For 80 years, almost no one knew why Eugene R. Cummings killed himself. And if the Harvard administration had its way, probably no one ever would.
Cummings was one of nine students thrown out of Harvard and run out of Cambridge in 1920 for being gay or associating with gays. A top-secret body called “The Court” conducted the witch-hunt, and for decades the records of the tribunal were hidden in the bowels of the University Archives.
I stumbled upon a vague reference to the Secret Court while researching a different article for The Crimson during my sophomore year. The Archives refused to provide me with the files of the Court and told me to ask then Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68. He denied my request.
I appealed his decision, arguing that the files should be released due to their immense historical value and because these men deserved to have their stories told. The University formed an advisory committee to rule on the matter and after several months decided to release the files.
But there was a catch: the names of all the students would be redacted. Even though all the students were deceased—most of them for decades—the College blacked out their names from the files. After appeals for unredacted versions of the files were rejected by the administration, a team of researchers from The Crimson and I spent months uncovering the names of the students and sifting through other historical records to discover how the College’s witch hunt affected the lives of these gay men.
The six-month investigation resulted in a 10,000-word story that detailed an underground network of gay students at Harvard, the secret dealings of the Court that tried to root them out and how three of the gay students ended up committing suicide. The article prompted an apology from University President Lawrence H. Summers to the men and their families; led to a campus-wide discussion about homophobia; and was even cited in Lawrence v. Texas, the historic Supreme Court case that struck down anti-sodomy laws.
But what was lost in the productive debates that emerged after the article’s publication was the fact that the Harvard administration had repeatedly tried to prevent the full story of the Secret Court of 1920 from ever being told.
Harvard likes to keep its secrets.
The University’s culture of secrecy extends beyond shameful episodes like the Secret Court of 1920—Harvard administrators today make every effort to keep even simple decision-making processes hidden from public view.
The lack of transparency in the administration of the University harms Harvard by preventing its decisions from being as informed as possible and by weakening the community’s confidence in Harvard.
Harry Lewis learned the hard way just how disastrous it can be to make decisions behind closed doors. In May 2002 he pushed through a change in the College’s sexual assault policy that required some form of “corroborating evidence” before the Ad Board would investigate peer-to-peer assaults. Administrators in University Hall had discussed the policy but students didn’t have a chance to weigh in before the Faculty voted on the change. Many professors later said that the vote had been “hurried through” and that they were unclear what the motion was about.
“I remember saying to a colleague, ‘What just happened?’” Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Bradley S. Epps complained to The Crimson after the May 7 Faculty Meeting.
When students and faculty realized the magnitude of the policy change—and the negative consequences it would have for victims of sexual assaults—they initiated a campus-wide dialogue on the subject. The University established the Committee to Address Sexual Assault at Harvard, which included two students and held several public forums to solicit opinions from the entire community. In April, 2003, the Faculty followed the advice of the committee and essentially reversed its vote of a year earlier by removing its requirement of “corroborating evidence” in sexual assault cases.
The lesson from the debacle is clear: decisions made behind closed doors are more likely to be ill considered and incorrect than those made in the light of public scrutiny.
Recently, Harvard has been trying to deprive the community of important crime information by preventing access to the same records that every municipal police force in Massachusetts releases to the public. The Crimson filed a lawsuit last summer to gain access to the crime records, and the University has said it will fight through the court system to prevent the public from gaining access to them.