Last week, in an event that garnered enormous attention both within the Harvard community and outside of it, pop star Lady Gaga visited campus to launch the Born This Way Foundation. The event, held in Sanders Theatre, also featured television host Oprah Winfrey. Born This Way is a youth empowerment organization that intends to use grassroots activism and social media to combat bullying in schools—an experience Lady Gaga herself was a victim of during high school.
The pop star’s visit exemplifies the type of mutually beneficial relationship that our university occasionally cultivates with celebrities. On the one hand, the Harvard name lends credibility to stars that often find themselves mentioned in the tabloids more frequently than in respectable media outlets. On the other, partnering with high-profile figures allows Harvard to promote worthy causes, such as an end to bullying, in a public way that they would otherwise be unable to do.
This particular occasion also demonstrates the potential for the wider community to reap the rewards of a celebrity-institution relationship; indeed, this sort of symbiosis is most productive when the aim of the association is a specific, concrete goal, and not simply a flurry of attention. For instance, last year the Harvard Foundation awarded R&B legend Lionel Richie the Peter J. Gomes Award for humanitarian accomplishments. While it would be unfair to diminish Richie’s philanthropic achievements—he co-wrote the song “We Are the World” and has long been an activist for breast cancer research—it is regrettable that any number of hard-working, dedicated humanitarians were passed over in favor of someone best known for his music talent.
Lady Gaga’s visit shows the error of condemning Harvard for garnering media attention due to celebrity partnerships or visits that can be at first glance superficial. The Graduate School of Education, which organized the Lady Gaga event, is one of the least well-known schools on campus. The GSE has attracted significant attention as a result of this event, and this increased awareness will assuredly prove constructive for the graduate school, which put together a successful and well-planned opening for Born This Way. It is especially laudable that local high school students invited to participate in an anti-bullying summit were surprised by a visit from Lady Gaga herself, who provided words of encouragement. Given that Harvard has some notably strained relations with local communities, we would like to see similar, thoughtful attempts to foster positive connections in the future.
The one criticism we would level at Lady Gaga’s visit is in regards to the sheer hype that surrounded it. In the excitement over the presence of an idol, many students seemingly forgot or overlooked the purpose of her presence on campus. As the tragic shooting in an Ohio high school just two weeks ago reminded us, bullying remains an issue that needs to be urgently addressed. We applaud Lady Gaga and Harvard for tackling the issue, and urge her fans to do so as well.