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Parting Shot: Harvard's Culture of Secrecy

By Alan E. Wirzbicki

One of the first things Harvard freshmen hear when they arrive in Cambridge is a ringing statement of the University's mission from the Deans assembled for the College's convocation. A University, they say, aims to teach you not any specific body of facts, but instead serves a more ambitious purpose: to teach you how to think. Indeed, developing the capacity to think critically has come to be the guiding mission of American liberal arts education.

How well Harvard's classrooms really teach critical thinking is a question for another day. What is clear to me after three years, though, is that the conduct of the men and women who run Harvard poisons the atmosphere of open and honest inquiry that Harvard purports to stand for. The Harvard administration is run with about as much tolerance for open debate on its actions as a two-bit dictatorship. For those of us who have worked at The Crimson, Harvard's secretive arrogance is a constant frustration. It should bother anyone who cares about the quality of a Harvard education as well.

Harvard's intrasigent secrecy stifles what is perhaps the most important, critical ability the alleged next generation of world leaders can learn. Instead of encouraging critical engagement with our own community, Harvard teaches apathy, indifference and obedience to the world around us.

The ongoing search for the next president of Harvard--which the presidential search committee tries its hardest to keep absolutely secret--is the most egregious current example. The committee, comprised of the Harvard Corporation and three members of the Board of Overseers goes to extravagant lengths to maintain this secrecy.

Last time around, in 1991, a search committee member was so incensed to see a Crimson photographer at a New York hotel where search meetings were held that he assaulted him, attempting to confiscate his film. I sincerely hope that the leadership of The Crimson will press charges against any of the nine committee members if they try any similar shenanigans this year. This year, they are slightly more sophisticated. At the beginning of this year, overseers were told explicitly not to talk to the campus newspaper.

Harvard justifies its secrecy in this case on the flimsiest grounds. Publicizing the names of candidates, the committee reasons, would discourage strong contenders from allowing themselves to be considered. Especially for candidates with high profile jobs, news that they are considering leaving could be bad for their reputation.

One might think the Corporation would actually want to weed out candidates who didn't want the job enough to take the risk. Regardless, it's a sign of truly misguided priorities that the Corporation places the political comfort of a handful of academics over the right of the University community to openly debate its own future.

Not surprisingly, policies that discourage informed, critical discussion of specific candidates have led to low interest in the search. The number of nominations submitted in response to the Corporation's perfunctory letter soliciting input on the search plummetted in comparison to previous searches. It's hard to attribute this decline to any specific factor, but Harvard's concerted effort to keep students in the dark on important decisions surely hasn't helped.

And Harvard's stifling secrecy is more systemic than a once-a-decade problem and campus apathy spreads far beyond the presidential search. It's all around us, so ingrained in the way Harvard thinks that it can be easy to miss. The college's Ad Board is one example much closer to home for most students. The operating assumption of the Ad Board, certainly the most offensively-paternalistic institution at the college, is that students have no business hearing the cases that involve their peers. Yet issues of community standards and punishment are among the most important and sensitive to the community. Whatever the procedural benefits of including students in Ad Board decisions may be--and I believe there are many--the impact on the life of this campus would be profound. Right now, students are allowed to have a say on only the most inconsequential issues at Harvard. Who will play at Springfest this year? When should the shuttle stop running?

The extent of student participation the University allows is inversely proportional to the importance of the questions at stake. Will Harvard build the desperately-needed thirteenth house to alleviate overcrowding? Who will be the University's next president? Imagine a campus in which the University actually encouraged students to think about the important questions facing the community instead of isolating them from the governance of the University.

Harvard, and other private universities, are now largely in the hands of baby boomers, whose generation paid lip service to the idea of open university governance in the 60s. Now they're in charge and they are passing on the same old habits to a generation already roundly criticized for its apathy.

Harvard is a private institution, and ultimately no one has the power to force it to change. Harvard can do whatever it wants and the culture of secrecy is too entrenched for change to come easily. But someone in the Harvard administration ought to find the courage to try. The purpose of Harvard, contrary to what generations of faculty may have believed, is not to provide a setting for back-room intrigues and political power plays.

Not only would the University benefit in the long term by more open scrutiny, but it would create a better environment for students to learn how to become more critical, engaged members of society. And that, I was told one September afternoon a few years back, is what Harvard is supposed to be about.

Alan E. Wirzbicki '01 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. He was president of the The Crimson in 2000.

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