Alumnus interruptus

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  November 16, 2006

A sampling of local alumni glossies reveals a near-universal practice of praising the university, even if it means demeaning the intelligence of alums. Harvard magazine covered every angle of the forced resignation of former president Lawrence Summers earlier this year, printing scathing letters from alums and even including a sympathetic interview with the departed chief this fall. Meanwhile, its rival in-house publication The Yard conspicuously turned a blind eye to the controversy that was, of course, the nine-foot gorilla in the Harvard living room.

Boston University’s alumni mag, Bostonia, deserves some credit for an investigative piece on grade inflation in its fall 2006 issue. But recent editions have also been heavy on self-congratulation, running articles such as a profile of BU students who aided Hurricane Katrina victims over spring break, and a puff piece on new president Robert A. Brown’s inauguration, which breathlessly reported that he is committed to “excellence, connectivity, engagement, and inclusion.”

Boston College magazine might take the prize for bias in 2006. In a shameless bit of puffery, editor Ben Birnbaum, also a university vice-president, assigned himself a summer 2006 cover-story profile of his boss, university president Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. The piece, under the pretext of describing a typical week in the life of a college president, mainly reiterated statistics that show a tremendous level of growth under Leahy’s leadership — numbers alumni are already bombarded with during fundraising campaigns. Birnbaum did address the most common criticism of Leahy: that he’s rarely on campus long enough to meet with undergrads. But missing altogether was any line of questioning over matters of much graver significance: increased student and faculty concern over gay rights on campus, for example, or attempts by the president’s office to rein in an independent student newspaper — topics that have captured national media attention and surely would have piqued the interest of most alumni.

Disgruntled alums
Aside from opening their wallets in fewer numbers, alumni at various schools are showing signs of vocal discontent. At Dartmouth, alumni staged a previously unthinkable coup. Over the past couple of decades, the distinguished liberal-arts college had established a dismal record on free-speech issues, thanks largely to a notoriously overzealous speech-code policy that elevated vague notions of “community” over values of academic freedom. A long drawn-out battle between the university and a controversial conservative student publication, the Dartmouth Review, which has been around since 1980, added further fuel to the campus culture war engulfing Hanover.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, disgusted with the culture of censorship at his alma mater, garnered enough grassroots support to win election to the Dartmouth Board of Trustees (defeating three institutionally favored candidates) in 2004. (Disclosure: I have on occasion acted as an informal adviser to Rodgers on academic freedom issues.) Two more alums ran on similar platforms and were elected the following year. This did not give the insurgents anywhere near a majority of the 18-member board, but, as Dylan taught us, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

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