Greetings from the Ad Board

This January, I got the e-mail that every Harvard student fears—an ominous note from my resident dean requesting that we meet as soon as possible.

Theories raced through my head.  Did I forget to put quotation marks around a few sentences in an essay I had written? Or was it a benign invitation to a friendly discussion?

After subsequent entreaties, the dean revealed that he wanted to talk to me about “initiations for The Crimson” that had occurred in December. I had just wrapped up my tenure leading The Crimson a few weeks earlier and thought I was out of the woods when it came to administrative inquiry and punitive measures. Evidently not.

In advance of the meeting, I frantically tried to figure out what purported offense at “initiations” had been committed and what my involvement had been. The Crimson welcomes over 100 new members to 11 different boards every semester in a celebration we call “Grand Elections,” so it was a daunting task to track down what might have piqued the Administrative Board’s interest.

After heavy investigation, I came up with one lead. Many of The Crimson’s boards ask their newly elected members to accomplish optional good-natured “missions” as part of the fun of elections day, which often include scavenger hunts, love poems to editors, and song-and-dance routines. The news board, in what most would consider fairly harmless fun, asked some of their members to get Hallmark greeting cards signed by someone in the registrar’s office.

One member brought flowers and chocolates along with his card in hopes of currying favor with the office workers.  He was instead approached by the manager and told that he was performing illegal solicitation. The manager then apparently filed a formal complaint with the Ad Board, alleging “disruption of the work day.”

As the meeting approached, though, I couldn’t bring myself to believe I was going to get Ad Boarded for a greeting card—I was sure it was some other issue of which I was unaware.

My dean, surprisingly, had not been informed as to the specific “charges” he was meeting with me about.  He had been tasked with obtaining more information regarding the structure of The Crimson and the nature of Grand Elections.  I would have to wait to find out what incident was at the heart of the matter.

Later that night, I got the news that I would be meeting with Jay Ellison, Secretary of the Ad Board, about the CVS card.  I was in shock.  Was I going to be suspended because The Crimson supposedly “disrupted the workday” at the registrar’s office with some flowers and chocolate?

Dean Ellison was surprisingly good-natured, despite my fears. He noted that the Ad Board was investigating the issue and had not decided whether or not to make it a formal case.  He asked me some basic questions and sent me on my way. I did not know whether to be relieved or more worried.

Over the course of the next several weeks, several of my peers went through the same process, including the managing editor, the associate managing editors, who run the news board, and the leaders of the election process on the news board.  The uncertainty and fear of Ad-Board retribution weighed heavy on our minds for weeks.

We were never told what the final outcome of the case was, but since I have not heard anything yet, I will assume it was thankfully dropped.  But this episode, for me, has served as emblematic of my dealings with the College administration.  As with many other issues, they were deeply upset by what seemed—to me, at least—to be inoffensive fun.

This semester, the College administration is out in force again, coming after The Crimson for egregious offenses like having new members sing “Cupid Shuffle” while wearing mouse ears in front of the John Harvard statue.

The Crimson perhaps takes an undue amount of heat because it elects such large numbers of people, and, obviously, I have only been exposed to the administration’s actions toward one organization.  But this shakedown is endemic of a deeper problem with the College’s wars on perceived hazing and underage alcohol consumption. In focusing on “low-hanging fruit” like The Crimson’s innocuous semesterly celebration, Deans David R. Friedrich and Suzy M. Nelson of the Office of Student Life squander time and money regulating celebratory, fun events highly unlikely to create any liability for the College. They also possibly miss some of the more serious offenses occurring behind closed doors, in organizations that are much smaller or not officially affiliated with Harvard.  My friends joining final clubs and other semi-secret organizations, for example, were effectively kidnapped for weeks at a time during their initiation.

This is not to say that I personally take issue with these longer, more involved types of induction processes, as my friends in other clubs seemed to greatly enjoy their initiations. For me, Grand Elections at The Crimson was one of the most enjoyable days I had at Harvard.  As long as an initiation process is voluntary and legal under Massachusetts hazing law—which we were always careful to follow to the letter when I led The Crimson—the College should avoid getting involved in any organization’s activities.  To be clear, all new members of The Crimson are told with complete sincerity multiple times before and during Grand Elections that they may opt out of any activity or the entire day with no repercussions.

The law defines hazing as any conduct which “willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person…[including] whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics...forced consumption of food, liquor, beverage, drug or other substance,” all of which I can say were fully avoided by The Crimson.  Presenting flowers, chocolate, and greeting cards do not make the list of offenses considered “hazing,” and certainly do not represent any potential liability for the College.

The random, unexpected dealing out of punishment by the Ad Board and the deans breeds fear and, ultimately, lack of respect.  If giving President Drew G. Faust a fake check for $1 billion—which we did during a previous Grand Elections and she said she found amusing—is allowable but presenting the registrar’s office with a Hallmark card is an offense worthy of months of investigation, there is no real way to know, as a student, where lines are drawn.  Thus we are faced with two options: accept the risk of suspension for every “greeting card” or forego Grand Elections entirely.

Based on my dealings with the administration and recent events, it seems that the College’s new attitude is more and more reminiscent of the cantankerous and unreasonable Dean Wormer from “Animal House,” who was ready to put wayward fraternities on “double-secret probation” without cause. The Crimson was far from a Delta House-esque nest of iniquity and hazing, but the fact that we are frequently being treated as such makes me think that the College is wasting time and resources in policing innocent events that many participants rate as some of their favorite undergraduate experiences.

Maxwell L. Child ’10, the former president of The Harvard Crimson, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.

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