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When Big Names Drown Out Big Ideas

In the lead up to University President Claudine Gay's inauguration last month, rumors circulated campus that former U.S. President Barack Obama would be attending.
In the lead up to University President Claudine Gay's inauguration last month, rumors circulated campus that former U.S. President Barack Obama would be attending. By Addison Y. Liu
By Julia S. Dan, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julia S. Dan ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.

In a sea of umbrellas and gilded robes, I couldn’t help but observe the palpable disappointment etched across the faces of some of those gathered at University President Claudine Gay’s inauguration. Despite the rumors, it had quickly become clear that former President of the United States Barack Obama would in fact not be making an appearance. Making not-so-discrete exits in the thick of Gay’s official address, students realized they had let their hopes run rampant and let substanceless buzz eclipse the gravity of this historic event.

It’s no secret that Harvard is a hub for big names. In its four centuries of existence, our University has seen everybody from the Dalai Lama to Sacha Baron Cohen walk through its gates. And, for better or for worse, we students can’t get enough of it.

Driven by little more than whispers and rumors, we swarm to ill-defined corners of campus at the drop of a hat, hoping to flag down Natalie Portman ’03 for a signature. We push through vicious crowds to snap a picture with royals like Princess Catherine of Wales. We kick ourselves for missing out on Kim Kardashian’s lecture at Harvard Business School.

Prestige is built into our University’s DNA. Harvard’s reputation as a breeding ground for academics, industry leaders, high achievers, and entertainers has made it a focal point for individuals eager to share their journeys and expertise with the student body. The Institute of Politics’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum is a shining example that hosts speakers of the likes of Malala Yousafzai and Ban Ki-moon.

However, this constant influx of high-profile appearances has reached a saturation point. The opportunity to hear from a former head of state is practically a daily occurrence and has become, in a sense, skippable. Being offered such remarkable opportunities on a near daily basis completely loses its significance when we reroute speaker event emails straight to our spam folder. These days, it takes something completely momentous (or, at least, the promise of free boba) to draw out the Harvard crowd.

Our campus’s coveting of stardom and the allure of big names highlights a deeper issue: an excessive reverence for prestige, regardless of substance.

So much of what Harvard is lies in its reputation; yet beneath this veneer of celebrity, the University grapples with ongoing challenges. We students are still fighting for denaming, hot breakfast, and mental health outreach, to no foreseeable end. It’s doubtful that any amount of headline-making VIPs would quell any of these substantive concerns.

Perhaps too perfectly, the John Harvard statue embodies our complex relationship with fame and image. Even as it stands as a testament to our institution’s legendary history, its popular historical origin is based in myth, or rather three apparent lies. Nonetheless, he remains the pinnacle of the Harvard experience for 8 million tourists yearly as of 2017, his false likeness incessantly photographed, rubbed, and posted on Facebook.

As students, we’re implicitly socialized to pick and choose who’s worth our time on the basis of name recognition, how popular they are in Washington, D.C., or any other degree of exclusivity that makes up their identity. This form of social prominence often remains unspoken yet firmly ingrained in our collective consciousness.

However, we might find ourselves wholly dissatisfied with the quality of our connections if we continue to read people like resumes. While big names are great, they aren’t everything. They certainly aren’t the sole measure of value in one’s pursuits.

The search for meaningful work is a journey that continually evolves with time. It’s essential to recognize that not every endeavor should be driven by the pursuit of recognition or external validation.

If we live under the expectation that we must work, we should at least engage in the pursuit of meaningful work. True worth lies beyond the confines of labels and accolades. It can be discovered in the unaccredited activities — those late-night debates shared among friends and strangers, strolls through our architecturally rich surroundings, and the simple pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.

In the end, it is these experiences that often prove to be the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of our time in college. More important to me than big names, are these small moments.

Julia S. Dan ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.

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