Harvard's Annus Horribilis

The University's Problems Reflect Those of the World

In a year of Harvard-bashing in the media, we at least thought we could count on the fair-minded Economist to say something nice. Those nice chaps tried, but they didn't succeed. A recent article in the magazine chronicles Harvard's annus horribilis with zeal, but in the end discounts the last year as an aberration, falling back on Harvard's name and stature to complacently dismiss the unfortunately events as novelties. In doing so, The Economist entirely misses the point and does Harvard a great injustice.

We have indeed had an annus horribilis. On May 28, Dunster House Junior Sinedu Tadesse stabbed her roommate 45 times with a hunting knife before hanging herself. Disturbing occurrences like the delivery to The Crimson of a mysterious foreboding letter with a photograph of Tides and endless speculation of roommate tensions, have cast a nasty pallor over the University community. There were two other suicides in Dunster House this year, and another in Kirkland House. In March, a Harvard Square bank was robbed in broad daylight and resulted in what The Economist called a "shoot-out at high noon."

A national brouhaha erupted over Harvard's decision to rescind its offer of admission to Gina Grant, when it was discovered that she had murdered her mother; Harvard was oftentimes cast as not trusting in the juvenile justice system to reform offenders, hypocritically defending the system but doing nothing to practice what it preached. A helicopter crashed into a University boathouse. A freak virus sent hundreds of freshman to UHS. Harvard Medical School Professor John Mack claimed that aliens from outer space were kidnapping and sexually abusing humans. Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz joined the O.J. Simpson circus as part of the defense team.

President Neil Rudenstine withdrew in exhaustion. A maladjusted gay man solicited all male undergraduates by post. Racial slurs were spray-painted over the weight room of Mather House.

Sure, it's been an unusual year, but The Economist doesn't think we have to consider it any further, because, after all, we're "America's oldest and richest...with more name-recognition and cachet than almost any other American college." The Economist seems so dazzled by our greatness that the University could be at ground-zero in a nuclear attack and still be held high on a pedestal, the mere notion of Harvard vindicated against its reality.


That attitude suggests falsely that out wealth and stature shield us from the concerns of the world around us. The Economist launches into an inexplicable picture-book hard-sell of Harvard: its $6.2 billion endowment with plans to raise $2.1 billion more; its annual budget, about the size the Nicaragua's GDP; its irresistible money-powered magnetism for stealing scholars like Henry Louis Gates form Duke and Cornel West from Princeton; its well-funded research in the hard sciences and renovations of the Yard; its perpetually high national rankings. In excited summary, The Economist raves; "the results are splendid"!

It seems that money, the logical preoccupation of this magazine, has blinded it to some of the lessons we might learn from our annus horribilis. In its self-congratulatory complacency, The Economist's article sounds in tone entirely too Harvard: that despite a devastating year, we can still rest comfortably on our laurels, unshaken by the collapse of things around us.

We cannot. Institutions like Harvard aren't used to being hit so hard, or being touched so close to their core as we have been this year.

A few years ago, my old high school went through a difficult period of realization and adjustment. Problems that we had very little experience dealing with--drug abuse, increasing numbers of younger students from divorced families, and a rising willingness to challenge school authorities--made the administration question what it was doing wrong. At first, problems like these were viewed as aberrations; but as more and more students exhibited them, the focus turned to discipline and then a more careful review of our admissions policy. Finally, one of the primary missions of education came into sharp relief. The school, having students with problems that were becoming commonplace in society, didn't exist independently from the outside world; neither was it responsible for creating students with these problems.

This high school, which still thinks of itself and is still viewed as a removed Ivory Tower, was intrinsically a part of the outside world from which it sought to be separate. In having the "real world" intrude so pervasively on it, the school realized its responsibility as an educator to help shape the community around it by helping to shape the thinking and concerns of the people who would one day leave its gates. It started a host of new support networks and adopted a more flexible, compassionate approach to help students with new problems instead of categorically denying the existence of these problems.

In the same way, The Economist'sdismissive take on how Harvard should brush off its bad year and get on how Harvard should brush off its bad

The anonymous letter from the disturbed gay man, the flurry of suicides and the tragic murder that occurred here mark a sad increase in the number of troubled youth. Ours is the first generation in history that will, on average, be worse off than our parents'. We're growing up in a world that is significantly more complex, more uncertain and more dangerous than ever before.

The social problems that have become iconographic media buzzwords for all of us--AIDS, drug abuse, violent crime--are now intermingled and tainted by the perversity and appetite for sensationalism that characterize mass media's "news magazine" shows, talk show-freak show circuses and even print media. An entire industry of grotesque entertainment glorifies radical hedonism and an utter lack of respect for others. All of this alienates the individual from his human context, exacerbating the sense of removal from reality that infects so many young people.

This same media plays up a story like Gina Grant's, which perfectly sets in opposition an elite institution like Harvard and an ideal victim--abused by her mother and reformed by the justice system--only to demonize the elite, only to channel the jeers of millions of ordinary American sympathizers in a strike against an institution which they do not know, but can confidently criticize nonetheless. These are the knocks of the real world at Harvard's door.

Neil Rudenstine falls ill and makes the cover of Newsweek. Alan Dershowitz helps defend O.J. Simpson. Professor Hack gains notoriety by legitimizing the notion of outer space sex offenders. The omnivorous appetite of the mass media and its allure have fed on and been fed by the Harvard community. Where once we were a breeding ground and intellectual wellspring for leaders today we are becoming an adept player and purveyor in the mass media game.

The bank robbery and helicopter crash almost seem like strange echoes or precursors of a new boldness in senseless crime and disaster, striking where previously such things were though impossible--on American soil at the World Trade Center and in Oklahoma City; even repeatedly at the White House.

Harvard's annus horribilis has not merely been a fluke, a "bad year;" this year speaks volumes for the type of world in which we find ourselves today, and for the trends of our progress and regression. It should provide us with pause for some careful examination of the state of the world and of how we might do better. A new sense of compassion and unflinching rejection of the trappings of a decadent mass junk culture are thing we should be preaching and pursuing. Educated people learn from their misfortunes and mistakes; they read and interpret the world around them and try actively to change it for the better.

That The Economist suggests overlooking this "nasty year' and coasting past it on our own glory and money shows a severe lack of understanding for what a place of learning really is. Let this lesson not be lost on us.