Harvard Alumni Fault Campus Apathy

Published on
by
The Boston Globe

Harvard Alumni Fault Campus Apathy

by
Linda K. Wertheimer and Peter Schworm

Where have all the protesters gone? A group of 1967 Harvard alumni lamented for the days of antiwar marches on Harvard Yard this week in an e-mailed petition to Drew Faust, university president.

The 13 alumni, led by a Belgium-based businessman, Gilbert Doctorow, asked Faust to create a task force to figure out the causes behind the "widespread apathy and political indifference of the student body at Harvard College." The group wrote that it was shocked at the lack of campus protests against the Iraqi war. Harvard is either not recruiting enough politically active students or is doing too little to promote "civic courage and political engagement," the group contended.

"The idea was to open a dialogue to pose some questions," Doctorow said.

Harvard officials said they see their school as no different than most colleges across the country: Big antiwar marches on campuses are rare, and today's students are active but use different methods than Vietnam War-era protesters.

Harvard has an antiwar coalition, but students, who are not facing a draft like those in the 1960s often focus on causes they can see in front of them, said Judith Kidd, Harvard College's associate dean. A group of Harvard students went on a hunger strike last spring to show support for better working conditions and pay for campus security guards.

Harvard, meanwhile, does look for civic and political activities when it screens applications, said Marlyn McGrath, the director of admissions.

"I don't think there's much of a lack of political engagement here, nor do I think it's true that people throw tomatoes at people anymore," McGrath said. "It's civil discourse."

* * *

An Open Letter to President Drew Faust

A Call for Creation of a Task Force to Investigate the Causes and Propose Possible Cures for Political Apathy and Careerism at Harvard College During these Deeply Troubling Times for the Nation

Dear Professor Faust:

As members of the Class of 1967, which recently marked its 40th anniversary, we have in the past months had special reason to refresh and re-examine our ties to Harvard and to take a hard look at the College today. Though there is much to praise and admire, there are also developments that prompt concern.

You have brought a breath of fresh air to the University, and, at the start of your tenure, we are hopeful you might give a sympathetic hearing to our concern.

Acknowledging that our own coming of age was shaped by the Viet Nam War and the frenetic, at times violent political activism that it engendered, we are perhaps more sensitive than later classes to the need for the College to be a center of debate over the moral issues of the time and a home for views contrary to those of established forces, particularly those of governments. To cite the opening line of Bismarck's famous quip, "whoever is not a Socialist at age 20 has no heart."

It has been our collective understanding that Harvard, as one of the founders of the Liberal Arts curriculum in American education, is among the first to defend a 4 year 'time out' for self-examination and broad intellectual growth versus the careerist, vocational orientation that can be typical of some lesser institutions across the country.

As contributors to Harvard's many fund-raising appeals over the years, we have taken pride in the University's standing as the best endowed institution of higher learning in the world, with a reported net worth of $36 billion dollars. We would expect that this wealth frees the University, and certainly the College at its core, from the need to pander to the prevailing political moods in the USA and enables it to fulfill its calling as one of the more active participants of the global pluralistic society.

Against this background of assumptions, we are concerned by what we see to be the widespread apathy and political indifference of the student body at Harvard College today. If these were ordinary times, years of peace and prosperity, this would be sad, but forgivable. Given that the US is engaged in an occupation abroad that has inflicted countless thousands of civilian casualties while at the same time trampling on US citizens' own constitutional rights in the name of the "war on terror", and that the Administration appears to be planning a further strike in Iran, the apparently docile political behavior of the undergraduate student body suggests that one of two things is seriously amiss:

* either Harvard College's recruitment criteria and procedures have gone seriously wrong; or
* undergraduate life at the College today is not giving due encouragement to civic courage and political engagement.

We earnestly appeal to you to create a Task Force to investigate this and to recommend possible remedies. We would hope that in addition to faculty and present day students you would invite onto such a Task Force representatives of the alumni representation from earlier, less laid back days.

Respectfully submitted,

Signed

Arlene Ash
Robert Clark
Gilbert Doctorow
James Flinsch
Tony Jackson
Jeremy Kagan
Daniel Levine
Nancy Murray
John Pesando
Kenneth Roemer
Steven Varga-Golovcsenko
Nicholas Whitlam
Stephen Young

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company

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