Before graduating from Harvard two weeks ago, Maxwell L. Child—departing president of The Harvard Crimson—endured a troubling run-in with the school’s primary disciplinary body, the Administrative Board. Child’s recent recounting of the unpleasant encounter in the Crimson illustrates the bizarre obsession with the trivial that is an unfortunate characteristic of too many university administrators generally and, here, of the "Ad Board," as it is known to students.
Child’s story begins with an e-mail he received in January, a letter "that every Harvard student fears—an ominous note from my resident dean requesting that we meet as soon as possible." The letter failed to provide Child with specific notice of what he had done to earn this meeting. After requests for more information, Child was told that the dean wanted to speak to him about the Crimson‘s initiation process. This vague description wasn’t much help; the publication receives over 100 new members each year and welcomes newly elected members via participation in "optional good-natured ‘missions’ as part of the fun of elections day."
Following some detective work, Child uncovered one incident that he thought might be grounds, however silly, for the meeting:
After heavy investigation, I came up with one lead. Many of The Crimson’s boards ask their newly elected members to accomplish optional good-natured "missions" as part of the fun of elections day, which often include scavenger hunts, love poems to editors, and song-and-dance routines. The news board, in what most would consider fairly harmless fun, asked some of their members to get Hallmark greeting cards signed by someone in the registrar’s office.
One member brought flowers and chocolates along with his card in hopes of currying favor with the office workers. He was instead approached by the manager and told that he was performing illegal solicitation. The manager then apparently filed a formal complaint with the Ad Board, alleging "disruption of the work day."
As the meeting approached, though, I couldn’t bring myself to believe I was going to get Ad Boarded for a greeting card—I was sure it was some other issue of which I was unaware.
But sure enough, the greeting card was indeed the focus of the Ad Board’s attention. Child was stunned and nervous:
Later that night, I got the news that I would be meeting with Jay Ellison, Secretary of the Ad Board, about the CVS card. I was in shock. Was I going to be suspended because The Crimson supposedly "disrupted the workday" at the registrar’s office with some flowers and chocolate?
Dean Ellison was surprisingly good-natured, despite my fears. He noted that the Ad Board was investigating the issue and had not decided whether or not to make it a formal case. He asked me some basic questions and sent me on my way. I did not know whether to be relieved or more worried.
Over the course of the next several weeks, several of my peers went through the same process, including the managing editor, the associate managing editors, who run the news board, and the leaders of the election process on the news board. The uncertainty and fear of Ad-Board retribution weighed heavy on our minds for weeks.
However friendly Jay Ellison may have been to Child and his fellow Crimson staffers, the fact that the Ad Board was "investigating the issue" and seriously considering bringing a "formal case" is illustration enough of the body’s laughable priorities. Really, Ad Board, didn’t you have anything better to do than rattle student leaders because of a greeting card, flowers, and chocolate? The complete humorlessness of the situation is remarkable—as is the waste of resources, time, and energy such an investigation represents. Talk about misguided priorities.
The Ad Board didn’t even have the decency to tell Child he was off the hook:
We were never told what the final outcome of the case was, but since I have not heard anything yet, I will assume it was thankfully dropped. But this episode, for me, has served as emblematic of my dealings with the College administration. As with many other issues, they were deeply upset by what seemed—to me, at least—to be inoffensive fun.
Unfortunately, Child’s experience with the Ad Board echoes FIRE’s longstanding complaints. There’s a reason that FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate has called the Ad Board "one of the worst, if not the worst, student disciplinary tribunals in the country." (Check out Kyle’s comprehensive November 2009 Torch entry for more on much-needed Ad Board reforms.) After all, Harvard has punished a student for an editorial cartoon and forced the cancellation of a party because of its name—so why wouldn’t a greeting card initiate a months-long investigation of the president of the Crimson?
Harvard is a red-light school because of its restrictive speech policies, and the Ad Board’s heavy-handedness only deepens the problem. Child concludes with a clear-sighted appraisal of the corrosive effect of investigating harmless student activity:
The random, unexpected dealing out of punishment by the Ad Board and the deans breeds fear and, ultimately, lack of respect. If giving President Drew G. Faust a fake check for $1 billion—which we did during a previous Grand Elections and she said she found amusing—is allowable but presenting the registrar’s office with a Hallmark card is an offense worthy of months of investigation, there is no real way to know, as a student, where lines are drawn. Thus we are faced with two options: accept the risk of suspension for every "greeting card" or forego Grand Elections entirely.
Based on my dealings with the administration and recent events, it seems that the College’s new attitude is more and more reminiscent of the cantankerous and unreasonable Dean Wormer from "Animal House," who was ready to put wayward fraternities on "double-secret probation" without cause. The Crimson was far from a Delta House-esque nest of iniquity and hazing, but the fact that we are frequently being treated as such makes me think that the College is wasting time and resources in policing innocent events that many participants rate as some of their favorite undergraduate experiences.
Both FIRE and Harvard students can only hope that Child’s reasoned call is heeded by Harvard administrators. We’re not holding our breath.