An Open Letter to the Harvard Independent Community

By Wade Roush ’89, Graduate Board Chair

Indy staffers in 1988. That’s me in the upper left corner.

Indy staffers in 1988. That’s me in the upper left corner.

Why, some people have asked me, am I putting so much time into fundraising and support for The Harvard Independent, an organization where I spent a few years working as a student reporter and editor more than three decades ago? There are many answers.

The Indy started me on the path to a journalism career at Science magazine, MIT Technology Review, Xconomy, and other publications. For that I feel gratitude, mixed with a sense of responsibility to make sure today’s Harvard undergraduates don’t have to work for the Crimson to get the same opportunities.

The Indy was the scene of some of my happiest memories. Helping to create something cool and valuable as part of a team; learning how to report and write from editors senior to me; passing those skills on to others later; collaborating in the Wednesday-night rush to put each issue to bed: it all leaves me with a happy glow. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, but helping to sustain those traditions today keeps the warm feelings going.

Mostly, though, I’m just stubborn. As a member of the Indy’s Grad Board since 2014, I can see that the newspaper’s future is in real jeopardy. In part, it’s suffering from the same economic, cultural, and technological forces buffeting the larger media industry, from evaporating business models to competition from a million new digital channels.

A more immediate threat comes from Harvard itself.

The administration’s grand indifference to student journalism has cost the Indy one of its most vital resources: a physical space in which to operate. Since the paper’s forced relocation to a closet-sized third-floor cubicle at the former Hilles Library in the spring of 2018, the paper has struggled on as a semi-virtual organization. Recruiting new staffers has long been difficult—especially since the move to the Quad in the late 2000s—but I agree with the current student leaders that without any real workspace in which to flourish, the Indy’s culture could soon wither and die. And I’ll be damned if that happens on my watch.

Complacency is at the heart of this crisis, as it so often is. Grad Board members who have spent endless hours negotiating with the office of the Dean of Students over the office-space fiasco have learned a sobering truth: Harvard administrators see student newspapers as clubs. And they see student journalism itself as an extra—an epiphenomenon, something that will just happen as long as students can go online to reserve a random classroom or lounge in which to gather every Wednesday night. When it comes to campus real estate, the faculty and the administration have a monopoly, and students are getting knocked off the game board.

But we’ve been complacent too. Over the decades, Harvard’s attitude toward the Independent has oscillated from generosity (the newspaper’s original office space in 1969-70 took up much of the third floor of the Freshman Union) to benign neglect (Canaday A and G were both filthy and mazelike, but they were homes). We were lulled into thinking we could depend on the university’s kindness forever—which meant we had no escape plan ready when movers showed up in April 2018 to shovel the Indy’s files and electronics into the third-floor cubicle.

Since then, we’ve been correcting that mistake. The goal of our 50th-anniversary fundraising campaign is to finance the rent on a new off-campus office where the Independent will, truly and finally, be independent of the university.

The Indy is hardly alone in its struggles. College newspapers around the country are battling bureaucratic antipathy and outright interference, as well as a PR-centric administrative mindset that sees an active student press as a liability. “When we turned that corner culturally—when colleges became a brand and they began to embrace this idea that they were a brand—then the bottom fell out in support for independent watchdog journalism,” Frank LoMonte, the former director of the Student Press Law Center and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, told The Atlantic for an eye-opening August 2019 feature about college journalism. “The endgame in many institutions is for the independent, student-run media to go out of business.”

But campus newspapers are still the on-ramp to professional journalism, as well as a place to learn key organizational and collaborative skills. It would be a fundamental mistake if more universities allowed their student newspapers to fold, smothering students’ journalistic instincts before they’re even sharpened.

The Indy will not fold—not if the current Grad Board has anything to do with it. The paper is, after all, in the relatively luxurious position of having 1) advisors who are not connected to the university and 2) a separate endowment. This financial cushion was created during the 35th-anniversary year in 2004—but it must now grow significantly.

I’ve been heartened by the strong alumni response to our campaign messages so far, and by all the work alumni have done to reach out to their classmates and to help organize our upcoming 50th-anniversary reunion weekend. We came out of the gate this spring with more than $125,000 in pledges toward our goal of adding $1 million to the endowment. But I’m also aware of how much work we have left to do.

In the 2020s, perhaps more than ever, it will take fearless reporting, clear communication, skepticism toward power, and a commitment to reality and truth to help save the nation and the planet. The Indy’s brand of alternative student journalism is a crucial part of this formula. On a local level, regional papers like the Boston Globe continue to shrink, and are ever less equipped to cover the key institutions in their home cities. But as recent episodes like Jeffrey Epstein’s donations and the lawsuit over race-conscious admissions policies drive home, elite institutions like Harvard deserve more time under the microscope, not less. A free, independently financed student press can help close the gap.

To appropriate King Aragorn’s line: A day may come when the courage of journalists fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship -- it is not this day. I invite all my fellow Indy alumni to take up the banner of obstinacy, and help the Independent stay just that.

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