A Latter-Day Madison
Natasha Pearly '82 believes in fate. It was her destiny, she says, to inject democratic principle into Harvard's humdrum bureaucracy, even though powerful deans objected to the pain in their backsides. She couldn't help it. It had to be done.
Long before she became chairman of the Assembly, school administrators were sorry they crossed Pearl's path. As a senior at Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C., she became enraged at one especially incompetent bureaucrat, typed a five-page letter detailing the person's failures, and mailed copies to every local official she could think of--200 in all. When the bureaucrat threatened to sue Pearl for defamation, the story hit The Washington Post, and her nemesis was promptly fired.
Since Pearl came to Harvard, she has publicly accused deans and Faculty members of "institutional racism," "sexism," "intransigence," "distorting the facts," and general "sleaziness." Highest on her list of sins, however, has been violation of democratic ideals. "Harvard right now is being run by a bureaucratic clique," she says. In her ideal world, by contrast, an elected council of Faculty, students, and employees would govern the University. Administrators would have little discretionary authority. A student member of the Corporation would participate in investment decisions. Self-governance would be an important part of a Harvard education.
As a freshman, Pearl fully believed her alternate vision was possible. In the wake of the spring 1978 torchlight march for divestiture, the campus was full of energy. A new Student Assembly, the first in a decade, had sprung into existence. "I felt it was like destiny. I was psyched. I thought we could do almost anything. And I was glad to be here," she says.
With about a dozen other student activists, Pearl that fall founded the Coalition for a Democratic University (CDU), which pushed Harvard's administrative bodies to open their meetings to the public as a first step towards democratizing the University. Every liberal student organization was invited to join CDU, and most did. Next, CDU put up candidates for the new assembly. But their unexpected success--they took almost half the vote and won all the seats in several Houses--was the beginning of the end. CDU soon was labelled as a political party, and the Assembly split into two camps.
"Meeting after meeting all we did was debate whether there should or shouldn't be political parties in the assembly," Pearl remembers. "It was a time of great disillusionment. CDU completely collapsed, so a lot of us turned to planning for the boycott of classes."
The boycott was the pivotal event of Pearl's freshman year. On a balmy April day, hundreds stayed out of classes and marched around buildings to show their support for divestiture and Afro-American Studies. Two things stick in her mind about that day. One is that middle-aged men wearing dark suits carefully photographed the faces of all the boycott organizers, who were identifiable because they wore white armbands. And the other is that a minority group wanted to link arms and forcibly block students from going to classes.
"Older radicals told me how the FBI used to photograph students in the late '60s, so the men with cameras gave me this sudden feeling that we were opposing not just Harvard but the big order," Pearl says. "But what amazed me was that some people wanted to use force. That prompted me to want to know more about minorities on this campus and why they should be so angry. I mean really angry."
Despite the success of the boycott, freshman year ended badly for Pearl. Most of the constitutional conventioneers who had created the Student Assembly graduated. "There was a feeling that all the good people had left," she says, adding that the assembly "became much more of a resume activity, a status thing--if you can believe it ever had any status."
Pearl also got quadded, while her closest friends went to Lowell House. And she began to wonder about the effect of Harvard's competitiveness on women. She describes one of her freshman roommates as "someone who was just too nice." "I began to fell sorry for all the nice people here who get abused because most people--myself included are pretty self-interested," she says. Although most of her good friends in high school were female, she found it hard to get to know women at Harvard. "I began to think about what women have to give up to become competitive and get ahead, and that definitely contributed to my feminist consciousness," she adds.
In the fall of sophomore year, Pearl was admonished by the Ad Board for never turning in a plan of study. She finally decided on a special concentration in Modern Studies or "Modernism in Literature. Art and Film." It was turned down, but she kept on taking courses as though it had been accepted. That stubborness dedication, chutzpah, or whatever, paid off this year, when the Faculty at last granted her wish.
Pearl's interest in modernism was partly political. "It seemed to me that the artist in the 20th century was the closest thing to a real leader. Politicians haven't been as effective leaders as modern artists," she says, adding that "Today, nobody's leading anybody we're all sheep Not just at Harvard, but all over."
Hoping to give students more to say than Baaaa. Pearl began serving on the Dowling Committee charged with formulating a new student government as a sophomore. And she sacrificed an opportunity to become chairman of the assembly next fall to stay on the committee. At first, she left it was "a real chance to make changes not just in student government, but in Harvard governance." After the four students, three Faculty members and one administrator on the panel had met for a few months, however, she "realized there were limits on what we were going to get out of the administration." The most disillusioning aspect of working on the committee, she says, was that another student representative from the Committee on Undergraduate Education often sided with the administration and faculty on crucial votes.
"Before the committee started meeting we were worried about getting good, left-leaning faculty on it," she says. "But we never once considered the possibility that a student on it would be reactionary." For a long time, Pearl adds, the committee members" sat around having pleasant discussions," but then the meetings were closed to the press" and it suddenly got very acrimonious as we started taking votes." Several times, Pearl and Joseph McDonough '80, the two assembly representatives on the panel, considered walking out. They didn't, because they felt "a flawed structure would be better than none at all," Pearl says, adding, "I still have some misgivings about that."
A crucial issue for Pearl was guaranteeing minority representation on the proposed Student Council. She and McDonough were the only proponents of the idea on the committee. "I wanted the Faculty to recognize that you couldn't just write minority students out, and that a constitution that didn't write them in did in fact write them out," she remembers. "But one or two lone white voices trying to explain the effects of institutional racism to a group of skeptical students and Faculty was just not enough."
After the Dowling Report was "complete"--despite no mention of minority representation, abolition of the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR), reform of the Ad Board, or other items of concern to the assembly--Pearl took time off and went to Europe. She "had had it" with Harvard. But she gained a new appreciation for the United States. She met Irish Catholics trying to subsist on the tired soil west of the Shannon River. She slipped a Newsweek to an information hungry Romanian school teacher. A man poured a bucket of Sangria over her head in Pamplona. It was time to come home.
As chairman of the assembly this past semester. Pearl commanded a sinking ship. "It was a slow, quiet semester. The assembly had expired, and there was little to be done except wait for the new Student Council," she says.
Pearl has plenty of both admirers and detractors among student politicos and administrators. A dean says she is "a bit confrontationist," while an assembly member once accused her of being willing "to sell her mother" to get a new Student Council Ross D. Boylan '81-2, a former assembly member and outspoken critic of the Dowling Committee who publicly has disagreed with Pearl several times, nevertheless believes that "Natasha has always known what end is up and has taken a fairly radical but realistic position. She is seen by some students as being quite confrontational with the administration, but actually she's made compromises and taken what she could get."
When Pearl arrived at Harvard, she intended to go to law school and then make her way into politics No more. "If serving my country in Congress is going to be as useful as serving Harvard in the Student Assembly," she says, "then no way I want to spend my life doing that." Instead, she hopes to go to Ireland and be a writer.