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Maintaining a Healthy Perspective

Adam R. Cohen

By Colin F. Boyle

For many new student publications at Harvard, publish, then perish is the rule. Faced with rising costs and diminishing sources of income, most campus journals appear only a few times before bankruptcy sweeps them into the dustbin of history--or, in this case, into coffins tucked away in the Harvard Archives.

Five years ago, a publication called Perspective began down this path. Started by students who wanted a liberal counterpart to the Salient, the campus conservative monthly, Perspective attracted a small core of members, published a few well-written issues, raised some eyebrows by including free condoms in one edition--and then ran out of funds.

Perspective's finances were in such bad shape that in 1987 the group bounced a check to the University for the cost of a mailing to incoming students. It seemed as if Perspective was about to go the way of so many other upstarts.

But there were a few diehards at the publication who just were not ready to see Perspective disappear. So Adam R. Cohen '90, the paper's production manager, and a few staffers decided to stay in Cambridge for the summer to sell enough advertising to bring Perspective out of the red. And although Cohen had never done sales before, he single-handedly brought in the thousands of dollars needed to keep the magazine in business.

Cohen was elected president that fall and was re-elected to the post the following year. When he left office last December, Perspective had a new office in Memorial Hall, modern production equipment, more staff members than ever (almost 40) and a firm financial base, And, Perspective editors say, the liberal monthly had become a model of self-sufficiency and an inspiration to similar groups at campuses across the country.

How instrumental was Cohen in bringing about this growth? "It would be no exaggeration to say that Perspective would not exist today if it were not for him," says contributing editor Andrew Sabl '90.

Cohen offers a visitor to his Lowell House room the seat of honor, alias the "thesis chair." It seems the chair has collapsed on occasion, most notably two days before his thesis was due. But this minor setback did not have an adverse effect on his thesis, which helped him garner a summa cum laude degree recommendation from the History and Science Department.

Cohen's honors essay compared the development of academic computing programs at Harvard, Stanford and MIT. It received two summa cum laude readings and also won the Siff Prize for the top undergraduate thesis in History and Science.

Sound impressive? It would be for any other rooming group but Cohen's. The Perspective president and his five roommates--who have lived together since sophomore year--are at the top of the class in academic achievement.

Five of the six inhabitants of Lowell I-42 are members of the Alpha chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society. Four will likely graduate summa.

But the roommates insist that, academic achievements aside, they are no different from any other rooming group. "Believe me," Cohen says, "We don't have the most intellectual conversations."

Nor, apparently, the most political. Despite a public life dominated by ideological debates, with his roommates, "Adam was surprisingly uninterested in politics," says David N. Greenwald '90. "For someone who was president of a liberal newspaper, he rarely spoke of politics."

Cohen seems much more comfortable with his public image than with his private one. But this interview is about him, not about his issues, and he has some difficulty in getting settled. he has no trouble speaking about his experiences with Perspective or his political views, but he is protective of his privacy.

But some bits and pieces of the private Adam Cohen emerge in conversations with him and with his roommates. For instance, Cohen is a classical music afficianado, enjoying what Greenwald calls "awful Baroque music"--particularly "a truly horrible piece of music" by Rameau called "The Chicken."

Not only that, his roommates say, he instists on playing the same music over and over again. "He's the only person I've ever met who can wear out a CD," Greenwald says.

But Cohen defends his hankering for repetition ad infinitum--his roommates would say ad nauseum. "I think a piece of music can still be interesting if you discover something new in it when you hear it again," he says. " Besides, my CD budget is not too large, so it's efficient."

It's just this sort of efficiency that enabled Cohen to save Perspective from its dire financial straits. During the interview, he tosses about budget figures for the liberal monthly and other publications the way social climbers drop names.

On the whole, Cohen will be remembered as the person who brought Perspective from the brink of a financial abyss to fiscal solidity without compromising the magazine's liberal ideals. But he has also made his presence felt in the paper's editorial content. As a prominent member of Stop Withholding Access Today (SWAT), a group formed to protest discrimination at the nine all-male final Clubs, he contributed to Perspective's shift toward an activist slant.

Cohen's colleagues also point to his willingness to work long hours and manage nearly every aspect of the magazine's operation. But it is his unyielding confidence in progress and his capacity to place details in their larger perspective that have allowed him to reconcile the roles of advertising whiz and activist.

Cohen has supported the liberal aims of the monthly even when these aims do not make good financial sense. "I try to keep a very, very light hand on the editorial side of the paper," he says. "Certainly I have never tried to say, 'Don't do this or don't write that because it will offend this advertiser.' I wouldn't think of it. I'd be history."

Cambridge's traditionally liberal politics has helped Perspective attract ad sales, Cohen says. And, he adds, "most of our advertisers don't care about the larger political issues. They're more concerned with whether the ad sells pizzas."

But there are exceptions. After a story exposing inefficiencies at the Harvard Cooperative Society--a minor, nearly inactive advertising account, according to Cohen--the department store's president vowed never to have anything to do with the magazine. And according to one staffer, pro-Palestinian pieces have not been popular with certain people at the Jewish student organization Harvard Hillel, a large advertiser.

But Cohen dismisses these incidents, saying that Perspective can print what it wants. He also admits to having been lucky that more substantial conflicts have not threatened Perspective's solvency.

And Cohen points to a bevy of other concerns that still need to be worked out. "How severely should we apply the things we say in the paper in house?" he asks in reference to a proposal to print on costly recycled paper. He shakes his head, "Another unresolved conflict."

Perhaps the person who best describes what Cohen is and what he achieved as Perpective president is Cohen himself. In one of the few articles he wrote while president, the Lowell resident described how "business liberals" can use the power of money to effect progressive social and economic change.

According to the article, Democrats and other left-wing politicians have been becoming increasingly aware of this "formation of a new and potentially commanding force in 1990's American politics."

In fact, the term "business liberal" is the perfect label for Cohen, who this summer will attend the Radcliffe publishing course in preparation for a career in book or magazine publishing. "The apple's not falling too far from this particular tree," he says.

Despite the bitter, often personal, disputes that have occasionally plagued Perspective, Cohen has managed to remain popular among the staff of the monthly. Perspective editors praise Cohen's ability to Keep disagreements on a professional level and talk about his approachability. "Adam has always been keen on not becoming isolated," says Chrystia A. Freeland '90-'91, a senior editor on the journal.

And Cohen abandons this diplomacy only in the pages of Perspective In person, he is more non-committal. He has written articles blasting University policies placing added burdens on fledgling student groups, but he hesitates before placing blame on the shoulders of Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, saying Epps helped Perspective several time in the past. He also says he pities Epps for the rude treatment he received in a recent parody of The Crimson by the Harvard Lampoon.

But he finally vents his frustration with the College administration When he broaches the subject of Harvard College News, a newsletter recently created and published by the College's administration. The journal solicits advertising from local businesses, directly competing with dozens of student publications for the limited ad dollars from Harvard Square companies. "It's rather curious that the organization that's intended to help student organizations is competing with them," he says.

The move to create Harvard College News, without any regard for its impact on student organizations, is symptomatic of what he says are the senior administration's persistent efforts to distance itself from the concerns of undergraduates.

A native Cantabridgian, Cohen grew up with his sister Rosie on Fayerweather St. He lived down the road from the home of President Derek C. Bok and was a friend of Bok's son Thomas. The son of an educator and a partner in a Boston law firm, Cohen fared well at the prestigious Buckingham Browne & Nichols school before Coming to the University.

Although he rarely visited Harvard Square and says he felt like a stranger when he first enrolled, the Harvard roots reach deep in his family. About 25 people on his mother's side have attended the University in the last century, he says.

For this reason, his sister was set on attending a school other than Harvard. She chose Brown, where she is a rising junior, an athlete and, according to her brother, " the next Char Joslin." Cohen's mother also teaches at Radcliffe, in the Expository Writing Program and at the Extension School.

Some of Cohen's peers say that his family heritage may have helped shape his political beliefs by giving him a sort of noblesse oblige that allows him to kick the administration when he believes it does something wrong.

But Cohen downplays his family's influence on his politics. "I try to put that out of my mind as much as possible," he says. And he admits that his family may be more important to his beliefs than he suspects.

Cohen's father died when he was returning to Harvard for his sophomore year, and he still has trouble talking about how the death affected him. After a long, thoughtful pause, he says, "As I got older, my father and I could talk more and understand each other's experiences."

"I've tried to think of his example, " he says, "When I've found myself in some situations--whether it was conscious or not. He was a very good man."

Cohen says his family remains close, even though he does not make it home very often. And he adds that he does not know whether his father's death has brought them closer together. "That's the funny things about families," he says. "The more you learn, the more confused you get."

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