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How Harvard Squelched An Almost-Scoop on Bok

By Tara A. Nayak

When Derek C. Bok was named Harvard president in 1970, the University's plans for a well-orchestrated surprise announcement were dashed by some journalistic chicanery.

A reporter called Sissela Bok at home, pretending to be a caterer, and tricked her into informing him that her husband had been named Harvard's next president.

So when the national media last week began picking up rumors of Bok's impending departure from office, University officials made a concerted effort to make sure they would be the ones to inform the world of the news.

Originally slated to be announced yesterday, Bok said that he moved his official announcement up almost a full week to prevent unexpected leaks from turning into a scoop for The New York Times.

"We had planned to announce it the Monday of graduation week, but we found it had leaked out," he said, "so we worked tremendously hard to accelerate the schedule." Harvard made the announcement last Tuesday.

Time magazine set off the process in its May 28 issues, which hit the news stands last Monday. In the department appropriately dubbed "Grapevines," the magazine printed that "rumors are swirling around Cambridge, Mass., about the imminent resignation" of Bok. "Many expect the news to come within weeks."

Paul Gray, a senior writer at Time who writes "Grapevines," said yesterday that the rumors about Bok's resignation, which had been circulating since late March, began to intensify around May 24.

"Then the drums began pounding very hard. Suddenly that week the rumors seemed to be accelerating--a correspondent or two began reporting the same phenomenon," Gray said. "Administration sources had been identified as saying they had a strong feeling about it."

Last Sunday afternoon, one day before the magazine reached the news stands, Time editors sent the New York Times and other national media organizations a news release about the articles appearing in the magazine, which put The Times on the Bok trail.

Peter Costa, director of the Harvard News Office, said that a reporter from The Times Called last Monday, asking about the speculation. The reporter had confirmed from administrators that the rumors were probably true, but agreed to hold the story one day until Harvard could release an official statement, Costa said.

"He had it confirmed, but had no sense of the timing," Costa said. "I wouldn't confirm the story, so it would have been a speculative story, a rumor story."

Then, Bok said, Mass Hall had to rush to prepare for the announcement six days earlier than planned, rapidly calling overseers, Corporation members and administrators.

"There were a lot of people I would have liked to notify, but could not in the short notice," he said.

The next day was "crazy" at both Mass. Hall and the Harvard News Office, according to Costa.

Costa notified The Crimson at 9:45 a.m., and began calling other news organizations at around 10 a.m. By 10:30 a.m., the Associated Press, which had somehow learned the news earlier, put the story on its wire, labelled, "Urgent."

During the next 15 minutes, Costa said, the News Office received 30 to 40 calls a minute, many referred over from Mass. Hall.

The inquiring calls came not only from the press, but also from curious alumni, city officials and Harvard staff members.

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