Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, "If you want to see what a society is really like, look in its prisons." Who a community imprisons, what it considers crimes and appropriate punishments provide a remarkable insight into its true values and motivations.
Such a lofty statement might, at first glance, seem to have little to do with everyday collegiate life. But the brutal beating of a high-school football recruit at the D.U. Club several weeks ago is a lens through which we can examine the nature of the College's justice system and its relationship to the final clubs.
The judicial system at Harvard College is otherwise known as the Administrative Board. Comprised of professors and deans, the Ad Board is a little-understood, little-seen body. Sitting quietly in the background, the Ad Board exercises control over many facets of college life, from dropping courses after the deadline through academic dishonesty, sexual harassment and violence.
In many ways, the Ad Board resembles the American judicial system that we all know and love. Students have the right to choose the Ad Board member that will represent them in the case, they have the right to appeal a decision and in serious cases they have the right to appear before the Board.
There is only one difference, but it is a fairly significant one. Unlike the civil courts, where all the details of a trial are accessible to the general public, every aspect of a case before the Ad Board is strictly confidential. The only available information is a small brochure published each year. Along with outlining general procedures, the brochure provides a number of sample cases which demonstrate the consequences of certain crimes. Any detail of a specific case--the participants, the charge, the testimony, the result--are secret.
There are good reasons for such secrecy. The College is a fairly small community, and rumors travel rather rapidly. A false or distorted story can quickly and irrevocably destroy a student's reputation. And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Mother Harvard does "coddle her young."
Keeping incidents quiet provides an offender with a second chance, an opportunity to repent and mend his ways without attracting the scorn of the rest of the student body. Finally, the unavailability of "dirt" on other students ensures that political campaigns and heated debates do not sink beyond a certain level of decency. What do you think the U.C. presidential election would look like if, say, Randall A. Fine '96 had access to potentially embarrassing information about his opponents' pasts?
Still, there is a price to be paid for confidentiality. So long as the Ad Board administers justice fairly, secrecy protects students' rights without any ill consequences. But when a judgment seems inappropriate, the other side of this double-edged sword appears. The Ad Board is free from all criticism and outside inquiry. It exercises absolute control and is accountable to no one but itself.
Granted, the Ad Board is not the KGB, and it is unlikely that miscarriages of justice occur so readily. But by all accounts, something is quite wrong with the punishment handed out in the case at hand. The facts are as follows: John Burnham, a football recruit from Washington, D.C., was taken to the D.U. one Saturday in February. He argued with Sean Hansen '95, after which time Burnham left the club. He returned to the club to confront Hansen, and a fist fight erupted. It is not clear how the fight began--almost everyone at the scene was drunk--but after things got started, "everyone went at him and he got the living daylights the shit kicked out of him," in the memorable words of an anonymous witness. After an Ad Board inquiry, Hansen was placed on disciplinary probation--the sort of punishment often given for offenses such as serving alcohol to minors.
This punishment flatly contradicts the Ad Board's policy as explained in its brochure. The booklet provides sample cases, meant to illustrate a representative punishment for a given crime. The relevant case deals with two hypothetical students named Kirk Land and Lev Rette who become involved in a fight resulting in "cuts and bruises" for both. The punishment? "The Ad Board required both KL and LR to withdraw for one year because of physical violence."
It will be argued that the sample cases do not provide hard and fast rules as to the magnitude of punishments. Every case has its own complications and mitigating circumstances. But it seems in this case that the special conditions should have made the punishment more severe. Burnham suffered more than cuts and bruises; he needed surgery to repair a serious fracture to his eye and says he still suffers from double vision. And he was a prospective student, a guest of the College. This situation was no longer a purely internal affair--it tarnishes Harvard's image before the eyes of the rest of the world. The Ad Board maintains that it deals harshly with such cases.
More importantly, the punishment belies the University's policy regarding final clubs. Ostensibly, the University broke off all ties to the clubs in 1984. Thus, the DU must be considered "off campus"--not on University-affiliated property. Hansen's case, then, took place off campus and involved a non-student. It's debatable whether or not the Ad Board should have handled this case in lieu of the Cambridge police. Would Hansen have enjoyed the same protection under Harvard's jurisdiction if the beating had taken place in Au Bon Pain?
What's so special about the DU that puts its members above the law? The answer is simple. All DU alums are also Harvard alums--usually fairly wealthy ones who no doubt contribute heavily to the University. In fact, the President of the DU graduate board Louis I. Kane '53 is co-chair of the $965 million Faculty of Arts and Sciences Capital Campaign.
Is it possible that for fear of offending DU alums in particular and final club alums in general, Hansen's case was given special treatment? Because the Ad Board is so secretive, very little information is available and this is all conjecture. But things look very suspicious, to say the least.
Moving beyond this specific case, what has Harvard done to ensure that things of this nature do not occur again? Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57's statement to the Crimson just about sums up the University's inept response: "We asked them if they could try to prevent these sorts of things from happening." And so a prefrosh is beaten, his application is withdrawn, his assailant is given a slap on the wrist (which is all that probation really amounts to), and the DU does not even receive so much as a mild scolding from the University.
To be fair, even if the administration wanted to censure the final clubs to prevent this sort of philistine behavior from repeating itself, it couldn't. In breaking off all ties to the clubs, the University also relinquished any means of controlling them. In doing so, the University hoped to marginalize the clubs by removing them beyond the pale of the Harvard community.
But this plan backfired. By neglecting to support any comparable sort of social life in place of the clubs (sorry, Dean Epps--the Loker Commons isn't going to cut it), the clubs are beyond the reach of the administration but have not lost their role in campus social life. The administration has created a monster that it cannot control, and that will continue to go about its business until it is marginalized by a competing social structure, or until the University finds an effective, clever way of exerting some control.
Traditions die slowly at Harvard. Despite repeated assurances that the University has nothing to do with the final clubs, it is clear that the status quo prevails. The Ad Board has demonstrated that it cannot effectively discipline the final clubs. Until the University assumes responsibility for such things, we can do nothing but look forward to more barbaric, uncensured behavior.