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In 1630, John Winthrop voiced his dreams to the settlers of New England, exclaiming that their new Massachusetts Bay Colony “shall be as a city upon a hill” that “the eyes of all people are upon.” In the nearly 400 years since then, these sentiments, written upon the walls of Winthrop House, seem to remain a powerful part of how the administration understands this University — the verbalization of an idealistic perception of Harvard’s place in the world. This invocation is not without merit, encouraging faculty and students to hold themselves to a higher standard and to lead with purpose. But there’s a flip side: it renders Harvard’s administration fundamentally concerned with its own public perception, sometimes to a greater extent than — and to the detriment of — its student body.
From mental health resources to Covid restrictions, Harvard has historically publicized aggressive policies that represent bold change while quietly maintaining the status quo. It’s almost as if the University is saying, “Look, world, all of our students can test as often as they’d like (though we won't enforce the testing cadence). Look, world, we have created such abundant mental health resources (though CAMHS wait times remain over a month-long).” On the outside, we are a city upon a hill, but upon walking through our gates, one realizes that we are much like any other city.
The latest example of the University’s preference for appearance over substance comes with its social plan for this year’s iteration of the Harvard-Yale football game. On November 9, Interim Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt ’01 emailed all undergraduate students about the upcoming festivities, writing that the University would be holding an official tailgate featuring “classic American barbecue fare,” “plenty of water stations,” and three drink tickets for students 21 years old or older. This is, of course, a welcome set of resources that contribute to a safer experience for all in attendance, and I am thankful that I go to a university that is willing to contribute to important social experiences like this.
Then I read a bit closer. Further down, the email mentioned that “outside food or drink [would] not be permitted within the tailgate” and that the affair would be “open to current Harvard and Yale undergraduate students only.” Many in attendance will undoubtedly use alcohol or marijuana, but the thousands of students who are under 21, as well as many students from surrounding schools, will have no safe place to do so. Instead, those students will almost certainly engage in rowdy pre-game activity in dorms, yards, or parks far afield of Harvard’s football stadium.
This presents a decidedly intolerable risk to students and the community alike.
For one, the alternative locations will offer none of the health and safety resources that the official tailgate does. At informal pre-game gatherings, there will likely be zero medical personnel, no guarantee of food or water, and varying accessibility to law enforcement. Additionally, without authorities present, these private parties may very well see physical assault, sexual assault, narcotic use (both voluntary and, worse, involuntary), theft, vandalism, and more.
And what happens when The Game is about to start? Thousands of inebriated college students will descend upon the stadium from afar, dodging highways, buses, cars, bikes, and rival fans along the way. Drunk pedestrians are already proportionally more likely to die in traffic accidents than even drunk drivers. And the risk of disaster will be even greater with many of the visitors walking through unfamiliar areas. In this respect, Harvard’s policy presents an unacceptably large risk to the lives of students.
The 2022-2023 College Handbook states that “in cases of drug or alcohol intoxication, health and safety are the College’s primary concerns,” and that their policies are “intended to encourage students to seek help.” In her recent email, Interim Dean Brandt echoed this sentiment, writing that “there is simply nothing more important than ensuring the safety and well-being of our entire Harvard community and our guests.” While the College’s outward message is consistent, its actual policies fail to consider the safety of the countless students who will inevitably choose to participate in underage drinking and drug use at The Game, clearly appearing to place the health and well-being of students second to the image Harvard works so hard to craft.
The University needs to take off its rose-colored glasses and see its students for who they are: stressed young adults who may unintentionally hurt themselves and others in the pursuit of fun. The College must offer practical options for socializing, placing the full force of the richest university in the world behind protecting and nourishing the well-being of its students rather than its image. In truth, Harvard may be a city upon a hill, but to be a worthy model, it must ensure that its example goes beyond appearances.
Brad F. Campbell ’24 is a Computer Science concentrator in Quincy House.
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