Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line


At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions


Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists


‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam


‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Seek Truth, But Don't Expect It

By Joshua W. Shenk

The statue of John Harvard bears no reference to veritas. Too bad. If it did, the Crimson Key tours could touch on the vital issue of the fourth lie.

The fourth lie--no secret--is that Harvard has little interest in truth. With the triumph of cultural relativism, veritas has become more of a quaint reminder of the past--an elegant decoration on coffee cups, stationery and diplomas--than a standard to which we aspire.

With the exception of certain ground rules, today's Harvard students and faculty are encouraged to seek their own individual truths. True, the marketplace of ideas has its winners and losers. But even the most unprofitable merchants won't be closing up shop for a while. (Will you, Professor Mansfield?) When is the last time President Rudenstine censured a faculty member or student for offensive speech? Anyone remember the Peninsula issue on homosexuality? Peninsula editors called their word the truth. Half a dozen tenured professors--including Harvard's minister, Peter J. Gomes--called the students liars.

Lying--or, more accurately, accusing the other side of lies, half-truths, distortion, etc.--is a critical rhetorical skill for any student. We're all skeptical of absolute truth, but that doesn't prevent anyone from asserting the correctness of his or her views (and the error in others'). Student journalists, for example, call for openness and honesty among administrators, faculty and other students. We think we're right in doing so. The administration, on the other hand, often sees The Crimson and other publications as vehicles for the distortion of their views. As a result, openness (when it comes to talking to reporters) is not necessarily considered a virtue.

On this subject, several campus controversies this fall have piqued my interest. More illuminating than the content of The Crimson's reporting is the extraordinary dynamic between reporters and administrators that has been thrust into full view.

Take, for example, a superb investigation by The Crimson's Joe Mathews concerning Harvard's acting chief of police. The acting chief, Lawrence Murphy, admitted that he has close ties to a bus company which has, every year in its six-year history, been awarded a lucrative University contract. This contract has no bidding process and its fate rests in the hands of one person--Murphy himself. Murphy has represented the company at conventions and carries its corporate American Express card.

Margaret H. Marshall, Harvard's vice-president and general counsel (and the police chief's boss), said the matter was not of concern to the University. She said she saw no conflict of interest in this arrangement.

Was Marshall lying, or maybe stretching the truth? I'd say so. (Regardless, her failure to act indicates a serious breach of responsibility.) Sissela Bok, the preeminent American philosopher and wife of Harvard's former president, explains incidents such as these in her book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978). "The powerful," Bok writes, "tell lies believing they have a greater than ordinary understanding of what is at stake." By "powerful," Bok likely had in mind a nation's civic and military leaders. Still, her thoughts have a good deal of resonance in the web of Harvard's administration.

Especially lately. Last month, 50 former and present Expository Writing teachers testified in the pages of The Crimson that their department stifled internal dissent, served students poorly and, on a day-to-day basis, teetered on the brink of chaos. As his official response, Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell wrote to reassure these teachers that he would ignore the student newspaper report in which their complaints were aired. "I assure you," he wrote, "if assurance be needed, that its reportage has neither expressed nor influenced the views of University Hall on the subject [of Expos]."

The dean's criticisms of the Expos series highlight the divide which separates the press and the administration. Buell himself summed it up nicely: "I don't accept the model of the virtuous truth-seeking press confronting the hostile prevaricating establishment. To me, that's a one-sided model. It may hold in certain instances. On the other hand, it maybe the case that the benign establishment is trying to withstand the assaults of the overzealous bloodhound."

A strong argument could be made that Buell's letter was intended to ease tension and defuse a potentially explosive situation. One could also argue that he had a personal interest in de-emphasizing trouble in a department for which he is responsible.

Regardless of how you interpret the letter, however, it seems clear that Dean Buell isn't telling the full truth. If he honestly believes that outpourings of grief on the part of dozens of dedicated teachers deserves no consideration whatsoever, I've got some office space at a community college I'd like to sell him.

In the scuffle over Expos, I'm inclined to believe the bloodhound. That's not much of a surprise, coming from a former Crimson executive. Does Buell skirt the truth? My guess is yes. And, in a community deeply cynical about the press, he's got an easy punching bag in The Crimson.

To be fair, cynicism about the press has some legitimate roots. When a newspaper misspells a name, for example, or makes other common, inexcusable errors, our reactions are natural: "How can I rely on The Crimson for nuanced and accurate reporting when it can't spell my roommate's name right?"

In cases like these, I think of the teacher on The Simpsons who scolds one particularly pathetic pupil: "The children are right to laugh at you, Ralph." People are right to laugh at The Crimson--or be angry, or disgusted, depending on their mood. Still, in their indignation, people often dismiss the Harvard press as a nuisance, a hassle, an inconvenience. Since Harvard isn't the "real world," it's not so important to have a check on institutional power.

This argument is simply wrong. Take the search for Harvard's president, which resulted in the selection of Neil L. Rudenstine. The official spokesperson for the selection committee--which mostly consisted of the members of the Corporation--spoke not a single word to the public throughout the process. The Harvard community, including many faculty and administrators, relied entirely on The Crimson (and other newspapers) for information.

There are other examples. Several years ago, The Crimson reported that top officials of the Harvard Management Company had a personal stake in companies they invested in for the University. In the last few years, the paper has reported on inequality between men's and women's athletics, dubious behavior of admissions officials, the relationship between the University and its unions and hundreds of other stories of vital importance to the Harvard community. Other student papers have done their share as well.

Higher education in general, and Harvard in particular, claims to exists for the pursuit of truth. Some, like John Trumpbour, editor of How Harvard Rules: Reason in the Service of Empire (1989) believe that the University is a sort of bourgeois conspiracy to prop up the ruling class. Most of us would have a more sympathetic view of Harvard. And higher expectations.

But Trumpbour hits upon an essential truth, which tends to be obscured by lofty academic ideals, but is at the heart of the conflict between the press and the administration.

Like bureaucrats in any sizable institution, Harvard's administrators are faced with a daunting task of managing thousands of employees, accommodating students of all types, ensuring quality in teaching and watching out for the bottom line. Harvard is essentially an oligarchy, ruled with impunity by the president and the Corporation. If oligarchy seems at odds with the spirit of an academic community--well, it is. This contradiction rears its ugly head more often than we'd like.

An essential difference in philosophy underlies the confrontations at issue here. Journalists commit themselves to the idea that diffusion of knowledge is a great virtue. Though many in the public question newspapers' judgments on delicate issues, journalists adhere to this bottom line: if some error is inevitable, always err on the side of giving the people more information.

Bill Kovach, the legendary New York Times reporter and editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (and now the curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation) is among the best known and most forceful advocates of this point of view.

Kovach told me that, when he ran The Times' Washington bureau, government officials regularly urged him to kill stories they believed revealed too much. In a career that spanned three decades, Kovach agreed with this logic just once. "I have not seen many cases," Kovach says, "where people, given sufficient information, don't make the right choices."

Of course, just about everyone supports the idea of a free and vigorous press. But remember the case of Thomas Jefferson, who said he "should not hesitate for a moment" to defend the right of the press over government. In theory, Jefferson supported the press. After six years as president, however, he had a vastly different sentiment. "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," he wrote to a friend in 1807. "Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

Despite my own prejudices, I don't blame Harvard's administrators for doing their jobs--which, unfortunately, doesn't always allow for complete openness. Sometimes the powerful are right to avoid the truth. Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, most think, was correct to order the Manhattan Project in secrecy. At Harvard, the same basic tools of management apply. In the end, values which are crucial to a healthy learning environment--openness, honesty, aggressive action in pedagogical crises--often suffer.

The bottom line is that sometimes Harvard administrators are doing their job by obscuring the truth. The Crimson, despite what people think, doesn't have any particular agenda, other than trying to represent the campus in an accurate and fair manner. This job is complicated, though, by the fact that administrators sometimes place the institution above its ideals.

What's the ultimate truth? That's for the reader to decide.

Joshua W. Shenk '93-94 is former executive editor of The Crimson.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.