Keeping the 'Call of Service'

GUEST COMMENTARY

In October 1991, my life changed profoundly. As I entered the gym of the Maynard School in Cambridge, one child stood apart from his peers as they celebrated their afternoon freedom. He was a small Black boy, slumped against the corner of the gym's stage. "Smile," I joked to him, "it don't cost nothing." He responded with a glare repelling enough to send any well-meaning Harvard kid back to the artificial comforts of the "other Cambridge." As it turned out, this boy had been punished for being "too rambunctious," and he wanted nothing less than to spend his period of confinement with me. Naively, I persisted. By the end of the day, however, the only thing I had to show for my noble efforts to befriend this angry five-year old was that he hated "stupid kinder-garten girls."

This angry little boy and I have been Brothers now for over three years. I don't know what caused him to change his mind about me that fall. What I do know, however, is that his decision to ask me to be his Big Brother--and my decision to accept--has forever transformed both our lives. In light of recent tensions over the scope and future of undergraduate public service at Harvard--manufactured largely by the ambiguous recommendations for restructuring contained in the Maull/Lewis "Report on the Structure of Harvard College"--I have spend a disproportionate amount of time lately cherishing my Sibling relationship. Moreover, I've been thinking more generally about public service and social responsibility, especially as they relate to the academy.

More than any watershed historical monument or poetic irony, the most important lesson I learned at Harvard was taught to me during a groggy morning lecture in Memorial Hall, coincidentally around the same time I decided to become a Big Brother. Sharing the spiritual verse of Dorothy Day, Professor Robert Coles '50 sat humbly at the front of the stage and whispered: "There is a call to us, a call of service--that we join with others to try to make things better in this world." It was, therefore, not surprising to see these inspiring words on the back cover of his latest book, appropriately entitled The Call of Service. When I was an undergraduate, both Coles and Harvard embodied the truth of Dorothy Day's words, convincing me that I belonged to a community of public servants whose mission was, indeed, "to try to make things better in this world." And so, I tried.

For years, and in many ways, Harvard has echoed this "call of service." In 1989, just before I arrived for the Freshman Urban Program, President Derek C. Bok sent all incoming students a letter, urging us "to devote [our] talents and energies in generous measure to the problems and welfare of others less fortunate than [ourselves]." In the spring of 1994, in launching the $2.1 billion University Campaign, President Neil Rudenstine acknowledged that Harvard "needs to serve society...through the work of [its] faculty and students...[b]y old methods and new, [it] must participate even more fully." In October 1994, FAS Dean Jeremy Knowles assured a distinguished gathering of alumni/ae that undergraduates and public service are the bedrock upon which Harvard rests its reputation for diversity and excellence. Indeed, time and again, the University has articulated this "call of service."

In recent months, however, the ideological consensus over public service has been shaken perhaps dismantled. By addressing structure only at the highest levels, the Maull/Lewis Report neglected to address the broader consequences its recommendations would have on undergraduates, program staff, and, most importantly, the communities currently, and ably, served. Accordingly, these recommendations (which, by the way, were written after consulting only two students) unleashed a flurry of controversy and student-administrative crossfire. To thoughtful, reasoned student opposition, the administration paid token attention; the faculty remained hope-lessly silent. Ultimately, the failure to engage initially and honestly with students challenged the validity of "service" rhetoric long espoused by Harvard administrators.

Does Harvard truly believe in the "call of service"? Certainly, Dean Knowles' recent decisions about restructuring suggest that it does; last week, he announced his plans to consolidate administrative mechanisms while maintaining current staff resources and continuity through the next year and a half. For the time being, at least, the University has acted responsibly, with student and community interests in mind.

The future, however, is less certain. If the rhetoric of "service" is to remain a reality, several things need to happen. First, administrators must include students in all future discussions of public service, from top to bottom. Secondly, the role of the faculty oversight committee must be clearly defined so that program issues do not take a back seat to debates over budget cuts and benefits. Faculty must be supportive, proactive, and secondary in the administration of public service. Until senior faculty travel to Dorchester--or even Central Square--to tutor, serve food, or run summer programs, they should not be invested with the power to control those who do. Lastly, everyone at Harvard--from after-school tutors to Dean Knowles--must remember that what gets decided in University Hall resonates far beyond the protective gates of Harvard Yard. If Harvard is self-important enough to believe that it affects the world, it has a responsibility to remember that this world is filled with people who carry the disproportionate burden of Harvard's mistakes each time it renders a hasty decision.

In January 1993, economic and personal desperation reached a tragic and nearly fatal crescendo within my Little Brother's family. What followed was an urban social services nightmare even people like Bob Coles would find difficult to narrate. I will never forget my Little Brother's small, trembling body as he lost himself in the temporary safety of my embrace in the cold, dark corridor of his apartment building that awful day. As I walked back to Quincy House, by way of Harvard street, I paused between snowflakes, tears frozen to my cheeks, enraged that I couldn't save him from the frightening uncertainty of that moment. In the months that followed, during which I spend a disproportionate amount of time with my Little Brother and with Cambridge Human Services, I enlisted the support of those most dedicated to public service at Harvard to assist both of us as we struggled to make sense of our confused--and temporarily shattered--world.

As the evolving debate over public service gives way to changes in the existing infrastructure, Harvard must be mindful that any decisions it makes ultimately affect the lives of those who, like my Little Brother, are often forgotten during teas at the Faculty Club and meetings in the offices of deans. After months of expressing my discontent with the Maull/Lewis Report, and with the administration's handling of student concerns, I applaud Dean Knowles for his recent decisions. I remain ever-cautious, however, of Harvard's precarious balance between rhetoric and reality.

The "call of service" is the most profound and charitable of human instincts. As I prepare to spend Christmastime with my Little Brother, I urge Harvard to reflect upon its public mission, and to remember that the miraculous gift it offered him and me--and countless others like us--was not born of the digestible rhetoric of dinner speeches to alumni/ae, but rather of the real, consistent, unwavering commitment to the programs that brought us together, and to the very "call of service" that has kept us together.

Timothy Patrick McCarthy '93 is currently a doctoral candidate in American history at Columbia University. At Harvard, McCarthy was Central HAND Coordinator, on FUP Steering Committee, and a PBH volunteer. He remains a Big Brother.