Showdown at University Hall

Two weeks ago I got a peek, brief but profound, at the intimate workings of Harvard University at the heart of its generative core, University Hall. Like most of my experiences at Harvard, this one began with a rejection. Over the past few years I have acquired the habit of submitting essays to the Bowdoin Prize Essay Contest for Undergraduates. I no longer do it because I have any serious hope of winning: It has just become a habit, maybe even an addiction.

On April 6 at 4:54 p.m. when I rushed from Gnomon Copy to University Hall to submit the required evidence of my intellectual inferiority--five copies of my essay--that will eventually be used to dismiss me from consideration, I could hardly have expected what came to pass. I charged up the steps of University Hall in my characteristic race against time to meet the 5 p.m. deadline. A man and woman halted my advance.

"University Hall is closed," they said.


"Living wage rally. They're not letting any students into the building."

I was dumbfounded. I had spent the last 12 hours fine-tuning an essay for a contest that now, it seemed, I wasn't going to be allowed to enter. This must have been the fastest rejection from the Bowdoin Prize Essay Contest in its history. I didn't see any demonstrators.

"What living wage rally?" I asked.

They pointed across Harvard Yard to a crowd of subdued students carrying posters and placards, quietly clustered around President Neil L. Rudenstine's office in Massachusetts Hall. All of a sudden I saw the logic. They thought that I was a spy sent from across the Yard to infiltrate the University's administrative headquarters and carry some hapless administrator down the stairs in a commemoration of the "Harvard riots" of 1969.

I explained they had nothing to fear from me.

"They're not letting any students into the building," they said. "Why don't you go around to the back. The guards there might be able to let you in."

By now it was 4:58 p.m. and I saw my chances of submitting an essay to the Bowdoin Prize Competition quickly diminishing. So I raced around the building where I correctly identified the security guards in charge. I decided to avoid them. I sprinted up the stairs just as they noticed me and came running.

"You're not allowed in the building!" they shouted.

"But I'm trying to meet a deadline for the Bowdoin Prize Essay. It's due today at 5 p.m.!"

"Well we don't know anything about that. Anyway the people in the building have all left by now."

As the male security guard said this, the backdoor opened and two women came out. I came down from the steps to talk to the guards, hoping that the developments of the past few minutes might shame them into admitting the logic of my point of view.

As far as I could tell, I still had 30 seconds to meet the deadline, and I was starting to feel desperate. In the distance, wearing a long fluttering trench coat, the dignified figure of Dean Archie C. Epps III, rounded the far corner of University Hall. I abandoned the security guards and rushed over to his side.

"Well hello there young man!" he greeted me. I explained the details of my predicament as calmly and as quickly as I could, while he cocked his head to one side.

"Submitting a prize essay, are you? Why don't you just go up there and try the door?" he said pointing to the other backdoor of University Hall.

"But those guards already told me I couldn't go in. Besides the door is probably locked."

"Just go on. Just try the door. I'll watch from here."

What a weird predicament. I crept up the stairs. Just as I reached the door and tried the latch, the security guards noticed and once again came running…

By now it must have been 10 minutes past five. I went back to Dean Epps--who didn't seem like he wanted to get involved--and coaxed him over to talk to the security guards. I soon saw that their conversation was going nowhere. I had to take matters into my own hands.

We were standing near the back entrance of University Hall. Peering through the basement window into the Harvard Prize Office, I saw a man bent over a typewriter. I went over to the window and tapped on the glass. Eventually he saw me, fiddled with some levers and pulleys and cracked open the window.

"I've been trying to turn in an essay for the Bowdoin Prize Contest for the past half hour. But the people out here won't let me into the building," I told him.

"What? There's a competition deadline today?"

"Yes. At 5 p.m."


"The Bowdoin Prize Essay Contest!"

"The Bowdoin what…?"


"Well why don't you come down here and hand it in?"

"Because the guards aren't letting me in."

"Well why don't you just hand it in through the window?"

I went to remove the screen that covered the window, the only obstacle keeping my essay from the Prize Office. The security guards standing behind me had been talking animatedly with Dean Epps for the past five minutes. But when I started removing the screen they stopped.

"Hey what are you doing? You're not allowed to remove that screen! That's defacing public property."

"But that man in there said I should hand in my essay through the window."

"Well you can't remove the screen."

I was exasperated. "So what can I do?"

"I don't know. I guess he can come out of the building to receive your essay."

The man met me at the back door of University Hall a minute later and accepted my Bowdoin Prize Essay Contest submission. A great sense of relief and triumph flooded through me as I stepped down the stairs and past the guards. As I stepped out of the shadow of University Hall I felt a beatific smile taking charge of my face. There was nothing else they could do to get in the way. I had won my battle with Harvard University.

Still, as I started walking back toward Winthrop House I distinctly heard one of them say, "So what is it we were hired to do, anyway?"

It's a question I wish Harvard administrators would stop to ask themselves.