Notes From Experience

The Outgoing President Offers Commentary and Advice

Not so long ago, in a galaxy reasonably close by, there was a little...well, a medium-sized girl who came to an old, old school far away from home. The school was scary and the weather was cold, but the girl decided to stay and write for a newspaper. She decided that she wanted to be president. After many years, she became president and was happy. But her story was not over...until her board named someone else to succeed her and her term ended. Then she went home to get some sleep, returning only to write a parting shot before she headed off into the wilds of Borneo.

Well, actually, I'm just going back to Currier to work on my thesis. The wilds of Borneo would be easier.

Traditionally, the outgoing president of The Crimson gets to write a final farewell in the first paper of the new guard. This piece is supposed to be centered around a grand overarching Theme, such as the lack of morality in society or the wrongness of the Gulf War. Free from the constraints of being a responsible campus figure, the former president can pontificate on some Really Important Things.

I've rarely gone for grand, overarching Themes. Besides, I've already written two virtual magna opera for this very editorial page on semi-overarching themes. I don't think the world really needs another.

Thus, my parting shot will be a collection of recollections and brief judgements on matters that have caught my attention during the past few years. If you want a Theme...well, I guess it's about what I learned at Harvard, both inside and outside 14 Plympton Street. It's not original, but it's not really pretentious, either.

Many of my friends have asked me during the past few months if I've ever regretted joining The Crimson. I've thought it over and said no, telling them that I get bored too easily if I have too little to do.

Do I feel I've missed the "Harvard experience?" No. There's a myth that there is some Harvard experience that few people manage to glory in fully. Supposedly, these chosen few finish their four years with a sense of great accomplishment, while the rest of us wish we'd studied harder in Foreign Cultures or tried out for the band.

Everyone here seems to have the feeling that they're missing something that would make their lives complete. I've occasionally felt that way too. But the truth is that there is no one "Harvard experience." Nor is it possible to take "full advantage" of Harvard's extracurricular offerings, even without sleep.

This is hard for Harvardians to accept. Take me, for example. In high school, I was an award-winning debater, editor of the newspaper and in the honors choir. I thought I'd be able to repeat the experience here. Instead, I spent a lot of time at The Crimson, and squeezed in the occasional debate event and weekly two-hour chorus rehearsal.

If had been somewhat more motivated, maybe I would have spent more time on the debate circuit and less at The Crimson. If I had been more talented, perhaps I could have been in the Radcliffe Choral Society and spent less time debating and reporting. But you can't be a singing star, Crimson president (or hardworking executive) and a champion debater. It's not possible, even if you stick to guts and don't go to class.

If there is any "Harvard experience," it's about choice, and making decisions about one's life. All that junk you hear about Mother Harvard and her young...it's all true. If you don't want to get much out of Harvard, then stay in your room. But if you do want to take advantage of the place, pull out the Unofficial Guide and decide on five activities that look interesting. Attend their next meetings. Don't like your life? Take steps to change it. But don't look back in the spring of your senior year, complain that you didn't get enough out of Harvard and expect sympathy.

Consider it a warm-up for life, where decisions about career paths, places to live and children will probably be major concerns. The only true Harvard experience is wondering how exactly turkey gets "escalloped." Otherwise, it's up to you and your initiative.

Of course, this gives a somewhat splintered view of our fair university. Yup. There's a reason that the cover of last year's Commencement tabloid in The Crimson had a shattered Harvard seal on the cover.

Nowhere have I seen this more intensely than in race relations on campus. True, as President Neil L. Rudenstine has told me in interviews, it's not Bosnia. Nor is it Birmingham in 1950. But is a pretty tense place to be at times.

Ironically, if there is one area that Harvard students become more conservative in as their time here goes on, it's race..(This is based on a highly unscientific survey that my Statistics teaching fellow wouldn't even give me my needed "pass" grade on, of course.) I've seen my friends and acquaintances become more liberal regarding gay and lesbian issues, abortion rights and environmental concerns. But I've seen many people go from Democratic to Republican views when it comes to race and minority affairs.

Why? Well, I think job searching is a part of it; in the past three years, many are the newspaper internship posters I have seen that say "minorities especially encouraged to apply" or "this program open to minorities only." This phenomenon has become relatively common. Think that the furor over "reverse discrimination" might die down soon? I doubt it, not with colleges turning out kids accustomed to thinking of themselves as disadvantaged in the job market--because they're white.

Of course, no one is ever going to cross the street when they see these kids coming, or pull their cars over because of the color of their skin. But diversity, both at Harvard and in the real world, is more and more portrayed as a zerosum game; for one person to win, another has to lose. Harvard's curriculum can "only" become more comprehensive if ethnic studies becomes a concentration, and that can "only" happen if resources are diverted from other areas. Both conservatives and liberals seem to have accepted this win-lose situation, as have many Harvard students.

The answer? Yeah, you wish. Racial problems on this campus won't go away if, as some have suggested, the numerous minority student organizations are abolished, nor will they disappear if the faculty becomes more diverse. Maybe the answer lies in finding commonalities while respecting differences.

Would that I knew, because this scares me. While The Crimson always needs stories to fill up its many columns, I would have preferred a harmonious campus to interesting front pages.

Which leads me into a diversion, and perhaps the only bold statement of this piece. The Crimson has always come in for its share of criticism for its coverage of race relations--and for just about everything, as a matter of fact. Do we screw up? Yes, too much. Should we get called on the carpet for it? Definitely. But this paper generally does a good job of covering this campus.

Some of the turmoil it gets into is the fault of mistaken reporters, heavy-handed editors or sloppy proofers. And some of it is the fault of students and administrators who don't agree with a given story because they're too biased about the issue, or because the opposing side was given any play at all. "Crimeds," especially reporters, put up with a lot of rudeness, abruptness, hostility and interference from the people they attempt to cover.

Consider this my revenge for all the times that sources--and you know who you are--have yelled at me, told me how ignorant I am or been plain mean to me.

And for those of you who think that I am removed from the non-Crimson world and thus from any direct criticism, you weren't around when my roommate became obsessed with an article that she disagreed with about a matter dear to her heart and proceeded to complain well-nigh incessantly about it. For two weeks. To strangers, acquaintances and friends. Trust me, I hear all about the inaccurate, superficial Crimson that misquotes just about everyone.

Onto another topic. For those of you who were wondering, I'm the fifth female president of The Crimson out of...well, more than 120 total. The record gets only slightly better when you take into account the first female president didn't come along until the latter half of the 1970s.

During Commencement of my sophomore year, a harmless prank by some first-years ended with the then-president of The Crimson grabbing the president's chair, holding it up in the air and shoving it at them as they stood in the paper's small women's bathroom. He scared the living daylights out of them (and me--I was in there too) by his behavior. Then he proceeded to make what could only be a gender-based slur against the crew, most of whom were women.

At the time, I was horrified and furious. But that was because he had lost control and in doing so had struck out against the people who depended on him. I minced the words much less than the action. I remember thinking at the time that a leader cannot lose it, no matter what happens. A leader can yell, or throw pencils or occasionally cry, but when they need to hold things together, they have to come through. A pretty powerful lesson, but one that had nothing to do with gender, despite the tone of the ensuing controversy.

But I was disturbed by what was said--i.e. "fucking cunts." If the reporters in question had been male, there would have been no generalistic words that were simply nasty to say (leaving out race-based slurs, of course). With a few words, a matter of control got turned into a matter of gender, among a bunch of liberal idealists who work hard to find gender-neutral synonyms for "gunman."

Some people felt the upshot of the "chair incident" would be the selection of a female president that November. Well, here I am. But my selection--and my presidency--were much more than that. There aren't "male" leaders and "female" leaders; there are good leaders and bad leaders. Paradoxically, The Crimson seems to have taught me both how much and how little gender maters in life in general. For all you ambitious Harvard women: You'll always be aware that you're female, but obsess about it and you're in trouble.

I'm not quite sure where I go from here, except back to my Power-book to enter more thesis data and fine-tune my resume again. I don't think I came up with any grand Themes for the 50 column-inches that I promised the new editorial chair, and whether I came up with any insight is anyone's guess.

One thing, though: if you didn't like it, I don't care. It's Andrew's worry now.

Marion B. Gammill was president of The Crimson in 1994.