ON SATURDAY, a 30-foot hand will reach into the sky over the anniversary-closing Stadium Celebration and sign the name of Class of 1754 member John Hancock in fireworks-illuminated letters big enough for Prince Charles to see without his spectacles. After, some will malign the excesses of Harvard's frothy sesquitercentenary, taking potshots at the fireworks and the mylar balloons that spanned the Charles last night.
Parties such as this one celebrate the University's partisan pride, not a Harvard history checkered with religious, ethnic and sexual bigotry, parochialism and snobbery. The remberances are as facile as the celebration is slick.
The fireworks and mylar become dangerous when they are smoke and mirrors obscuring the uncomfortable truth that the present cannot bear close scrutiny. The 350th celebration generates nostalgia for a Harvard past that never was and funds for a Harvard that is not what it should be.
The alumni who would make the time to come to celebrate the glories of the University's past are ones who would like to know what kind of life Harvard lives today and what kind of reputation it is preparing to earn in the next 50 years.
ONE INTERESTING moment of Harvard's most recent year came last March, when the University scrapped plans to send students to teach in South Africa's schools.
The cancellation came after it became public that Black South African leaders, including Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond M. Tutu, never were consulted about the program's value. They believed the initiative would harm South Africa's Black majority.
In an earlier instance, an administrator, ignoring objections by students, censored unflattering evaluations of several classes from the CUE Guide, a book billed as student-written.
Harvard administrators, it seems, take little interest in the views of foreign leaders who aren't polo-playing representatives of prestigious British universities. Harvard men and women whom Bok has not yet admitted to the Society of Educated Men and Women apparently don't merit much consideration either.
350th planners are trying to protect the nearly 30,000 attending Harvard's party from these truths. But that should come as no surprise to alums: Each received a letter last spring that subtly instructed against voting for three Board of Overseers candidates who called for Harvard's divestiture of South Africa-related stocks. A university that believes graduates must be told how to vote should have no qualms about sheltering them from unpleasantnesses.
The consistent paternalism of those who run Harvard appears colossally arrogant at a time when the University will need all the imagination it can muster to remain a leading player in an increasingly competitive academic marketplace.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences acknowledged that last year, accepting a plan to tenure more of Harvard's own junior faculty. The plan recognizes that the nation's other universities are no longer an academic farm system, preparing scholars for the day when Harvard will call them up to play in the Northeastern liberal establishment's Big Leagues.
It now remains for Harvard administrators to recognize, as have the scholars they are supposed to serve, that new solutions are needed for changing realities.
UNFORTUNATELY, THOSE in charge here continue to make decisions behind closed mahogany doors. They seem to believe those who pay the bills won't mind as long as they are distracted by a Yale choir singing Slavic folk tunes at a birthday bash where Harvard profs become what Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science Owen J. Gingerich called, "a song-and-dance team for the alumni."
Plenty of administrators have left their pleasant little offices to pump hands and chat with Harvard's friends. Everyone planning to attend Saturday's Stadium Celebration should ask them what's being done to give a real voice in University decision-making to those who aren't middle-aged, pinstriped white men with dark-colored sedans and homes in Belmont or Weston. If the answers seem a bit contrived, alums can express dissatisfaction at annual giving time.
The Society of Educated Men and Women owes its alma mater more than generous financial support.