Harvard’s PR Machine and the Cherokees

Elizabeth Warren.jpgSeemingly lily-white Elizabeth Warren’s supposed claim of Cherokee heritage may make for good campaign fodder–incumbent Senator Scott Brown has gone so far as to demand that Warren apologize for allowing Harvard to claim her as a minority–but the real lesson in this latest of partisan battles has more to do with university rather than electoral politics.

For those who have been living in a bubble, let’s rehash: On April 27th, the Boston Herald reported that Elizabeth Warren “was once touted by embattled Harvard Law School officials…as proof of their faculty’s diversity” in 1996; indeed, according to the Herald, Warren was considered the only minority woman on the Law School faculty at the time (a statistic of great interest, it seems, to those who count such things). Following the report, the Warren campaign has been on the defensive as opponent Brown, along with many members of the media, have been questioning (or simply making fun of) Warren’s seemingly cynical careerist use of her Native American heritage. Over the next few weeks, we will doubtless continue to hear details about Warren’s family, and about whether or not she used her lineage in a suspect way.

But as we hear more details about Warren’ family and whether Warren used her lineage questionably, the betting here is that one thing will emerge with absolute clarity: it was Harvard’s public relations machine that used the hire in a cynical fashion to promote the asserted (but quite faux) “multiculturalism” and “diversity” of that institution’s faculty. Harvard, to be sure, is not alone in taking on the vestiges of an ordinary business corporation–where PR flaks work around the clock to burnish an image rather than disseminate truth and enlightenment–rather than an educational institution, but its public relations and publications offices have taken the art of promotion far beyond the comparatively amateurish efforts of other colleges and universities.

The Harvard “Public Affairs and Communications Office” employs a veritable army of people whose purpose–best as we can tell–is to burnish and promote the Harvard “brand” rather than dispense much really important or useful information. (And the brand, these days, seems to bear less and less relation to the realities of the place.) There is the Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications, the Associate Vice President of same, the Assistant Vice President, the Executive Coordinator, the Public Affairs manager, the Associate director of Finance and Administration, and the financial associate. There is a director of news and media relations, and a deputy director for university communications. There are ten additional individuals listed on the Harvard website under “media relations” whose jobs range from “Senior Communications Officer for University Science” to “Media Relations Assistant.” Another nine individuals write for or help edit the Harvard bi-weekly publication (part useful information about Harvard events, some shameless propaganda) magazine the Harvard Gazette. Thirteen more people are needed for “Digital Communications and Communications Services” and “Multimedia and Internet” communications. There are four photographers on staff, and an “imaging specialist.”

And we must not forget about Harvard’s relationship with the community: there are three individuals tasked with “federal relations”, and another fourteen concerned with “community relations” more locally, including a “Senior Associate Director of Community Programming,” whose job is apparently distinct from the “Associate Director of Community Relations.” All told, the office of Public Affairs and Communication has a staff of 63 employees, and this does not include the communications offices of the various individual schools (law, medicine, education, design, business, etc.) associated with the University.

So it was not surprising to read that Warren’s claimed 1/32nd Cherokee ancestry was something first promoted not by Warren, but by a Harvard Law communications officer trying to construct a particular perception of the school. Indeed, the Harvard Office of Public Affairs and Communication, and the communications offices for many of the various Harvard-branded schools, put out a number of publications that ensure the entire university stays on message or, more precisely, on image.

Harvard shield.jpgThese mostly-glossy magazines–like the Harvard Gazette, Harvard Divinity Today, Harvard Law Today, Harvard Kennedy School Magazine, and the list goes on–are available in both print and on-line formats. Certain themes are common to just about all of them–that Harvard routinely gives educational opportunities to members of “historically disadvantaged” minority groups, characterized by such measures as ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, and that Harvard graduates are helping the environment and/or the poor and needy.

Consider some recent articles prominently displayed in some of these publications: Last week’s Harvard Gazette included an article about how “Harvard’s House system nurtures students to find their passions” and a story on the “hard-earned gains for women at Harvard” in connection with a speech given by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz. For quite a few years, now, a reader of Harvard’s alumni and other outreach periodicals would get the quite misleading impression that the institution caters to the downtrodden rather than to the various elites. There are, of course, a few examples of faculty members and students at Harvard who, by dint of heroic hard work, rose from dire circumstances to make lives that are a credit to them and a benefit to the society that allowed them such opportunities. But this should not obscure the fact that fundamentally the institution has become – or remained, depending upon one’s view of the history of the place – a base for the rich and powerful bent upon pursuing what the rich and powerful normally pursue. It is only by dint of the powerful public relations campaigns increasingly pursued by the ever-growing administration that really runs the place that the addition to the faculty of a middle class white woman bearing 1/32nd Cherokee blood demonstrates some kind of “diversity.”

What is most sad is that the official line often obscures and replaces the voices of the students, or more useful information about what is really happening, and what work of significant academic and social importance is being done, at the various schools within the university. For me, a graduate of Harvard Law School’s Class of 1967, a pivotal benchmark for the PR takeover took place mid-way through the administration of then-Dean (now Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan (who led the Law School from 2003 until 2009), when the administration took a little-noted step in seeking to control the message–and the image–disseminated to alumni. For many decades – indeed, since 1946 – Harvard Law students published a highly-regarded, independent, student-written, edited, and owned newsprint publication known as the Harvard Law Record. The Record survived financially because all alumni members of the Harvard Law School [Alumni] Association received a “free” subscription to the Record as a benefit of membership.

Then the administration struck by initiating its own glossy periodical, Harvard Law School Bulletin. And, wouldn’t you know it, the once-independent alumni organization switched its allegiance by notifying alumni that henceforth membership would bring in the mail the official, administration-authored publication; alums would thenceforth need to subscribe to the Harvard Law Record if they wished to continue to receive the independent voice of student reporters. The Record was unable to survive for long in printed form, and it now runs only an online edition. Meanwhile the officially produced glossy pieces of propaganda find their way to my mailbox nearly every week without fail, coming either from the public-relations or the fund-raising offices.

So, I don’t mean to pre-judge the question of whether Elizabeth Warren unfairly or inappropriately promoted herself as a minority candidate for a Harvard Law faculty position. The facts will perhaps become clearer on that question as the campaign progresses and the legitimate news media rather than the Harvard PR office dominate the public discussion. (And one’s attitude toward whatever facts emerge will depend, of course, on one’s views on academic affirmative action.) But what one can be quite certain of is that if Professor Warren is indeed 1/32 Cherokee, the Harvard PR machinery made the most of it to promote an institutional image of tolerance, diversity and non-elitism, until, that is, that image became more embarrassment than benefit to the institution. Don’t expect to read much about Warren’s Indian heritage in future Harvard publications. The propagandists will just move on to tell their tales of how Harvard, ever humble, is saving the Earth in yet other ways.


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

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3 thoughts on “Harvard’s PR Machine and the Cherokees

  1. While I’m generally sympathetic to your positions, in this case I have to cry foul. It takes an exceeding amount of gall for a lawyer to wax sarcastic about PR “flaks” who “work around the clock to burnish an image rather than disseminate truth and enlightenment.” That’s a rather high horse to sit astride while representing a profession in which the truth is quite negotiable.
    I’ve spent most of my career as a “flak.” Whatever you may think of the job, it’s nothing more than advocating on behalf of the client’s interests. If we’re guilty of burnishing images or running with the story that portrays the client in the most favorable light, then so be it. I’m happy to help my clients tell their side of the story.
    As for Ms. Warren, she could use as many of the multitudinous Harvard flaks as they can spare.

  2. As he so often does, Harvey Silverglate approaches this issue from an unexpected angle. The story here is more about Harvard and less about Elizabeth Warren. Although I must say that as much as I admire Warren, her handling of damage control leaves a lot to be desired. The Warren campaign has been like a deer frozen in the headlights. Cliched, I know. But true. Warren should have said something like this: “I may not mean much to people who have lived their lives in the east, but to families that grew up in Oklahoma even a few drops of Native American blood is something to be proud of.”

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