The letter objects to the “apparently docile political behavior of the undergraduate student body” despite controversies over the preservation of civil liberties and the war in Iraq. It contends that the University is not fostering an environment conducive to “civic courage and political engagement.”
Gilbert S. Doctorow ’67, the Belgium-based businessman who wrote the letter and is organizing the effort to add signatures to it, said yesterday that the letter was not aimed at undergraduates directly, but at Harvard’s “powers that be.”
“It’s intended to be an introduction, a door-opener, the start of a conversation with President Faust,” Doctorow said. “There are clear ideas behind the very diplomatic language.”
A Mass. Hall spokesman said yesterday that Faust had not read the letter, and declined to comment further.
Several signatories said their own undergraduate experience when civil rights and Vietnam War protests were at their height made them particularly attuned to the lack of visible campus activism.
“I can’t imagine that anyone wasn’t political in some fashion,” said Jeremy P. Kagan ’67, now a professor of film studies at the University of Southern California. “The energy of our time allowed the expression of anti-war and anti-government activities to be both vocal and intense.”
But Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, a lecturer at the Kennedy School who studies social movements, said yesterday that the political circumstances of the 1960s make comparisons with modern issues difficult.
“I wish that every generation had a protest energy that it tapped into that resulted in quick kinds of mobilizations, but that’s just not how the process of social change happens,” he said.
McCarthy said that in general, he doesn’t think today’s Harvard students are politically disengaged, just that they express their involvement differently than their counterparts did 40 years ago.
“It’s not so much a rising tide of apathy—what I see is a different kind of engagement, one that is often more mainstream than it is confrontational,” McCarthy said.
While the several signatories contacted by The Crimson last night all expressed an overall commitment to its aims, some declined to defend the assertion that Harvard students are generally disengaged, and some voiced disagreement about the specific details included in the missive, including its hypothesis that Harvard’s admissions criteria may be contributing to student apathy.
“I like the idea of it because I like the idea of stimulating the discussion,” said Kagan. “For me, I was quite willing to add my name to this even though I wouldn’t have written the specifics the way they were written.”
McCarthy said there are “multiple ironies” in having alumni who grew up among the turbulent atmosphere of 60s protests calling for the University to create a task force to discuss the issue.
“De Tocqueville once said, ‘When Americans don’t know what to do, they create a committee,’” McCarthy said.
—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.