The New York Times, among other esteemed institutions in American life, has a Harvard fetish. In the past few months, the Times has entered the rarefied world of Harvard sorority life, mulled over Harvard Business School’s response to an admissions scandal, profiled two separate Harvard economists, David Cutler and Roland Fryer, in consecutive weeks of The New York Times magazine, and provided inordinate commentary and analysis on a man named Lawrence Summers.

Jess Cox

In addition to these dispatches from the banks of the Charles, The Times makes sure to offer its readers liberal dashes of expert opinion from the Harvard professoriate. I’ve read everything from Lawrence F. Katz’s thoughts on black head coaches in the National Basketball Association to Harrison G. Pope Jr.’s on steroids. By combining the simple words “Harvard” and “assistant professor,” instant gravitas is conferred to even the most thinly-sourced and poorly researched stories.

The Gray Lady would go to great lengths to deny the existence of this infatuation, but I’ll let the record speak for itself. Lexis-Nexis tells me that The Times has run 181 stories with the word “Harvard” in the past month. This compares to the 156 articles that have appeared in the paper in the same time period with the word “Michigan.” This is not the University of Michigan, just Michigan. This includes everything from a story that mentions Iraq war protestors on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to a story that refers to the connections between Michigan’s Saginaw Chippewa tribe and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But it’s been an especially tempestuous month at Harvard, so doesn’t this render this altogether imprecise experiment even less rigorous? Fine. I performed the same exercise for March of 2004 and found remarkably similar results. Harvard garnered 179 distinct mentions and Michigan gets a dispiriting 155.

What accounts for this fascination? While Harvard is rich, powerful, old and has some very smart people working for it, there at least half a dozen universities in the United States with equal credentials and are far more impressive in some dimensions than Harvard. Unlike some of its brethren, Harvard is located in the heart of a metropolis, so the university’s easy access provides a distinct advantage to the lazy journalist. The University of Chicago, Stanford and Cal Tech are every bit the academic institution as Harvard and are each within a relatively easy drive to a major airport. Maybe these schools get short shrift because they’re not located on the East Coast.

So I can’t explain this obsession beyond stating Harvard gets so much ink precisely because so many people think Harvard is important because it gets so much ink and on and on in a recursive loop. But what I do know is that when reporters use Harvard as keyhole to the world of the American undergraduate, their efforts end in farce. Two days ago, The Times ran a story examining criticisms that a cleaning service run by Harvard students exacerbated elitism at the school. Where most people would see an impressive example of undergraduate entrepreneurialism, the Harvard administration and the campus newspaper limn class conflict. This is a controversy that simply could not exist at any other school in America. Nowhere are faux meritocrats so entrenched that such poorly-reasoned arguments could gain traction. Instead of getting data on American undergraduates, we get dada.

The most noxious variant on this format is the Harvard undergraduate as the apotheosis of the American life story. The most dreadful example in The Times is Warren St. John’s report on sorority life at Harvard. To quote St. John’s staggeringly vacuous prose at length: “But while Harvard sororities share the same Greek letters as their party-hardy sister chapters at Michigan, Texas and Ole Miss, their social agendas are startlingly wholesome, perhaps giving new meaning to the phrase Harvard Square. They hold kickball tournaments and pajama parties and take apple-picking trips. Their recruitment meetings take place not at bars but at the local Finagle a Bagel and Au Bon Pain. And far from being catty and exclusive, they strive to welcome any woman who might hope to join.” In addition to his credulous portrayal of Harvard sororities as bastions of openness, St. John has an acute inability to recognize that his description of Harvard sorority life is indistinguishable from that of any other school.

Harvard University, a place that neither warrants nor needs its outsized place in the American imagination.

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Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

 

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