I USED to think that nothing would surprise me. When Sasquatch's '68 presidential bid was supressed by the CIA/Better Homes and Gardens axis, I had seen it coming. When Jimmy "The Butcher" Baker quit pro wrestling and changed his last name to Bakker, I had a gut feeling he'd make it big on Sunday TV. When the "Facts of Life" was renewed after its first season, I was surprised just a little bit, at most.
But I have to admit that I'm legitimately, full-bore, over-the-top amazed at the latest turn of events in the Harvard College quest for justice, in which the faculty unanimously decided to include randomly selected students on the new Judicial Board.
As you know, justice at Harvard began with the so-called "Three Lies" scandal of 1638. Although details remain hazy, the affair appears to have involved some back-dated checks passed by an undergraduate posing as the school's founder. Modern historians do not know for sure how the culprit was formally tried, but presume that justice was meted according to the custom of the day: the accused met behind closed doors with his adviser, his house tutor, and five members of the faculty, and then was thrown down a well to see if he could float.
Lasting change did not occur until the 1960s, when the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR) was created in recognition of the changing times and customs, and especially in view of the fact that large numbers of students were beginning to carry firearms. Basically, the CRR was designed to handle "special" disciplinary cases, namely, those which could not be dealt with appropriately by the Ad Board or a SWAT team.
In theory, this was to include all disciplinary cases involving politically motivated actions, crimes by members of wealthy or Mafia-connected families, or drug shipments in excess of $1 billion. In practice, though, virtually every disciplinary case wound up before the CRR, since technically the Ad Board was limited to cases of false advertising.
THE LATEST chapter in the long, boring assigned reading that is Harvard disciplinary policy began in 1984, when a young man name Fred Justice began his freshman year at Harvard.
"I tried out for all the a cappella singing groups--Kroks, Dins, hell, even the Pitches," recalls Justice. "And none of them wanted me. I thought their policy was elitist and unfair, and that I could do something about it."
That "something" turned out to be Harvard's first randomly-alloted singing group, the Bored of Justice. Justice decided not to enroll talented, experienced singers in his group--"cause then what would I do?"--but instead used a random-number generator and housing lottery numbers to compile a list of candidates."
Bookings for the fledgling group remained slim--until the day Justice got a call from a freshman proctor. "She had confused us with the Ad Board," says Justice, invoking the episode from his memory. "We didn't have the heart to tell her otherwise, and besides, it was our first gig."
The now-famous trial began with an enthusiastic rendition of "Love Potion 9," then moved on to deliberation of evidence. The accused, Jacob P. Pill '88, of Winthrop House, had been caught running around drunk in his underwear in a lewd and lascivious manner. After deliberating for half an hour, then returning for an encore of "Love Potion 9," Justice's group delivered its decision. "We sentenced him to be exiled for all time from his place of birth, to wander forever an outcast in the trackless wastes of foreign lands." Justice remembers. "We never thought he'd take us seriously."
THE CASE proved an enormous success. Soon the group was performing in dining halls and at alumni functions, meting out punishment in the harsh but hip manner that has become its hallmark. The crowning achievement came with the request from the faculty council to be its official disciplinary organ. After the name was changed to the more formal "Judicial Board," the group was ready to hear its first case.
Although the story of the Board's founding is filled with coincidences and improbable twists of fate, ultimately the saga serves only to confirm Harvard's love of chance. Engendered in the Housing Lottery and confirmed in random assignments to the final, needed-for-graduation core class, the arbitrary hand of fate plays a crucial, yet romantic, role in the lives of Harvard undergraduates.
Given the nature of Harvard social life, the thrill of danger inherent in the new body will no doubt vigorously enhance the quality of life here. It is thrilling, to be sure, to stuff rags soaked in flammable material beneath your roommate's door; but how much more so, knowing that the disciplinary board that will try you for your crime will be composed of a completely random group of people--some of whom may be dangerously insane, others of whom may have a deepseated grudge against you.
I. Rutger Fury, always love a thrill. Of course, since I am not an undergraduate, I am not subject to this august body. But I can always watch.
Rutger Fury, a former national political correspondent for The National Enquirer and Scotland Yard inspector, is a close personal friend of Jeffrey J. Wise.