Parting Shot: Harvard's Culture of Secrecy

One of the first things Harvard freshmen hear when they arrive in Cambridge is a ringing statement of the University's mission from the Deans assembled for the College's convocation. A University, they say, aims to teach you not any specific body of facts, but instead serves a more ambitious purpose: to teach you how to think. Indeed, developing the capacity to think critically has come to be the guiding mission of American liberal arts education.

How well Harvard's classrooms really teach critical thinking is a question for another day. What is clear to me after three years, though, is that the conduct of the men and women who run Harvard poisons the atmosphere of open and honest inquiry that Harvard purports to stand for. The Harvard administration is run with about as much tolerance for open debate on its actions as a two-bit dictatorship. For those of us who have worked at The Crimson, Harvard's secretive arrogance is a constant frustration. It should bother anyone who cares about the quality of a Harvard education as well.

Harvard's intrasigent secrecy stifles what is perhaps the most important, critical ability the alleged next generation of world leaders can learn. Instead of encouraging critical engagement with our own community, Harvard teaches apathy, indifference and obedience to the world around us.

The ongoing search for the next president of Harvard--which the presidential search committee tries its hardest to keep absolutely secret--is the most egregious current example. The committee, comprised of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers goes to extravagant lengths to maintain this secrecy.

Last time around, in 1991, a search committee member was so incensed to see a Crimson photographer at a New York hotel where search meetings were held that he assaulted him, attempting to confiscate his film. I sincerely hope that the leadership of The Crimson will press charges against any of the nine committee members if they try any similar shenanigans this year. This year, they are slightly more sophisticated. At the beginning of this year, overseers were told explicitly not to talk to the campus newspaper.

Harvard justifies its secrecy in this case on the flimsiest grounds. Publicizing the names of candidates, the committee reasons, would discourage strong contenders from allowing themselves to be considered. Especially for candidates with high profile jobs, news that they are considering leaving could be bad for their reputation.

One might think the Corporation would actually want to weed out candidates who didn't want the job enough to take the risk. Regardless, it's a sign of truly misguided priorities that the Corporation places the political comfort of a handful of academics over the right of the University community to openly debate its own future.

Not surprisingly, policies that discourage informed, critical discussion of specific candidates have led to low interest in the search. The number of nominations submitted in response to the Corporation's perfunctory letter soliciting input on the search plummetted in comparison to previous searches. It's hard to attribute this decline to any specific factor, but Harvard's concerted effort to keep students in the dark on important decisions surely hasn't helped.