If Only They Knew

The media prove once again that when it comes to Harvard, stereotype trumps truth

January 14 of this year saw fair Harvard get more than its fair share of headlines and airtime. At a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), University President Lawrence H. Summers proved too provocative for his audience. He promptly found himself in the middle of a media firestorm over his citing of the hypothesis that women trailed men in innate ability in mathematics and science. That evening, controversial Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly took on another Harvard news item—the College’s hiring of a so-called “fun czar,” Zac Corker ’04. Corker’s hiring made belated headlines early in the New Year when a Reuters story on his appointment was picked up by major networks months after his hiring and the story’s deserved shelf-life. O’Reilly, who holds a Masters of Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, called the Corker story “The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day,” saying, “take it from this Harvard alum. We’re not exactly talking the Mardi Gras up there in Cambridge.”

Media outlets and personalities like O’Reilly made a paltry and delayed effort at understanding Corker’s position, choosing to portray the special assistant to the dean for social planning as some kind of omnibus party planner responsible for prying Harvard students from their books onto the dance floor, against their wishes. Moreover, the media’s long belated reporting of Corker’s appointment is sloppy journalism, reflecting just how eager media outlets are to perpetuate stereotypes of Harvard students that are utterly untrue in the name of filling space on a slow news day. The truth of the matter is that Corker fills the role of event consultant and coordinator. His job is to help students who have event plans make their visions come to fruition, not to teach Harvardians to do keg-stands.

The tangible benefits of Corker’s tenure at University Hall are already being felt. Students are able to party more freely because of his work with university administrators and with local governmental agencies. The Cambridge Licensing Commission recently agreed to extend party hours for Harvard students to 2:00 a.m., in large part thanks to Corker’s lobbying efforts on students’ behalf. Far from dragging studious nerds away from their textbooks and feeding them Jell-O shots, Corker’s work is both more mundane and more valuable than the newsmedia would have their audiences believe.

Contrary to popular belief, we Harvard students do know how to party. As the rising number of alcohol-induced visits to Harvard University Heath Services (UHS) attests, we know—perhaps too well—how to unwind in the most traditional sense. But Harvard also features unique opportunities for undergraduate fun-seekers. Weekly Undergraduate Council party grants for in-room events enhance Harvard’s social scene, grants which are unknown at the vast majority of American universities. Many universities do not even allow their students to throw parties in their rooms. And although Harvard may not boast rows of Natural Light-soaked fraternities and sororities, it does have the residential house system to provide students with social anchors.

Sorry to disappoint, Mr. O’Reilly.

The fact that the College’s administration is seeking, through Corker’s position, to facilitate students’ social activities does not constitute the sort of vastly-paternalistic approach towards partying that media coverage of Corker’s appointment seeks to convey. There is an important difference between facilitating students’ activities and teaching them to party in the first place. That difference, however, was also too nuanced to make it into the nightly news.

It sems that the hardest part about partying at Harvard isn’t finding support or space, it’s proving its existence in the first place.