July 28th, 2009

Harvard’s Comeuppance

The university campus, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Lowell House, center, and the Charles River beyond. Not pictured: the looming $220 million budget deficit at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard’s largest division (Steve Dunwell/Getty Images).

Some editors balk at publishing details of their reporters’ fruitless attempts to interview a source. So as to let the story speak for itself, not appear whiny, and/or not burn a bridge, they prefer to summarize such sausage making through boilerplate. “Repeated phone calls and e-mails were not returned,” is a line I often read.

But when the subject of a major story in a major magazine continually stonewalls and reneges, the publication does its readers a diservice by omitting these salient details. Thankfully, in its current issue, Vanity Fair bucks this trend, and allows its contributor, Nina Munk, to divulge her stymied efforts to report on Harvard’s shrinking endowment.

As you may have guessed by now, Harvard refused to cooperate when I was reporting this story. At first, the university’s public-relations apparatus ignored me. Week after week, e-mail after e-mail, I’d be assured that someone or someone else was unavailable—in meetings, or on vacation, or away from his desk, or out of the office, ill. When I did manage to track someone down, I was thrown a sop of evasive prose. (“I don’t feel we’ve made a decision about how to best engage for your piece,” the vice president for public affairs told me in an e-mail.) A formally scheduled interview with the dean of the business school was canceled at the very last minute. (“Glitch” was the subject heading of an e-mail informing me that the meeting was off.) Even requests for basic, public financial information were bungled. When I asked him a simple question about Harvard’s debt, one of the university’s many communications directors stonewalled: “I’m not a numbers person at all,” he said, wide-eyed.

No doubt, most reporters will empathize. As readers, we should too.

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