Telling Tales of a University Not So Liberal
Trumpbour's Collection Challenges the Reputation of the 'Liberal Boutique'
Conspiracy theorists will love the new edition of How Harvard Rules. So will the University's ever-present crop of crusading campus activists--particularly those who contributed to the book.
But anyone seeking a truly hard-hitting analysis of Harvard's role in American society may find this collection of 26 essays somewhat disappointing. Intended to debunk the myth of Harvard as a "liberal" institution, How Harvard Rules seems content for the most part to reveal what is already common knowledge about the University's odious deeds.
How Harvard Rules
Edited by John Trumpbour
South End Press
$16.00; 452 pages
Contained in the book's 452 pages is exhaustive documention of almost every University scandal to be unearthed in the past 25 years: CIA funding of research at the Center for International Affairs; the attempted sale of University posts to a Texas couple in 1987; the denial of tenure to Chester Hartman because of his political leanings; and on and on.
The authors take a variety of pot shots at the conservative biases of many of the University's most cherished scholars. Richard Pipes, Adam B. Ulam, and Harvey C. Mansfield take much of the flak in the arena of politics and the social sciences, while scientists such as sociobiologist E.O. Wilson take their lumps in another section.
Also given extensive treatment in How Harvard Rules are the various ways in which racism and sexism are tolerated--and even institutionalized--by students and faculty alike.
All of this material is interesting, but hardly earth-shattering. Chances are that the majority of people interested enough in Harvard to buy the book will know most of it already.
How Harvard Rules deserves praise, however, for its attempt to trace the historical roots of the University's flaws. It does an admirable job of documenting Harvard's extensive connections with the Cold War military-industrial complex and detailing the transformation of the University from old-boy clubhouse to pseudo-corporate bureaucracy during the 18-year tenure of President Derek C. Bok. The authors deserve credit, if only for collecting into one volume all the information that tends to get lost in an institution whose memory rarely extends more than four years.
Sadly, however, the book does little to break new ground. The back cover promises to open a "new window" on the University's operations; instead, it treats readers to an extended view of the window that has been wide open at least since 1969.
As a brief statement of purpose in the front of the book explains, the original edition of the work contained "numerous documents" which student activists "liberated" from University Hall during their April, 1969 takeover. The new edition was obviously undertaken with a vastly different spirit. How Harvard Rules contains almost no new information. No secret documents. No juicy scandals.
The writing, for the most part, is uninspired. A harsher critic might say that it is just plain dull. Almost never does a sentence in How Harvard Rules cry out to be read.
And the text is sprinkled with periodic errors in grammar, which do little to increase the book's credibility. To pick an example more or less at random, Andrew Kopkind's essay on "Living with the Bomb: The World According to Bok" reads: "When Harvard University encounters nuclear weaponry, they do so as equals," Even if Harvard were a "they," the two halves of the sentence wouldn't agree. Sloppy proofing cannot help but suggest sloppy thinking.
And on at least one occasion, How Harvard Rules plays a little fast and loose with the truth. A piece on Harvard's relationship with the city makes a glancing reference to the destruction last December of the Georgian-style Gulf station which used to grace a Mass Ave. lot across the street from the Harvard Union. "In order to clear the way for a posh new hotel, Harvard razed a building it owned just days before it could be declared a historic landmark," write authors Zachary Robinson and Oscar Hernandez. Just about 500 days. The Gulf station would have turned 50 in June of this year--at which point Harvard still could have destroyed it with permission from the city Historical Commission. It's a minor point, but it makes me wonder how many errors a more astute reader would have caught.
For all its flaws, however, How Harvard Rules contains several noteworthy pieces of writing. One particularly bright spot is Jamin B. Raskin's analysis of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement at the Law School. CLS, which challenges the objectivity of the law by examining the ways legal systems work to reinforce political and economic elite, has become one of the last strongholds of real radicalism at the University. Consequently, Bok and the Law School's conservatives have made every effort during the last few years to dismantle--or at least discredit--the movement. Raskin's sarcastic digs at this process are in and of themselves worth the $16.00 purchase price.
Raskin also manages to take a few sharp digs at CLS itself, nothing that the movement has quickly managed to incorporate itself into the status quo. "It is often said that you can tell CLS militants because they tie up the Xerox machine at Cravath, Swain & Moore," he remarks, suggesting that the movement lacks a sense of purpose.
Also interesting is an essay by D. Joseph Menn '87 describing the role of ad hoc commitees in tenure decisions, focusing on the activities of the "invisible kingmaker" in the process, Pierce Professor of Philosophy Burton S. Dreben. Menn's piece reads more like investigative journalism than a history paper, which makes for a refreshing change. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Menn is the former city editor of The Crimson--the post I currenly hold. But it's still a good piece anyway.)
But these two articles are not the only worthwhile pieces in How Harvard Rule. Though not all the scandals and controversies discussed within the book's pages are as well-documented as they should be, the book's editors have been realtively conscientious in their collecting them in a single volume.
If How Harvard Rules has a real flaw--and it does--it is that it plays into the very myth it claims to dispel. Are we supposed to be surprised at the sick way Bok manages to hush up controversy by buying off his critics? Why should Harvard be any better than, say, the University of Wisconsin? Or, for that matter, General Motors? Should Harvard maintain a higher standard of conduct simply because it is Harvard? I am perfectly willing to believe that the leaders of this University are more intent the on extending their own influence than in advancing the causes of truth, justice and freedom. So are the leaders of almost every other large bureaucratic organization in this country--notably the federal government.
The authors of How Harvard Rules are by no means the only University critics who buy into the mystique that the University exists as a world unto itself. This newspaper, for example, has unswervingly cowtowed to the "politically correct" beliefs of the moment for most of the past 35 years. But every time The Crimson appends a class year onto a Harvard graduate or capitalizes the "u" in University, it lends strengthens the idea that Harvard places an indelible stamp on the forehead of all those who cross its path.
Pointing the finger is not the way to address Harvard's faults, numerous though they may be. It merely leads critics to believe that they, by power of intellect or strength of moral conviction, are superior to those they castigate. In their open attack on the University's backward-thinking leadership, the authors of How Harvard Rules fall prey to the very belief they should seek to dispel: the myth that Harvard ought to represent the best.