Let Them Eat Cake

Harvard's 375th birthday celebration was an unfortunate symbol of excess

In a time of economic austerity when many Harvard workers and employees have lost their jobs and when executive compensation has still managed to increase, the University celebrated its 375th birthday in a rainy soiree fit for a king.

After months of planning, the University put on quite the party: Aside from a torrential downpour, a solo performance of “Happy Birthday” by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, and grand “voices” from Harvard’s stories past broadcast from the trees, the thousands of attendees were treated to an open bar and, best of all, a giant red velvet cake in the shape of an H that served 5,000.

Although the University has yet to release the exact amount of the party’s cost, the figure, according to the University Marshal, “ran in the thousands, not millions.” (It seems unlikely, of course, that “thousands” in this case actually means a four-digit number). In the perception of the University, of course, this particular celebration was a tasteful, economized affair—far more subdued, for instance, than the lavish extravaganza that marked its 350th in 1986, which consisted of an appearance from Prince Charles, some 50,000 attendees, and, in the words of a news report from the time, “a two-tiered, tubular, helium-inflated Mylar arch that spanned the Charles like a rainbow.”

Given last week’s affair, we wouldn’t dispute that the 350th anniversary was far more excessive. Even still, however, we felt that the event’s tone, whether inadvertent or not, was one of excess and abundance in a time when the University has made so many cuts that have affected the livelihoods of so many. Regardless of the cost of the celebration or whether it was less obnoxious than its counterpart 25 years before, we regret that the University chose to put forth such a garish image at a time as austere as this one. Did the obvious symbolism of an enormous, decadent cake occur to no one involved in this celebration’s planning? While that seems hard to believe, we were nevertheless embarrassed that, at a moment dedicated to the celebration of its past, Harvard opted to tell the world not of a bright future ahead but instead to allude to a bygone era of the utmost extravagance. In our view, the entire event can be encapsulated in the four little words that made the legend of Marie Antoinette famous: “Let them eat cake.”

More importantly, however, Harvard’s 375th birthday was an opportunity for the University to celebrate and interpret its past as a whole, not to weave isolated, select elements of glory into an artificial narrative. It should go without saying that in the last three and three-quarter centuries, Harvard has changed dramatically in every respect—in terms of purpose, mission, and composure. This was an opportunity to embrace that history in all of its complexity, for better and for worse, and we hope that, in its future celebrations, Harvard addresses its past—and its future image—in a more responsible, appropriate way.

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