A Puppet-String Commencement

Neil L. Rudenstine is a very smart guy. The Corporation and the Board of Overseers knew it two years ago when they tapped him to be Harvard's 26th president. This spring, Harvard students, faculty, staff and alumni discovered for themselves just what qualified Rudenstine to hold the premier post in American higher education.

It's hard to believe that a man who had so much to do with the choice of Gen. Colin L. Powell as Commencement speaker is that intelligent. The choice essentially guaranteed tomorrow's large-scale protests.

But try the following version of events. What if Rudenstine planned it just that way?

Rudenstine arrived at Harvard in July 1991, ready to take charge of what he presumably saw as a very outspoken, liberal-leaning university. Just more than a year before his arrival, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences took a strong stance against the military's ban on gays, voting to sever all ties with ROTC by May 1992.

But as time went on, Rudenstine realized Harvard was not the place he left in 1968. Loud student protests supported on many occasions by active faculty members were replaced by a largely silent Tercentenary Theater, even during the Gulf War.

And as Rudenstine finished his first year as president, he watched the May 1992 ROTC deadline creep closer. The Faculty was busy avoiding taking action, electing instead to allow six-month extension on a report on the issue.

The May deadline passed, and finally in November the report, including its recommendation that the University discontinue paying MIT $130,000 to cover the costs of Harvard students enrolled in MIT's ROTC program, reached the deaks of faculty members. But still the Faculty cowered before making a decision, shuttling the report back and forth from Faculty Council and full Faculty meetings. The opinions of Thomson Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53, who said he opposed the Faculty taking any stance on such a political issue as the gay ban, held sway.

The recommendations sat in desk drawers as Clinton won the presidential race, and the Faculty found another excuse not to vote: Better to wait, they said, for any definitive action by the president-elect.

Time charged on, and still the Faculty hadn't voted. Rudenstine was getting anxious that Harvard would never vote. Although the ultimate decision on ROTC lay with Rudenstine and the Corporation, he wanted public support before he simply made a unilateral decision against the program. Time, Rudenstine thought, to take action.

His solution? Powell.

Iaviting Powell to speak at tomorrow's Commencement was not the first public action Rudenstine had ever taken against prevailing views of the military establishment. In April 1968, as an assistant professor at Harvard, he and 400 other faculty members placed a two-page advertisement in The Crimson pledging their support for students at the College who resisted the Vietnam draft.

But while the advertisement was a clear indication of Rudenstine's feelings, inviting Powell seemed rather to demonstrate the president's support of the military and, given Powell's public pronouncements on the subject, of the gay ban.

Rudenstine, however, had no such intentions. By inviting Powell to speak, he hoped to finally get the Faculty off its collective derriere for the vote against ROTC.

It worked. In May, after a motion by Professor of English and Comparative Literature Barbara E. Johnson, the Faculty finally voted to accept the report's recommendations, paving the way for Rudenstine's eager rubber stamp.

The foundation for the vote was laid long before, however. Around November, when Rudenstine became aware of the Faculty's reticence, he somehow made sure the Board of Overseers would invite Powell, and the letter was drafted in December. To be sure, it was not clear that Powell would become such a vociferous supporter of the ban, but he had already spoken against it, and Rudenstine correctly anticipated him.

Of course, Rudenstine presumably hoped that the invitation would continue to spark protest, up to and through Commencement. And he did nothing to prevent tomorrow's protests.

In fact, Rudenstine has consistently stated his support for a peaceful protest, and, in the words of one protest supporter, last month he handed out Commencement Day Yard passes "like candy."

There's no way to know whether Rudenstine actually tried to engineer the massive protest planned for tomorrow. Even if he did, there's no way he'd admit to it.

Regardless, those of us who support lifting the ban should applaud his use of the Powell invitation to spur on the Faculty and student protesters, even if clever subterfug isn't really Rudenstine's game.

Come tomorrow, an awesome spectacle will face Powell when he takes the podium. Seven thousand pink balloons, each representing one gay soldier who has been discharged from the military since Powell took office, will be his audience.

Powell was in the Army. Boot camp is probably tougher than a chilly Commencement reception. But activists hope the repercussions of the protest will last far longer than his speech itself.

And they can thank President Rudenstine--literary scholar turned social engineer.

Why Neil Rudenstine is the smartest guy around