The Rights Of the Minority


HARVARD sets great store by its own traditions, but there are some other traditions to which it should defer. That is the lesson the University should take away from its current conflict with several Jewish student groups, who are urging Harvard to reschedule Commencement so it does not fall on the second day of the Jewish holiday Shavuos.

From a practical standpoint it is now too late to move Commencement a day later, as the students are demanding. But the controversy should make Harvard aware of the insensitivity which it showed in not changing the date earlier, and help it avoid the same thoughtless attitude in dealing with various minority groups in the future.

As early as the fall of 1982, members of Hillel and some other groups had asked President Bok to postpone Commencement one day--till Friday, June 8--to avoid conflicting with the two-day holiday. Shavuos, which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, is celebrated by Orthodox Jews and some others: several national rabbinical authorities have ruled that attending Commencement ceremonies on that day violates religious law, while others say it contravenes the "spirit" of the holiday. In addition, the holiday poses problems for observant families of graduates, who cannot travel to attend the ceremony.

Nor is the situation an isolated, once-in-a-lifetime coincidence. According to the Jewish calendar, the same conflict will come up again in the 1990s, so setting priorities now is essential. Several other schools faced in recent years by the same situation--including Yale, MIT and Columbia--have demonstrated a commitment to the values of smaller groups within the community by rescheduling their commencement dates.

The University's stance on this matter follows a pattern of thoughtlessness, a more general problem that tradition-locked Harvard has had in responding to diverse groups as they merge with the community. The same stiff and narrow vision characterized College reaction to minority groups' campaign last year to list their events in the official freshman week calendar, or, earlier, to form a Third World Center; Harvard displays reluctance to bend from the immediate social values with which it is most familiar--an "integrated" class, a stable social setup, or, in this case, the "traditional" formula for scheduling of Commencement. In each case Harvard's reluctance to depart from its time-honored mindsets has led to embarrassment, conflict, and a group's perception that Harvard has little concern for group members' needs.

The Shavuos case is a perfect chance for Harvard to behave better. The harm is done as far as rescheduling goes, though the University is unquestionably at fault for not correcting the problem last year while it still could. For now, it should acknowledge and apologize for the slight to a segment of the community, perhaps by printing announcements in Commencement programs; it should do its best through alternative ceremonies and additional functions the next day to ease the effects of the conflict: and it should now promise in certain terms that next time the holiday and the Harvard formula conflict. Commencement will be rescheduled. At that time, there will be no excuse--even thoughtlessness--to do otherwise.