Skip to comments.In Harvard Papers, a Dark Corner of the College's Past
Posted on 11/29/2002 11:05:08 PM PST by kattracks
AMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 29 About six months ago Amit R. Paley, a writer for The Harvard Crimson, was researching an article he thought fairly mundane when, combing a list of the university archives' holdings, he was stunned to see an entry for "Secret Court Files, 1920."
That short reference eventually led Mr. Paley to 500 pages of documents describing an episode more than 80 years ago in which the Harvard administration methodically harassed a number of young men for being gay, on suspicion of being gay or simply for associating with gays. Nine of those victimized one teacher and eight students were ousted from the college and essentially run out of town.
The events, recounted by Mr. Paley in an article published last week in Fifteen Minutes, The Crimson's weekly magazine, began when a sophomore who had received poor grades committed suicide. His older brother, an alumnus, found letters addressed to that student that detailed a gay culture at Harvard. The alumnus turned the letters over to the dean of the college.
A. Lawrence Lowell, then Harvard's president, authorized a group of administrators to deal with the matter. Those administrators, who came to call themselves the Court, zealously set out to protect the college from scandal. Their ensuing proceedings indeed, the very existence of the Court would remain a secret for the next eight decades.
A group of students were brought before the Court for interrogation about their sex lives. So were some local men who were not students, despite the Court's lack of jurisdiction.
Most of the students found "guilty," one a congressman's son, were told to leave not only the college but also the city of Cambridge. Two students convinced the Court that they were heterosexual but were forced to leave anyway because they had associated with some of those identified as gay. The dean also ordered that a letter be added to the student files of all those ousted, which dissuaded the college's Alumni Placement Service from "making any statement that would indicate confidence in these men."
Two of those men later committed suicide.
The Court's notes and other documents, scribbled by the administrators themselves or typed by them rather than by their secretaries, were apparently locked in a filing cabinet in University Hall until they were transferred, at least 30 years ago, to the university archives. There, an archivist read through them recently and wrote the synopsis that Mr. Paley later stumbled upon.
Mr. Paley's request to see the documents was denied by the dean of the college, Harry R. Lewis, on the ground that they involved private student disciplinary hearings. But Mr. Paley turned to the director of the University Library, Sidney Verba, who set up an advisory committee to consider the request. On the committee's recommendation, Mr. Verba eventually decided to release the documents, with the names of the students, now all dead, blacked out.
"By redacting them, we hoped to protect their privacy," Mr. Verba said, "but in a sense not to protect the university administrators for any policy they pursued."
Mr. Paley and seven other researchers, however, spent two months piecing together the students' identities and their backgrounds, including what happened to them after Harvard, and published their names in the article.
"This was a disciplinary case in 1920," Mr. Paley said, "but homosexual activity today is not something you can be charged for in the university. To withhold their names is in some way implying they have something to be ashamed of."
George Chauncey, professor of American history at the University of Chicago and author of "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940," said that what occurred at Harvard 80 years ago was not unusual for the time.
"The gay life at Harvard was typical," Professor Chauncey said, "and the investigation and expulsion of students because of their participation in gay life was typical. This case reminds us that all over the country, there are bodies of evidence like this just waiting to be uncovered."
Harvard's president, Lawrence H. Summers, issued a statement calling the episode "extremely disturbing" and "part of a past that we have rightly left behind."
"Whatever attitudes may have been prevalent then," Mr. Summers said, "persecuting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation is abhorrent and an affront to the values of the university."
Mr. Verba, the library director, said Harvard's archives bore witness to its past discrimination against women and racial and ethnic minorities as well.
"I would say that Harvard looked as most institutions in the United States did when it came to racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in the early part of the century," he said.
Mr. Paley finds it surprising that the Court, which disbanded once it felt that the incident had been taken care of, kept any documentation at all.
"If the administrators knew this was going public right now," he said, "they would roll over in their graves. This was probably the most embarrassing thing that could have happened to them."
Utter nonsense spoken from someone who should (but apparently doesn't) know better. Disclaimer: I have not read the source documents, so my comments are based solely on this article, and so I admit to the possibility of basing my conclusions on incomplete information. Nevertheless, this appears to be a blatantly false, revisionist description by Summers of what apparently occurred, which is that it was the individuals' behaviors, not their "orientation" (which is an intangible thing), which led to the disciplinary actions that were taken. As such, this is no more "abhorrent" than other behavior-related disciplinary actions that may have been taken against students who committed actions such as cheating on examinations, stealing property, physically assaulting others, etc. (That is, unless you're part of a lunatic fringe that may believe that peoples' "life orientations" towards cheating, theft, and assault should not be judged by others). If such disciplinary actions constitute "an affront to the values of the university", then the university has sunk to depths of depravity hitherto unimagined.
> This story just gets better and better! <
You two make me nauseous with your attitudes. Though I knew this would be red meat to most FReepers, who are getting well known as being both vicious and cruel. (Why do you think some of us use strictly held pseudonyms? We use FR for what we can get, and don't want to risk being associated with you.)
Yes, "NO racism or violence in posts" doesn't mean that the rabid attack dogs sicced on gays are ever called off in Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood. Move to Iran, please, and join the mullahs who push gay men over cliffs. You'd be more honest.
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