil rights and civil liberties, but then, in the case of the students, she was prepared to make an exception. I have since concluded that those who were emotionally close to faculty members of administrators but not physically close to the University were much more permanently affected by such events than were the faculty and administrators themselves. Some faculty wives still refuse to read or subscribe to the Crimson, and are still somewhat wary of students. In my mother's case, the attitude was understandable. She was not favorably impressed by my father's fear that someone might wire his car with a bomb, and she often worried that he might have a heart attack or something.
University Hall, at the time, seemed to offer (along with the strife) a good deal of promise and initiative. Chief issues, aside from the pervasive demonstration issues, were merger and educational reform, and U-Hall was in the proper vanguard. Now, by contrast, students seem routinely treated as distant and foreign by an administration which seems more concerned with cost and efficiency than anything else.
The sidelines-view of University politics which I was afforded (and the complaints I was privy to) gave two lasting impressions; it was generally petty and generally bitter. The occasional shiftless or dishonest fellow administrator was perhaps more aggravating than students, who were at least sincere. But these administrators hid behind a shield of respectability unavailable to students. While students felt they had to work outside the system, some administration felt they could go underneath it.
I had originally been skeptical about becoming a student here because I feared that too often my name and the proximity of my father would be a source of discomfort or embarrasment. The fear was exaggerated. Harvard is big enough and diverse enough so that the problem is outweighed by the benefits. But occasionally I feel as must the underworld henchman who "knows too much." Friends and family will guard their conversation because I have friends "on the other side." I'm getting tired of being sworn to secrecy.
Being a faculty kid has had only a minimal effect on my life at Harvard. It occasionally presents a problem, but only in matters of personal pride. For instance, I have been warned, time and again, not to take my father's course. My mother took a course from her father (different school). She had no problems until the end of the course, when she asked her section-man what grade she got. "What did you expect?" came the cold reply.
Some problems are less burdensome. One time my father mentioned to a friend and colleague that I was taking his small lecture course. After several weeks, the colleague reported back to my father that he had identified me as the kid with the crew-cut.
Every so often someone who was here at the time will wistfully say something to the effect of "You don't know what it was like in the (good old) days of the strike." I think I do. It was a more honest, more turbulent, more interesting time. It was also, I suspect, a much more trying time for relatives of faculty and administrators. I asked my friend and roommate, who is the nephew of someone on the faculty, if that fact had made any impact on his experience at Harvard. He gave me a long answer, the gist of which was "It's hard to say," I could not agree more.
John E. May '76 is the son of Ernest R. May. Professor of History and former Dean of Students.