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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Parting Shot

By Robert O. Boorstin president

IT CAN GET real cold out on Mass Ave at 4:30 in the afternoon with an exam staring you in the face. Not the kind of cold that the river sends up through the gates of Winthrop House and up Holyoke St., the type that sends you into the bank to cash more money than you should just because you need someplace warm to stand, but cold enough.

It's the kind of late autumn chill that sends a small group of males fumbling in their pockets for their keys to the big black door at number 1324. It's not the kind of door that many people notice; it blend, in between the storefront of the clothing store that once upon a time decided to launch a xeroxing price war in Harvard Square (look that one up in your Ec 10 workbook) and a restaurant where a friend once found a cockroach meandering through his Peking Meat Sauce Noodles.

Behind the big black doors lies a room which the members of the Porcellian Club call the "Bicycle Room." I don't know why they call it that--most of the members wouldn't dream of riding a bicycle--but that's the place, the only place except the garden out back, where they allow non-members and women. Up the forbidden staircase lie more rooms, including one where club members gather together to decide who will get new keys.

At the Porc, they pride themselves on their reputation as the most select, the most elite, and, well, the most "clubby" of all the clubs. But when it comes to picking new members, they do what all the final clubs on campus do. "Punching" is one of those rituals the clubs are loathe to abandon; they've been doing it since the days when somebody's valet lived in my Adams House room. Members page through the freshman register and locate faces, names and addresses which might fit into their club. Then they issue invitations to cocktail parties, eager to see what the new prospects will drink and what they'll bring on their arms.

The process of punching is something like bowling, with the club members rolling the balls and then watching to see what's left standing. Clubs like the Porcellian have never been overly fond of the idea of admitting anybody who is not white, male, preppie and Protestant, and few of those out of the standard mold have made it through the rounds. Things have changed during the last decade however, and the Porc can now point to its first non-white (Asian-American) member.

It looked for a while this year that the club might finally admit a Black student into its ranks. One finally made it through the rounds of parties and his name was brought up for election. But those who harbored hopes for his election forgot about another club tradition: black balling. Like the judicial role that let the lawyers for the Klansmen in Greensboro, N.C., dismiss possible jurors because they didn't like the look in their eyes, the black ball is a simple concept. Any member can reject any nominee for membership if he doesn't like something about the nominee--school background, personality, skin color, sexual preference or taste in shoes.

And when the members of the Porcellian Club gathered last fall to discuss giving a Black student a key to the big black doors, the idea was rejected by one or two. Rejected not because the student had insulted members of the club, nor because he was difficult to deal with and not because he couldn't produce a good pedigree if push came to shove; but rejected, as the silent explanations must have shown, because he is Black.

They say that a few members of the club quit in protest and somebody on the club's graduate board eventually intervened in the matter--admirable gestures--but the Porcellian Club still doesn't have any Black members. I asked a faculty member why this sort of thing goes on at a University which prides itself on open-mindedness. And he looked across the Yard and muttered something about the club being a private institution and not blaming everyone for what two members did, and shook his head. "Some things at Harvard," he said, "never change."

YOU MAY HAVE noticed that around here we capitalize the word Black. It wasn't that way a year ago--but in between then and now, many things have happened. Here at Harvard, there has been some misunderstanding about what took place when about 50 students from Third World organizations marched into 14 Plympton St. late one Friday afternoon last spring.

The people in that tense crowd were none too pleased with what we'd done to apologize for a mistake that words could only begin to correct. It was the first of many meetings that weekend, and, for a while there, a couple of us saw that session heading for disaster. It got particularly bad when one of the members of the Black Students Association got very angry and started yelling. I remember asking her to calm down, telling her that "we invited you here for a discussion," and being told very quickly to shut up. "This ain't no discussion, man," said the deep male voice that went with the "shut up" and a long accusatory finger. "This is a confrontation."

Once we started talking about the list of things (read: demands) which the group wanted us to carry out, there were even some pretty funny moments--in retrospect, that is. I remember stifling a laugh when I heard demand #3 (or was it #4): that The Crimson spell all names of Third World peoples and organizations correctly. And I looked up at the woman who was reading the list and quietly explained that all newspapers try to spell all names of people and organizations correctly, and that we would be careful in the future but that we'd doubtlessly make mistakes.

If that part was humorous, there were other parts so ironic that no short story writer could ever have gotten away with them. (Not realistic, the critics would say.) I remember Lisa E. Davis '81, secretary-general of the Black Students Association and the woman who lived above me last year, holding that list of demands in her hand and reading the one insisting that Crimson reporters who were also Third World students be allowed to write stories about issues involving Third World students. I told the crowd that that was already our policy. There really was no need to tell Davis. She's a Crimson editor herself, who had written only one article for the newspaper after her election--a story about the Afro-American Studies Department.

We went through a lot that weekend and in the days that followed. All that appeared in the newspaper about the events was a story about our meeting, an editorial and an Opinion Page where the Third World students said what they believed. I never really quite figured out what "unconscious racism" means and the organizations never took us up on the offer to stuff their newsletters inside The Crimson, but we all learned something from that experience.

What was important, it turned out, was not what we at 14 Plympton St. think and do every day, but what other people think we are thinking and doing. More than anything else, I was shocked by the attack from the Third World groups; they called us racists, and pointed to a series of what were (in our minds) perfectly explainable incidents which they said represented a racist trend. Surely, I said to myself, they could have picked a better target. After all, this was The Crimson they were talking about--the newspaper that supported the NLF in Vietnam, that conservative alumni found distasteful enough to give the University money to start up a competitor, that has always asked Harvard to increase affirmative action programs, to tenure more women and minority professors, to divest of its stocks in companies which operate in South Africa, and that first questioned why the library at the John F. Kennedy School of Government was financed and named after a man who made his millions off the lives of Black miners on South Africa.

But the Third World groups didn't want to talk about that. They wanted to know why, when looking for something to fill a blank space in the middle of an article about prison conditions in America. The Crimson decided to take two Black men (who happened to be Harvard seniors) and superimpose what looked like prison bars over their all-too-recognizable faces. And we talked all about how our photo files were a mess, and how the photo was unmarked, and how the editor of the page, who was late to a play he had to review, just had to find something to fill what was going to be a 4 1/2-inch-by-18-pica white space on Saturday morning's editorial page, but it didn't mean much to them. And I guess I should never have expected it to, because they couldn't really understand how decisions are sometimes made without pausing and without thinking when 50 students put out a newspaper six times a week and we, I guess, couldn't understand what it felt like from their position.

We never really could grasp each other's perspective. I remember talking a lot about details and one of the student's asking me why, if the article was about the then-recent New Mexico prison riots, we had used Black people when there were scarcely any Black prisoners in that prison. And I told him that the article only used the New Mexico incident as a jumping-off point and that the decision by our editor was made under pressure. I never even had the heart to tell that editor that if he had looked more carefully in the file marked "A.P." (for Associated Press), he would have found a wirephoto that would have served his purposes--a picture of one of the New Mexico inmates poking his nose between the bars of an old wooden jail door, looking like he honestly regretted what he'd done to put himself in that position.

BUT IT WAS very easy for Third World students to attack an institution like The Crimson, just as it is easy for The Crimson to attack the people who run Harvard University. It's hard for anyone to make himself think like the people he's attacking. It's much easier to satirize or criticize an institution where the dining hall employees are under strict instructions not to serve you bacon with your waffles at breakfast, because the manager told them the bacon only goes with the eggs (one platter) while the waffles (the other platter), on the other hand, are not supposed to be served with bacon. Cuts down on food waste, they'll tell you if you ask.

That may not seem like much, but it's the product of an institution that encourages a House master to remodel his dining room by putting the serving area inside the kitchen and then refuses to give the House the money to buy more tables so more people can eat there. An institution which says it realizes its problem with securing young teaching talent and then uniformly alienates and dismisses its junior faculty. An institution which rightly supports a policy of diverse admissions but then leaves the really "diverse" students, who aren't prepared for Harvard, to flounder without the aid of a decent advising system. An institution which decides to provide cheap power to its affiliated hospitals and Medical Schools and then builds a power plant with the alleged potential to injure more people than those doctors-to-be and the hospitals could ever handle.

At times, the policies which emerge from Holyoke Center, University and Massachusetts halls seem almost deliberately illogical. You begin to ask yourself if any institution but Harvard would hire and retain a vice president for government and community affairs who has managed to alienate not only every community official but every newspaper reporter as well. And you ask why, if Harvard encourages its students to study foreign countries and become less ethnocentric. It then refuses to grant them real credit for studying abroad. Everybody knows that you can only really understand Florentine art by studying in Florence, but at Harvard they haven't learned that yet.

These people are not mean or vicious or inherently stupid. It's just that most of them never take enough time to hear what people are saying, to try perceiving things from the viewpoints of those who disagree. The set of beliefs produces a system where only the most confident (some would say arrogant) and aggressive in the bunch get the undergraduate education that Harvard University should be giving each of its students. The rest, left to flounder in the nether reaches of the Economics, Biology or History departments and to deal with professors who should have given up teaching long ago, are chewed up and forgotten. They emerge four years later, having become part of a process that teaches you to answer questions but never to ask them.

These are the people who will leave Harvard this year, and for another 347 years, to become loyal alumni of the Porcellian Club and lawyers in New York earning six-figure salaries. For with the Harvard name stamped on a diploma that you can hang up on the wall and write into your resume, there's little that will get in your way. Many of them entered Harvard knowing exactly what they had to do; took their required pre-med courses, learned computer skills and filled out the applications that they needed to keep climbing up the ladder. And for too many of them the question has become--and may always be--"What should I do?" and not "What can I do?"

AND IT'S NOT really the fault of that former undergraduate dean who, after living through the strikes of a decade ago, told a colleague that the College should be shut down so the professors could get back to what they're really at Harvard for--teaching a few graduate students and doing their research. Nor is it the fault of the Business and Government schools that don't require courses in ethics. Nor can the blame be laid at the doorstep of those men in downtown Boston who invest Harvard's money in defense and energy stocks in order to keep the University solvent for another financial year.

It's more the inevitable result of a mind that says, "For 347 years we've been producing the most successful people in the world, and so why should we change?" And this arrogance will slither into your brain even as you listen to your last lecture on natural selection and the survival of the fittest, an attitude that trains you to seek success but never to define it. Nobody will challenge you if you take the secure route and follow those who have marched to Chase Manhattan Bank before you.

It's much harder to try and understand where that acceptance comes from, and what other people are thinking and what they need. It's very difficult for a white heterosexual male to imagine what a Black lesbian is thinking. But if we're ever going to understand why the Porcellian Club has no Black members, or why the Third World students marched into 14 Plympton St.--or learn to abandon security for something more valuable--a lot more people are going to have to start asking for bacon with their waffles.

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