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Reverse the Tide of Paternalism


By Todd F. Braunstein

was president of The Crimson in 1996

It is self-evident that students, on this campus do some truly amazing things. Philips Brooks House sends about 1,000 student volunteers into Boston. Cambridge and other localities, improving the lives of thousands of needy individuals every year. Let's Go, Inc. publishes a best-selling series of travel guides. The Undergraduate Council almost unquestionably helped influence Pepsi's decision to withdraw its investments from Burma. Harvard perennially leads the nations in Rhodes and Marshall Scholars. Its students write books and plays and TV scripts. They appear in movies, on national television and in the Olympics.

Friends at other schools are amazed at the breadth and quality of the academic and extracurricular pursuits on this campus, at the responsibilities that mere teenagers are able to shoulder. The entire world, it seems, recognizes that Harvard students are very much adults--the entire world, that is, except Harvard's own administration.

In considering the significant changes in student life as a reporter and editor for this newspaper over three years. I've noticed that one theme invariably emerges. Even though Harvard students are clearly some of the most responsible young adults in our society, the administration is increasingly making decisions that convey two related, paternalistic messages. First, students cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs. Second, administrators in University Hall are better judges of what students want and need than are the students themselves.

Consider all the steps the Colleges has taken over the past 30 months to keep decision-making authority as close to University Hall as possible: It removed the final shred of choice students had in upper-class housing selection; it imposed a rigid, centralized bureaucratic structure on Harvard's largest student organization; it rebuffed an attempt to make its Ad Board more accountable to students; it's dean of students threatened to intervene in a referendum administered by the students government; its dean of the College urged the Faculty--the Faculty! --to re-evaluate the students government, which should derive its authority from students in the first place; it refused to seat students on the committee charged with selecting a new dean of the College; it refused to heed the unanimous recommendation of students sitting on the committee to select the first dean of public service. Etcetera.

All the above examples of College paternalism, from randomization to PBH, have been debated on this page many times before. But I wanted to highlight what I consider the most egregious example of administrative paternalism--the Ad Board--in the hopes that the Undergraduate Council's past push for reform in this area continues into the spring.

Students who come before the Ad-board are practically coerced into testifying against themselves. They are not allowed to cross-examine their accusers. There is no real appeals process. A student's official representative is only partially an advocate. And there is no accountability, since the Board's decisions are not publicized in any way. In short, the Ad Board is a civil libertarian's nightmare. Small wonder, then, that no less an authority than Frank furter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz once told The Crimson that he "would be insulting Kangaroos by calling [the Ad Board] a kangaroo court."

The administration's response to these charges generally has something to do with the Ad Board's role as an educational tool. According to this argument, the Board is not a court of law; its mission is to help and protect students. This counterclaim has a degree of merit. But there is a fundamental tension between the obligation of the College to protect students and the right of students to protect themselves.

Of course, this tension also exists in the United State's own judicial system. But in contrast to Harvard's Ad Board, the government, operating on the premise that it is impossible to arrive at the truth fairly via coercion and secrecy, established civil liberties laws to protect citizens from the potential excess of the government. The Ad Board undeniably shares the potential for these excesses, given that it has substantial power to seriously damage students via probation, explusion and requirements to withdraw. But within its current system, Harvard has implicitly decreed that the Ad Board is not party to these abuses.

For Harvard, the choice about whether to pursue meaningful Ad Board reform is a choice between which standards it prefers to uphold: those that have been hashed out over the centuries by legal scholars as ideal for establishing the truth, defending the accused, and meting out appropriate punishments; or those that "protect" Harvard students, the same Harvard students, that write books, run million-dollar companies, and even occasionally have the ear of the White House.

Harvard needs to end the charage of "protection" and bring its most important administrative committee in line with the Bill of Rights (not to mention several other Ivy League schools). In addition to rectifying the above problems, the most important change the Ad Board can make would be to have all its proceedings made public (with the exception of certain sensitive cases that fall within narrow and carefully-defined areas) so that the disciplinary body is accountable to the greater community. In an academic setting dedicated to the pursuit of Veritas, the administration should not be afraid to have its guide-lines and decisions questioned in a public forum.

The ability of students to practice their decision-making skills in a "safe" environment is probably the single most important benefit a college administration can provide its students. But when major decisions are handed down from University Hall--decisions that are better left in the hands of the students who know the issues best--this ability to learn suffers enormously. I urge University Hall to reverse the tide of paternalism and to hold fast to the guiding principle that students are the best judges of how to run their own affairs.

Todd F. Braunstein '97 was president of The Crimson in 1996.

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