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Extra, Extra?

The Quad gym controversy was hardly worthy of the national headlines it received

By Adam M. Guren

“Oh, you go to Harvard?” the women on the train next to me asked. “Did you hear about the gym that closed for the Muslim women?” “Yes,” I told them, “—and it’s really a non-issue.” They were shocked—after all, they had read about the six-hour-a-week closure of the Quad Recreational Athletics Center (QRAC) in The New York Times and The Washington Post, two arbiters of the important and newsworthy. “Doesn’t that mean this is an important issue for students?” they asked.

The answer, on the whole, is no. On a practical level, only a quarter of students live near the QRAC, and there are other, nicer gyms that are perhaps a bit further away. Students here are for the most part extremely tolerant, and they were likely just as angry about how the situation was handled—for instance the particular hours selected for the closure,or the lack of prior notification—as they were about the closure itself. While the QRAC closure is certainly a campus story worthy of the front page of this newspaper, an op-ed or two, and a breakfast-table conversation, the fact that that national newspapers have been making such a fuss out of it continues to baffle me.

The national media has combined the QRAC story with “controversy” surrounding students performing the Muslim call to prayer from the steps of Widener Library during Islamic Awareness week. Thanks to an op-ed written in this newspaper by student organizers about their right to use a loudspeaker to amplify the prayer call in a public forum, the national media is convinced there is tangible frustration among Harvard students about the presence of Islam and religious life on campus.

Yet I think I speak for most students in saying that such “controversy” barely exists here. For example, I did not find the call to prayer to be the least bit offensive—to me and many others, it was a celebration of diversity on campus, and far from the objectionable, oppressive nuisance it was made out to be. And I’m not aware of many classmates inveighing against it or the decision to close the QRAC in dorm rooms or dining halls. Quite simply, these seem like minor issues here in Cambridge, certainly not stories worthy of prime placement in the papers of record.

If reporters wanted to address important issues at Harvard and other college campuses that affect students, there are plenty of topics they could—and should—cover. For instance, I would recommend they write about the new financial aid policies, particularly for those students who want to go into public service-oriented careers but were previously financially constrained from doing so. They might report on how endowments are spent at different colleges. They might investigate the flawed arguments some politicians are leveling against rich colleges like Harvard for raising their tuition, when aid is so generous that most students don’t actually pay the sticker price (Harvard announced that it would increase tuition by 3.5 percent and financial aid by 21 percent). Finally, they might write about athletics recruiting policies, in the wake of the revelation that Harvard’s new basketball coach Tommy Amaker has allegedly lowered academic standards.

Unfortunately, these stories—while of more immediate importance to students and more persistent concern nationally—are nowhere near as sexy or provocative as religious clashes, especially when those clashes involve Muslims. Instead, they involve in-depth reporting and nuance; they take time and dedication, making them poor candidates for filling space on short notice.

So we end up with headlines like “Hijabs at Harvard Gym” or “Culture Clash Starts Small at Harvard.” The national media should do better than to blow a trifling issue out of proportion.

Adam M. Guren ’08, a former Crimson editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House.

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