Commentary Magazine


Counting Noses at the

In this, its 125th year, the Harvard Crimson has much to celebrate. The student-run daily is, after all, something of an institution even in the wider world of American journalism. Its prominent alumni are too numerous to list; their bylines grace the pages of the country’s most prestigious newspapers and magazines. Little wonder that so many undergraduates, hoping to join these fabled ranks, devote their Harvard careers to winning a top post at the Crimson, often to the detriment of their class work and their social lives.

Of course, like Harvard, the Crimson has changed a good deal in the course of its long history, and especially over the last several generations. This is a point that the paper itself has been at pains to emphasize in observing its 125th anniversary. Thus, a recent recruiting advertisement, proclaiming the Crimson’s commitment to “representing the broad spectrum of the Harvard community,” called upon like-minded students to help it “reach out to the rich diversity” of the campus. Accompanying the text was an antique photo of some 30 unsmiling Harvard men from the turn of the 20th century, most of them in three-piece-suits and many of them in bow ties; the head of one was encircled with a white halo. The caption underneath read: “Old School: Crimson President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ’04 and his cronies.” As for today’s Crimson, it, according to the ad, was offering “A New Deal for Harvard.”

This past fall, as the paper prepared for its approaching anniversary, I was hoping to become a part of this new dispensation. I had been writing for the Crimson—both news articles and editorials—for two years, ever since I was a freshman, and had also performed other basic editorial duties like looking over the work of younger writers before publication. As I saw it, moreover, I had “rich diversity” aplenty to offer, being (unlike FDR) both a conservative and a Jew. Alas, for reasons that will be familiar to any observer of today’s campus politics, it was not meant to be.

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I knew when I entered “the shoot”—as the process of applying for an executive position on the Crimson is called—that “diversity” had long been a sensitive issue at the paper. In the early 1970′s, female staffers had successfully pushed for a switch to gender-neutral language in its pages. (“Freshman” and “chairman” thus became, respectively, “first-year” and “chair.”) And on one locally famous occasion, the feminists had shown their displeasure with the Crimson’s male-dominated hierarchy by covering the women’s bathroom with protest-laced graffiti.

Around the same time, the leadership of the paper started to be seriously concerned about the lack of minority students on its staff, and the recruitment of blacks and Hispanics became a priority. Today, almost three decades later, it is, as the FDR advertisement made clear, still a priority. Yet these efforts have consistently failed to bear fruit, turning Harvard’s Black Student Association (BSA) in particular into a vocal and perennial critic of the Crimson.

Since “the shoot” is, inevitably, a deeply political process, and one in which the subjective judgments of outgoing members of the executive board reign supreme, I had given some thought to where I stood on the issue of diversity. And indeed, during a crucial discussion with a departing managing editor named Valerie MacMillan, the conversation finally turned to what I would do “to improve diversity” on the Crimson’s editorial board. When I asked my interlocutor to be more specific, she flabbergasted me by stating that the “problem” she was referring to was the fact that so large a percentage of the paper’s columnists were Jews.

My response, after I had regained my composure, was that while the editorial board had a legitimate interest in ensuring a diversity of ideological views at the Crimson, this seemed to me to have little to do with the ethnic or religious identities of its writers. But it should have been clear that this response was not calculated to enhance my prospects. For, as it turned out, Valerie MacMillan was not alone in her definition of the “problem” at the Crimson; the same point was made explicitly in the statements of at least two undergraduates aiming for leadership positions on the editorial board, Geoffrey C. Upton and Daniel M. Suleiman.

Both Upton and Suleiman had submitted “shoot papers,” or platforms, in connection with their bids for office. When it came to how they would deal with the Crimson’s “diversity problem,” Upton’s statement was the more succinct of the two. Ritualistically declaring his intention, if elected, to “expose the staff to diverse viewpoints,” he then cut to the practical heart of the matter. As things stood, Upton noted, the paper’s homogeneity was unfortunately self-evident, for “eight often columnists are Jewish and just one is not white.” Hence, as he saw it, there was a palpable need to “[s]tep up efforts to diversify the staff” itself.

For his part, Suleiman, reiterating that the “lack of diverse voices plagues our newspaper,” showed himself to be an even more refined practitioner than Upton of the art of drawing distinctions by ethnic origin. Not only, he wrote, are “nine out of ten Crimson columnists . . . white,” but “seven out often are white Jews”—and not just of the generic variety, but white Jews “from the tri-state area” of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. (The discrepancy between Upton’s eight Jewish columnists and Suleiman’s seven may be put down to the vagaries of, shall we say, nose-counting.) In light of this situation, Suleiman boldly declared that, if elected to the editorial board, he would act “to bring about rapid, substantive change.”

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In the fullness of time, Upton and Suleiman were in fact selected to be co-chairmen of the new editorial board. Several months into their tenures now, have they made good on their pledges? In at least one respect, they have certainly disappointed. Given their stated views, they, of all people, should have recognized the awkwardness of their own election. For Upton and Suleiman, it turns out, are not only white Jews themselves, but white Jews from that most dreadfully overrepresented tri-state area. In light of this embarrassing fact, how they could have considered themselves appropriate role models for a newly diverse paper remains a mystery.

As for the “problem” of Jews in general, Upton and Suleiman have indeed succeeded in lowering the ratios considerably. This they did by adding ten new columnists to the eight that remained from last year, and by assiduously “diversifying” the new cohort along ethnic lines. And, as if to underscore what is now meant, and not meant, by diversity at the Crimson, one Jew, a long-timer on the editorial page who happens to be a conservative, was summarily dismissed.

I myself am no longer part of the Crimson scene, having been turned down for a position on the board as well as for a slot as a columnist. There could have been any number of reasons for this. I was competing against very capable people, and I may have simply failed to “click” personally with the Crimson elite. Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a new policy in place at the paper. On the Ivy League’s most selective campus, a program designed to promote the most superficial kind of diversity—the diversity of skin color—proceeds apace, while intellectual diversity, the only kind that really matters, is scanted or goes begging.

To make matters worse, arguments long discredited in liberal society are being resurrected to justify the new order of things. The contention that it is undesirable to have “too many” Jews was once invoked at places like Harvard to keep them out; now such views are being openly espoused again, and by some of the very Jews who have been let in. This is, indeed, a new deal. What it says about the moral and intellectual sensibilities of the rising generation of elite American journalists is something else again.

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