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The Harvard Image


By Paul M. Barrett

ASIDE FROM NOBEL PRIZES and Commencement Day pontifications, minority issues are the surest way to draw national attention to Harvard. Newspapers across the country apparently consider the University's successes and failures with non-white students to be representative of the state of race relations throughout high-class higher education.

This outside scrutiny often transforms complex problems into simple, seething controversy--good copy, as it's known in the business. But the media spotlight also gives Harvard a chance to do a little public relations for itself, and in a recent tiff over a Black students' guide to colleges, University Hall wasted just such an opportunity.

The guide book, compiled by Brown University undergraduates and due out this fall, aims to fill a need for information tailored-specifically to Black concerns. Harvard made its first mistake in dealing, with this admirable project by initially rejecting the Brown students' request for information on campus programs for Blacks. The rejection became public in July, and embarrassed Harvard officials grudgingly cooperated only after it became clear that all of the other lvy League schools had done so.

Advance copies of the guide book were released last week, and most of the press coverage emphasized negative comments made about prestigious schools. A "predominantly white atmosphere" here fosters "some tensions" among Black students, say the guide's authors. The institution as a whole is often seen as being "impersonal and overly bureaucratic." That's about the worst of it for Harvard.

In response, the deans could have acknowledged that there are rather common observations that it's a good thing for the guide to disseminate other, objectives information of interest to Black students, and that serious steps are being taken on campus to improve race relations.

Instead, John Fox, dean of the College, essentially dismissed the book as irrelevant for two reasons: 1) Its broader subjective conclusions are based on skimpy research, and 2) It fails to mention Harvard's new race-relations agency. He is correct on both counts in a strict sense, but ultimately mistaken is again distancing Harvard from the Brown operation.

Fox and others said they had had reservations from the outset about participating is a project that sought opinions from no more than seven Harvard undergraduates in compiling a 1000-word assessment of undergraduate life here. These doubts seem reasonable; like most other college and course review handbooks, the Black guide presents some straightforward statistics and a subjective viewpoint, nothing more. Why not just urge the ambitious young authors to take advantage of as many sources of information as possible and then try to publicize Harvard's working to overcome past indifference to race relations with new activism? That's what Dean Fox should have done last spring when he was first approached.

Last week, Fox could have done himself a favor by responding to the content of the chapter on Harvard rather than reiterating his skepticism about research techniques. The guide gives a fairly bland summary of life on the Charles, portraying the administration as removed but not unsympathetic to minorities in particular. "Some tensions" over race matters seems to be on target. For example, many Blacks' remain resentful over the decision not to form a separate third world center, and some Black varsity athletes have complained recently about tacit racism on the part of several coaches.

Otherwise, the review of Harvard describes an imposing multifaceted, exciting school, Fox could have easily underscored positive points and accepted the negative ones as criticism he has heard before and should be acting on.

Among Fox's jabs at the guide, his pointing out that the book ignores the race relations Foundation stands out as the most ironic. Indeed, the Harvard chapter makes no reference to the embryonic agency and implies incorrectly that students are still actively planning a central third world cultural organization. But College administrators themselves relegated the Foundation to a three-sentence passage in a six-page descriptive letter they sent to the Brown group, according to an official here and the Brown professor who oversaw the writing of the guide. If University Hall wants to push the Foundation, why didn't administrators go out of their way emphasize its goals and initial accomplishments. "On the other hand, while the commission certainly does Harvard no good. It does not nullify the rest of the guide's Information and opinions.

Harvard emerges from this whole affair appearing capricious and defensive. Without absolute statistical authority, the Black guide may open some people's eyes to the variety of choices among American colleges. Discerning readers will not necessarily be driven away from Harvard, Unfortunately, the College could have made a better case for itself on numerous occasions. And in the drive to attract talented non-white students, preliminary perceptions play a crucial role.

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