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Op Eds

Advice From a Harvard Elder

By Courtesy of Elsa Dorfman
By Harvey A. Silverglate, Contributing Opinion Writer
Harvey A. Silverglate is a graduate of Harvard Law School and staged a write-in campaign for this year’s Board of Overseers election.

I’m old enough to have witnessed many pivotal events at Harvard and many changes to its evolving culture. For example, when I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967, I was one of 493 men in a class with only 26 women. Today, this gender gap has significantly decreased; in fact, there are more women than men in the J.D. Class of 2025.

My law school class was composed almost entirely of Caucasians. Looking through the snapshots of faces in my yearbook, I see only 11 African Americans: nine men and two women.

There is a section celebrating, if you will, the “Harvard Law Wives,” a group that in 1967 was in its 39th year. The wives reported that “The year commenced in the fall with a buffet supper and a tea given by Mrs. Griswold to introduce the new wives to Cambridge and to each other.”

The referenced “Mrs. Griswold” was the wife of Erwin N. Griswold, dean of the Law School from 1946 until 1967. It is difficult to forget his remarks on day one of law school, for they began more or less as follows (from distant but vivid memory): “Gentlemen: Welcome to Harvard Law School. Look to your left and look to your right. One of the three of you will not be here at this time next year.”

Given the sternness of Griswold’s message, perhaps my 26 female classmates were not terribly offended to have escaped his attention.

The Law School was not at all unique. A similar culture prevailed in the College, with which I had occasion to become quite familiar shortly after graduation. I worked for a small Boston law firm for my first year out, but shortly thereafter I founded my own firm along with two other lawyers — Norman S. Zalkind and John G. S. Flym.

It was our first big case that brought me back to Harvard. I recall that a veritable mob of students had engaged in an anti-war demonstration in Harvard Yard. By this time, students were refusing to show up when receiving induction notices, resulting in indictments. The firm of Flym, Zalkind, and Silverglate became expert in ‘draft law.’

But the most memorable case involved the Harvard Yard riot in 1969. A couple hundred students had taken over University Hall to protest the Reserve Officer Training Corps and its affiliated scholarships, as well as Harvard’s expansion into neighboring Cambridge communities.

University Hall housed the heart of the administration, and the students famously forced then-Assistant Dean Archie C. Epps III, one of the few African American administrators at Harvard back then, out of the building when he refused to leave. In the end, 196 demonstrators ended up being arrested for the riot. Twelve reporters were immediately released, leaving 184 to be arraigned on charges of criminal trespass.

At the Cambridge District Court trial, I remember the judge divided the defendants into smaller groups because the courtroom was not large enough to hold them all. In Middlesex County Superior Court, Flym, Zalkind, and I did our best, but we deemed the case hopeless, what with dozens of photographs of what transpired.

Yet, to our surprise, the jury acquitted — a sign of the unpopularity of that war. Volume 71, number 11 of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin, dated April 28, 1969, describes how: “Students accused of criminal trespass were freed on personal recognizance, while those who could not show bursar’s cards were required to post $20 bail.”

Looking back, what strikes me is the fact that Epps alone functionally filled the role of dean of students. Today, his shoes are filled — to the extent they will ever be filled — by an army of deans, deputy deans, assistant deans and so forth, who actually outnumber the faculty and inflate the College’s near $80,000 annual price tag.

But my main purpose here is neither to reminisce nor to recount the trials and tribulations of your predecessors, nor to criticize this august institution. My task is to give you parting words for the future. But I am hardly the most qualified. In my view, the wisest words were penned by cartoonist Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury.” He penned two strips that are particularly relevant.

In one, a few graduating college students discuss the “depressing” tuition debt that they owe before the dean takes the podium and states that: “All students owing more than $100,000 are invited to meet with debt counselors in the field house following today’s ceremony.” Graduation is a time of celebration, but one cannot help the dreary thought of the unreasonableness of the accumulated debt.

In the other strip, the commencement speaker, seemingly aware of the hypersensitivity on most university campuses — a phenomenon known as “political correctness” — regurgitates a variety of administrative jargon, explaining that “The intra-college sensitivity advisory committee has vetted the text of even trace amounts of subconscious racism, sexism, and classism” and that “any offensive elements of Western rationalism and linear logic” as well as “references flowing from a white, male, Eurocentric perspective have been eliminated,” before ending the speech with a simple “Thank you and good luck,” offering the students little encouragement and advice.

And so, members of the Harvard graduating class of 2023, it is my hope that despite shouldering the burdensome debt and the power to reform the education system for future generations, you will prosper.

I thank you for your patience, as I assume that by now you have read my entire diatribe, and I wish you all good luck.

Harvey A. Silverglate is a graduate of Harvard Law School and staged a write-in campaign for this year’s Board of Overseers election.

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