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Editorials

The World Beyond the Bubble

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March 10, 2020: a day that has gone down in Harvard history — and quite a few staff editorials. In the wake of the rising Covid-19 risk, students cleared out the pastry case at Lamont Café and booked red-eyed flights home. Friends clutched each others’ arms and attempted to jam months of standing dates into the few remaining days. Seniors turned in midterms and said goodbye to campus for the last time — until now.

March 10 came like an eviction notice. But it was not just from Harvard’s physical campus in Cambridge that we were ousted. As we returned to the faraway corners of the globe where we once eagerly welcomed our Harvard acceptance letters, the metaphorical Harvard bubble — that mini-universe of campus culture, politics, and jargon, self-sustaining and self-centered — burst. Without a shared space and friendly run-ins to tether us, our connections to Harvard frayed. We began to look outward not from the perspective atop Harvard’s ivory tower, but from our new surroundings in the larger world outside of our cherished University. No longer was Harvard our first and only frame of reference.

We still carry the marks of our semesters apart. In our first full post-Covid year of 2022, we have struggled to tailor a pre-Covid Harvard experience to our pandemic-altered bodies and minds. Even upperclassmen who should know this place inside and out bring a freshness back to campus, a burst of mint air that escaped when the bubble popped.

A year later, we thought the Harvard bubble would be back: pristine, impenetrable, entirely isolating. Yet this year more than ever before, we have been made to reckon with events and questions that are far greater than Harvard itself. The bubble, once compromised, cannot be un-burst. Layer by layer, we have strived to reach beyond its confines, to grapple with the issues that surround our treasured Cambridge campus.

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That work starts with Cambridge itself, a city rich with community and character but sometimes conspicuously absent from our collective imagination. Far too many of us have become “four-year tourists”: residents of Cambridge on paper, of Harvard in practice. Stuck behind our private police department and gated yard, we rarely venture out beyond Harvard Square or productively engage with our surroundings.

It’s safe to say that Harvard’s ever-expanding presence encourages such isolation from the rest of Cambridge — this academic year alone, the University temporarily closed its gates to non-affiliates. Thus, the age-old question of “town-gown” relations, the perennial struggle to balance local needs and ambitious higher education projects. Earlier this year, Harvard presented its 25th Town-Gown annual report to Cambridge city officials. The report praises Harvard’s “nearly 400-year partnership” with Cambridge, and highlights our “responsibility to create a campus that continuously strives toward a better future for our local community, as well as our global community.” We continue to question the nature of this partnership.

Recent interactions between Harvard and Cambridge, and now Allston, have left us feeling bittersweet. We do not dispute Harvard’s presence can be (and frequently is) a force of good. In Allston alone, the highly praised Harvard Ed Portal provides educational opportunities for local residents. As we have previously pointed out, the Ed Portal is a great example of the kind of work Harvard can and should be doing for the communities it expands into, and of the ways in which our local and educational footprints can be synthesized for the greater good. Still, tradeoffs are never clear-cut, even when it comes to praiseworthy projects. As valuable as Harvard’s learning opportunities for local residents are, they do not negate or perhaps even fully mitigate the broader harms of gentrification brought forth by our expansion into Allston. Going forward, Harvard should work harder to center the discussion around Allston residents and their needs, as they hold the biggest stakes in this process.

As students, however, we should also be mindful of our surroundings and the issues they mask. Not every crisis, even at the local level, is Harvard-centric. We cannot let the bubble’s glassy surface hide what lies beyond.

Take Harvard Square: The picture-perfect center of our small college community, complete with overpriced stores, massive tourist groups, iconic buildings — and an egregiously vulnerable homeless population. Over the past years, the graduating classes have doubtlessly grown used to the blatant inequity that haunts the square, desensitized to Cambridge’s most vulnerable inhabitants one encounter at a time. Continuity begets complacency, but shouldn’t. Our city is at its best when it moves forcefully against the tide — supporting ambitious initiatives like universal preschool education or reimagining its approach to public safety. Our graduates are, too.

But what comes after we graduate? Generations of Harvard students have come and gone; generations of Cantabrigians have remained. The issues they face do not leave Cambridge with each graduating class, they won’t be gone when the last commencement decorations are tossed aside. Instead, they remain here and fester — unless someone, sometime actively prevents them from doing so.

Our influence — much like the corollary sense of duty — doesn’t stop at Cambridge’s doors. As an uncontestable leader among American universities, Harvard frequently sets the agenda for our peers across higher education institutions, either by wrongfully monopolizing the debate or by contending with issues with broad implications for all. We believe Harvard’s prestige gives us the power to shape policy beyond our university; we have ample evidence that when Harvard dares lead, others follow.

The question, then, is what to do with our outsized power — where do we want to be followed? The destination is unclear, the path rocky. American universities are battling on several fronts, harried institutions wrestling with polarized perceptions of their social value and internal pressure to hold their sometimes titanic endowments accountable. Some, like Harvard, have embraced an expansive understanding of their moral obligations, drawing bright red lines surrounding their investments to greater or lesser success. Yet the boundaries of divestment are nothing if not unclear, and dedicated affiliates (including this Board) are bound to keep contesting and stretching them.

At the same time, falling admissions rates and limited housing capacity will, in the next few years, force national universities to either (rightfully and carefully) expand and risk upsetting local neighbors, or become entirely inaccessible. The very process by which so-called American elite institutions select the student body will soon be under scrutiny if not outright duress by an ideological Court eager to overturn affirmative action. And the untamable, frequently overstated discourse surrounding free speech is bound to continue — even if we remain steadfast in our view that taking a tad of public pride in one’s opinions, controversial or not, is the only healthy way to contest the cultural terrain.

These raging debates frequently bleed into broader political fights, all the way to Washington D.C., where Harvard is both an excuse and an elite boogeyman; so too does the power of the Harvard name. We expect some, if not all, of our peers to go on to hold exceedingly powerful, coveted posts: Congressional seats, prestigious judicial positions, and even Cabinet-level appointments. Many in the graduating classes have already begun their uphill climb to the highest levels of the American polity, one well-connected internship at a time. We are confident that Harvard will, once again, find itself overrepresented among the very powerful.

What our peers do with their prominence — whether they become Jacksons or Kissingers, an embodiment of our ideals or everything we shouldn’t be — only time will tell. As a board, we only hope they come to share some of our views on anything from the death penalty to the power of organized labor and implement them in our national backyard.

Not that the world surrounding our bubble ends at Boston-Logan. At times, Harvard’s influence extends even further, well beyond Cambridge, past Boston, Washington D.C., and America altogether. Harvard is nothing if not a global brand, one at times powerful enough to help decide elections — just ask Bulgaria. Our affiliates draw praise and ire from abroad; the publications they pen and projects they support are used to litigate decades-old wedges.

Even the words this very Board votes on can reverberate internationally, make national headlines at times — a compelling reminder of our responsibility to balance boldness with nuance, truth-telling with care and measure, righteousness with humility.

But where should we — this Board, this school — stand internationally, beyond providing a helpful nudge at the ballot box or fodder for foreign debates? How can we begin to understand, let alone exert a positive influence on, conflicts and crises so far from ourselves?

The answers to that and all questions beyond our bubble are complex and thorny; our expertise suffers when we seek to address matters larger in scope and more distant in character. The issues they raise are arguably better suited to councils and governments of highly-qualified people with numerous degrees, rather than bedraggled and bleary-eyed Harvard undergraduates struggling through their first.

As Harvard undergraduates, we are — by and large — not tasked with solving the climate crisis, delivering oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court, or facilitating diplomatic negotiation in eastern Europe. As a group, our student body holds far more potential than actual power and insight; we are budding young adults, with a wealth of opportunities before us, attempting to find our footing. But it is our responsibility as citizens of Harvard, our local Cambridge and Allston communities, colleges across America, the nation, and the globe, to grapple consciously and thoughtfully with the issues at the center of such pertinent tasks — our duty to consolidate evidence and form well-reasoned opinions from the results. To approach justice in accordance with our beliefs in any way we can, no matter how small we may seem in the greater machinations of the world.

Due in part to our historic Harvard bubble, we often only enact this responsibility within the innermost layer of ourselves as Harvard students. We engage in heated debate over the constitutionality of fictional laws in section, provide feedback to Harvard University Dining Services to expand dining hall hours, and scan wordy emails from the administration for the big takeaways on Covid-19 policy. When it comes to anything beyond our bubbled area of expertise, though, we frequently shy away from the issue, assuming it is out of our hands.

But what is our Harvard education for if it can only be applied within the restrictive bounds of Harvard itself? In reality, we only need to direct this same thought and passion from our Harvard student issues toward parallel global ones: the overturning of Roe v. Wade, local food scarcity in Cambridge, and disinformation in political campaigns, to start. We have all the building blocks in place to tackle the challenging questions. We just need to make a conscious effort to start considering them.

This is what we, the Editorial Board, have been doing all throughout the year, and since shortly after The Crimson’s conception in 1873. We have uncovered the facts. We have debated and opined on them. We have organized our arguments and sent them out into the world under The Crimson Editorial byline, urging actionable change within Harvard’s student body, the administration, and the broader culture of our campus.

We are not perfect reckoners, nor are we always right. We’ve defended some positions that people disagree fiercely with, and some that we ourselves no longer agree with. We disagree internally, among ourselves, in ways that are sometimes published and sometimes not. We likely pay too much attention to certain topics and not enough to others, and we sometimes hesitate to publish what we say at all.

If nothing else, we take pride in the fact that we have used our voices. We have grappled with the issues instead of ignoring them. We have carefully formed opinions and stood by them. We have put ourselves out there with our thoughts and welcomed the resulting discourse.

We urge graduating students to do the same as they leave the shadows of the Harvard bubble, never to return as undergraduates. Remain alert, alive, awake; protest what you oppose and champion what you cherish. Speak up, write at length, and confront difficult questions head-on. Let every blunder be a path to a more thorough understanding of reality.

March on, Harvard graduates — the world beyond the bubble awaits.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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