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The Ad Board Is Composed of Humorless Bureaucrats

PERSPECTIVES

By William L. Kirtley

Until recently censored by the University, I wrote a weekly column called "Prank Files" for Fifteen Minutes (FM) magazine. As the name suggests, "Prank Files" was the record of prank calls I had made to various institutions at Harvard. For example, I called UHS claiming to have Mad Cow Disease from eating a Whopper; I called the Eliot superintendent and tried to get him to shut off the heater in my roommate's room because my roommate "always makes a mess and has poor circulation;" and I called the Bureau of Study Council to say I needed academic help, badly--I was taking a graduate-level German course on Heinrich von Kleist and didn't speak a word of German. Many students told me they got a kick out of "Prank Files," a column intended only as an idiotic distraction based on rather unsophisticated humor. But despite the lack of depth of "Prank Files," I am shocked the administration thinks it has the right to deny freedom of the press.

At the beginning of this academic year, I called Room 13 for "Prank Files," saying I had a problem--Harvard was number three in U.S. News and World Report. I said I had chosen to go to Harvard because it was ranked number one, and I fretted that lowly Duke was ranked only one below us. I explained I liked Harvard and the people here, but I just wasn't sure being number three was good enough to pursue my future goal of working at Merrill Lynch. Room 13 responded politely to my "problem" and asked me if I really thought it was that important, if Merrill Lynch would think the ranking was so crucial. FM found the conversation amusing and included it in the first issue of the academic year.

A few days after it was printed, I found out I had been "Ad-Boarded" because of this article. Curiously, I found out from the head of Room 13 that the peer-counseling-group was not responsible for "Ad-Boarding" me. Although Room 13 was rankled by the article, it did not think administrative action was the correct solution (in fact, the head of Room 13 expressed chagrin that official action had been taken against me). It turns out I had been Ad-Boarded by a salaried administrator from the Bureau of Study Counsel who had heard about my article. As everything I had done was legal, was in good fun and hurt no one, I was sure the Administrative Board would deal with it lightly. I was wrong.

The Ad Board is made up of 28 members of the administration and includes the dean of Harvard College, the assistant dean for undergraduate education, the assistant dean of Harvard College, the dean of first-year students, the dean of admissions and financial aid, the registrar, the director of the Core curriculum, the director of the bureau of study counsel and all senior tutors. These humorless and biased administrators were furious with my actions and overwhelmingly voted to put me on probation. (Some wanted me to stay on probation until I graduated, although the final verdict was for one semester).

Probation is a real punishment. According to page 16 of the 1996-97 Administrative Board's user guide for students, "A student on probation must pay special attention to his or her conduct and coursework, since the Board will act more severely (require to withdraw) on further infractions or failures." This indicates that if I continue to freely write "Prank Files," I will be kicked out of Harvard. The Ad Board sends a letter home to your family saying that it voted to place you on disciplinary probation. Moreover, probation goes on your permanent academic record. Any time a future employer or admissions officer looks at my transcript, he or she will see I was put on probation by Harvard for disciplinary reasons. In the real world, this renders me suspect and makes it harder for me to get a job or continue my education.

On what grounds did the Ad Board put me on probation? Everything I had done was legal according to Massachusetts law (it is legal to change your identity as long as you are not doing this to gain illegal access to restricted resources, and it is legal to surreptitiously take written notes of phone conversations). In fact, the Ad Board members did not question the legality of my actions. Instead, they expressed a distaste to the idea of a "Prank Files" column, claimed calling Room 13 was "like calling 911," and said it was dishonest of me to represent myself as a Harvard first-year student in need.

On page 26 of the Ad Board user's guide, the disciplinary cases by type and action are enumerated. The "types" listed are broad to say the least. According to the chart, a student can be required to withdraw for "inappropriate social behavior." Apparently this is the rubric my "crime" falls under. But who is to define what is "socially acceptable behavior"? Where and how are the boundaries drawn for what is "socially acceptable"? De facto, the Administration retains the right to punish anyone as it sees fit. The Administration makes great use of its power to punish students for "inappropriate social behavior"--last year, this category justified 33 of the 54 disciplinary actions taken that were more severe than admonishments.

The Ad Board should only be able to penalize actions that are illegal or related to academics. It should not be able to punish what it considers to be "inappropriate social behavior." Because the Ad Board members did not like my inane but harmless column when it was brought to their attention, I was punished and forced to stop writing freely. I have not yet finished my Core Requirement, but I vaguely remember hearing somewhere about "freedom of the press." The administration's actions smack of nothing less than censorship. The administration should not meddle with legal, non-academic-related conflicts, should not be able to censor what is printed on campus and should lighten up. Yes, the "Prank Files" is a sophomoric, no-brainer column that pokes fun at institutions supported by the administration, but no, the administration should not be able to overrule free speech on campus.

William L. Kirtley '97 writes for Fifteen Minutes.

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