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As a reporter and then executive editor for The Crimson, I have spent hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of hours in the newsroom at 14 Plympton St.
The Crimson has given me the chance to report on the most important issues facing this campus.
And while most students haven’t stepped foot in The Crimson’s newsroom, they usually have well thought-out opinions about the problems Harvard faced during their time here. Older students care passionately about Harvard’s investments in apartheid South Africa; students today know about more current topics like the living wage movement and grade inflation.
After graduation, however, alumni often cease to be engaged with Harvard’s important social and pedagogical issues; they instead assume the narrow role of donors.
Current Harvard students can do a lot to hold the University accountable, but an active body of alumni concerned about current campus events is critical to providing the institutional memory that ensures Harvard lives up to its self-professed standards of liberty and intellectual excellence.
The limited bounds of an undergraduate’s ability to contextualize events at Harvard became apparent to me when I set out to write what I thought was going to be one of my biggest news stories as a Crimson reporter.
In late fall 1999, Wang Dan, a top organizer of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and a Harvard graduate student, had been barred from entering an event at the Inn at Harvard with the president of Peking University, Chen Jia’er. The meeting was sponsored by the Harvard-affiliated Chinese Students and Scholars Association, and a fellow graduate student kept Wang Dan from entering the meeting.
Visions of national headlines ran through my head as Harvard spokesperson Joe Wrinn denied responsibility for the incident, even though Chen Jia’er was the University’s guest. Here was a Harvard graduate student who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year as Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Pope John Paul II being denied access to a public meeting because of his persistent calls for a democratic China. The University insisted on looking the other way.
With a slew of deliciously articulate quotes and good factual documentation indicating that Harvard was probably wrong in letting the incident slide, I wrote my story and went to bed anticipating a campus steeped in outrage.
The trouble is, the outrage never came about.
The story ran on a Monday, and my editors and I were hoping to do a follow-up piece for later in the week. But the story went nowhere: students weren’t upset; there were no protests; not a single national media outlet picked up the story, and I could dig up no new news to put into another article.
The story I saw as huge ended up being just one article that ran on a Monday Crimson’s front page.
Two years and a lot of Crimson stories later, I can see I was right in thinking that Wang Dan’s exclusion from a public gathering at the Inn at Harvard was a big deal. Certainly it was important for what the incident implied about how much Harvard was willing to disagree—and show that dissent in public—with its varied political visitors.
But now I can see that the real news lay in the fact that Harvard and its students were not outraged about the incident—a marked departure from past campus sentiment about the Chinese government and its anti-democratic policies.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit to Harvard sparked enormous controversy on campus, and students heralded his arrival with protests about the Chinese government’s human rights record, multitudes of letters to the editor and a packed Sanders Theater to hear his speech.
But by December of 1999, this advocacy for democracy in China had all but died. That was the real news.
The Wang Dan incident was the first in a series of events indicating that Harvard and its students would continue to develop an increasingly close relationship with China, in spite of the country’s ongoing anti-democratic government policies.
Recent evidence pointing to this change includes the Kennedy School of Government’s new program to train hundreds of mid-level Chinese civil servants and University President Lawrence H. Summers’ May trip to China where asking for to be released from prison a Harvard graduate student and pro-democracy political dissident was secondary to the goodwill mission.
When I sat down to write the Wang Dan story, I had trouble contextualizing the lack of a campus response because I had a diminutive institutional memory about Harvard and China that extended only to when I enrolled as a first-year.
My experience writing about Wang Dan indicates that current Harvard students—even Crimson reporters and editors—are often ill-equipped to effectively hold the University accountable because they lack the institutional memory that helps us see the proverbial forest through the trees.
And so as seniors prepare for Commencement, our impending departure does not mean we are giving up our responsibility to ensure that the University lives up to its professed standards of academic liberty and tolerance.
The alumni’s knowledge of Harvard as an evolving institution is critical to protecting freedom at Harvard. A willing engagement with campus events on behalf of the many alumni better ensures that the University will continually strive for veritas.
Joyce K. McIntyre ’02, a history and literature concentrator in Kirkland House, was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2001.
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