No 14: Publicity

We're being watched-and not just by drifters

According to LexisNexis, the past seven days have seen Harvard cited in the headline, lead paragraph, or synopsis of 126 major newspaper stories. Yale was in 68. Princeton, a paltry 40.

All eyes are on our ivory tower, noting everything from our cure-finding medical research to our Nobel Laureates to our president, foot firmly planted in his mouth. At times, the spotlight burns. It’s not easy being simultaneously lauded for academic excellence and derided for academic inflation, for instance. And the media coverage of Harvard isn’t always fair and balanced, even by Fox News’ standards.

We’re the Bill Clinton of the college set: we’re powerful, and for every positive story about our contributions to academia or science, there’s one more stained dress. As with the coverage of the photogenic genius-cum-trainwreck Clinton, the coverage of Harvard seems star-struck­—but when the New York Times specifically solicits Harvard’s female students for their thoughts on marriage, maybe the fascination has gone too far.

Surely this attention comes from many predictable sources. Hundreds of Harvard alums work in journalism. Our academics are, in a word, trumps. But some of the coverage derives from resentment—that all-American love of taking down the $25 billion Goliath.

Nevertheless, Harvard’s administration keeps its ear to the wire, reading carefully when the papers print our name. Sustained internal and public criticism of Harvard’s social life­—even the New York Times covered it—led to the creation of Pub Nights and the hiring of an administrator who once managed Cornell’s frats.

And University President Lawrence H. Summers’ comments on the “intrinsic aptitude” of women in math and science led to a discourse on an issue that should be, but often isn’t, addressed. Subsequently, major papers (the Times, the Washington Post) and magazines (Time, Newsweek, the Economist) followed up on the issue, publishing what gender studies have actually shown.

Knowing we’re being watched, we defend our institution and critique it closely; we’re doubly aware of our faults and successes. Surely few other schools have such a lively internal debate: The Crimson’s editorials passed around in dining halls, the few meetings with Summers filled to capacity.

And, just to make this more meta, our internal criticism causes headlines. When FM bit the hand that fed us in our 2003 cover story “Should We All Just Have Gone To Yale?” Yale’s admissions office passed out copies of FM to touring students and the Yale Daily News covered our coverage.

Wait, was that just media on media on media? Doordropped just had a heart attack!