Five years after consolidating its public relations team into Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, the explosive growth of that office has some questioning its purpose.
When it became apparent that a cheating investigation was growing too large to hide, University administrators called in the experts—Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.
With talkative students soon returning to campus, officials had just a few weeks to act if they wanted to control how the world learned of the largest academic integrity case in the school's history. So, in mid-August, leaders from the College, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the University's central administration convened with HPAC, the University's public relations apparatus, to hatch a plan.
They came up with an unconventional solution to an unconventional problem. First, communications staff would craft a story for the Harvard Gazette, the University-run publication, around a letter from FAS Dean Michael D. Smith about the proceedings of the cheating case—a process normally kept entirely secret. And second, HPAC would call reporters, one by one, into University Hall for 30-minute sit-downs with Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris and FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal to hear the details of the case.
And on Aug. 30, the first day of movein for upperclassmen, HPAC executed the plan, setting off a controlled detonation that would become known as the Government 1310 cheating scandal.
“We needed to start a conversation about this, so we couldn't wait for this conversation to start in a different way or on different terms,” said Christine M. Heenan, vice president for public affairs and communications.
Never consulted in the decision to announce the case publicly was the body who was adjudicating it—the Administrative Board. That the professors atop Harvard's administrative hierarchy turned to seasoned public relations consultants rather than the Ad Board on the decision of if and how to share the news points to the weight that Harvard places on presenting itself to the outside world. As the reach and saturation of the news media have expanded in recent years and the target on Harvard's back has grown, the University has increasingly turned to behind-the-scenes actors whose mission is to streamline information and groom Harvard's image.
While leaders of that effort emphasize accuracy and access as their prime objectives, some say that the rise of HPAC has replaced openness with guardedness and a diverse dialogue with a homogenized message. At Harvard, they worry, the University's intensifying focus on public perception is blurring its vision.
If HPAC sounds unfamiliar, it might be because it is good at its job. Perched on the top floor of the Holyoke Center, the offices of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications are easy to miss. But from high above Harvard Square, the nearly 60-person team can see all that it speaks for: the Yard, much of Harvard's Cambridge campus, its property in Allston, and even the three floors of the Boston Federal Reserve Building occupied by the Harvard Management Company.
Under one roof, and with one general goal, HPAC's employees are responsible for three main functions—advancing Harvard's interests in government, communicating with the public through the outside media and various digital outlets, and publishing the Gazette, an online and print magazine of Harvardrelated stories written by its own staff. Harvard's government and community relations unit splits its time and attention between Holyoke and anywhere off-campus that Harvard might have interests, from across the river in Allston to Washington, D.C., where staff members lobby lawmakers and several federal agencies on behalf of the University.
But the bulk of HPAC's work on campus is done by molding a message for Harvard to deliver. That means publishing its own stories in the Gazette, promoting content online, and issuing press releases. And by pooling requests from reporters and then reaching out to appropriate administrators or faculty, HPAC consolidates the flow of information in and out of the University.
“What we're supposed to bring to that table is how do we inform the audiences we need to reach in ways that are clear and informative and accurate and as comprehensive as possible,” Heenan said.
HPAC also acts as a hub, providing guidance for Harvard's 12 schools, most of which have their own communications staff of just a few people.
Excluding employees who work in the government and community relations unit, the number of full-time equivalent University employees who work for or service HPAC has grown by more than 60 percent, from more than 31 in December 2008 to 51 today, according to online archives of the communication division website and information provided by HPAC.
That rapid growth is the product of a dramatic shift in strategy and structure that has taken place at Harvard in only the last several years.
In fall 2008, Heenan arrived as the first Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications. A former White House analyst in the Clinton Administration who went on to start her own public relations firms and consult for other Ivy League institutions, Heenan came to Harvard with a wealth of public relations experience.
Following Heenan's arrival, in the 2010-2011 school year a branch of the government and community affairs division of the Office of Government, Community, and Public Affairs was moved from Brattle Street to its new home alongside the Harvard News Office, also part of the OGCPA, in the Holyoke Center, and the newly unified office was named Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.
As communications officers for distinct parts of the University assembled together in Holyoke, spokespeople that once worked with their own standards were brought into line, allowing for a more streamlined message machine. HPAC's growth also included the hiring of staff, who, liked Heenan, possessed long and decorated resumes in public relations, consulting, and government.
HPAC's growth also included the hiring of staff, who, like Heenan, possessed long and decorated resumes in public relations, consulting, and government.
Today, although Harvard's most powerful leaders have the right to speak out for themselves, they most often do so with the help of HPAC.
But this was not always so. Harry R. Lewis '68, who was Dean of the College from 1995 to 2003, said that he almost never had a communications officer present before or during an interview. Likewise, during his four-year tenure as FAS Dean from 2002 to 2006, William C. Kirby said that he rarely had a spokesperson accompany him on interviews and never pre-screened questions.
Decision makers, once relatively unconcerned with communicating with media on their own, today can choose to be carefully prepared and coached through interviews and public appearances to polish their delivery. According to Heenan, the primary objective of HPAC's interactions with administrators has been to ensure accuracy, consistency, and, if requested, assistance and instruction on dealing with the press.
As the current administration has come of age over the past half decade, its individual members, from University President Drew G. Faust to Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds, have given HPAC a role in the way they communicate with the press and the broader Harvard community.
In scheduled sit-down and phone interviews with The Crimson, top-level administrators including the President, the Provost, Vice Presidents, the Dean of FAS, and the Dean of the College are almost invariably accompanied by a press person. Outside of these formal interview settings, a call or email to these administrators will often be redirected to HPAC. Reporters from The Boston Globe and The New York Times who cover news related to Harvard declined or did not respond to requests for comment on their interactions with Harvard communications officers.
But as a consequence of the increased involvement of press people and lawyers with the professors at the top of the University hierarchy, Graduate School of Education professor Howard E. Gardner '65 said, “There is the sense that so many decisions are not being made by people who are primarily academics.”
While HPAC representatives work closely with administrators, they largely stay out of faculty affairs—except when asked.
Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman has sought out that support, primarily, he said, when he and his colleagues are releasing significant research papers. He and other professors agree that HPAC can be a powerful tool in communicating scholarly work and complex ideas.
“Often journalists need someone to help them interpret that paper,” said Lieberman, whose studies have been publicized by the Gazette. “And the Harvard press office has been wonderful about that.”
“There is the sense that so many decisions are not being made by people who are primarily academics.”
While communications officers groom University leaders and largely leave faculty members alone, lower-level administrators and staff members are sometimes told by administrators not to have any contact with journalists at all.
Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union for Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents several thousand University staff, said that HUCTW members have noticed increasing pressure to avoid speaking with the press.
“In the past few years, it's been a fairly steady drumbeat,” Jaeger said. “There have been emails, there have been statements, there have been conversations or personalized instructions... Our members have been internalizing the general idea that they best say, ‘No comment.’”
These communications are often sent by human resources, rather than the communications office, but they often ask that requests simply be redirected towards a public relations staffer.
Still, Heenan said that she did not think that HPAC maintained any policy on staff communication with the press, and she did not see her office's role as any kind of information barrier at all. In a university community, she said, public relations officers must show restraint out of sensitivity for “the free flow of information, and the freedom of expression, and disparate voices.”
Emails from human resources departments, however, show that administrators sometimes discourage staff members from speaking to the press— and, in some cases, send them in HPAC's direction.
During the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect in April, for example, an email from FAS Human Resources sent to all FAS department administrators said, “A reminder that all connections or conversations with the media or any other external third parties regarding this situation must be made through Jeff Neal.”
Neal is HPAC's University Communications Director responsible for FAS. A statement from Kevin Galvin, the senior communications director at HPAC, said that administrators were concerned that the sharing of inaccurate information could put people at risk in a still-fluid situation. When asked about a media policy in FAS Human Resources, Galvin referred that request to Neal, who in turn did not return repeated requests for comment.
In a 2009 email to Lamont Library employees, a library administrator instructed workers to direct media inquires to the Harvard College Communications Office, advising them “to make no comment.” Galvin said that HPAC could not comment on the email, because the Harvard College Library no longer exists after merging into the unified Harvard Library.
In Harvard's Houses, policy for talking to the press varies. Senior Resident Dean Sharon L. Howell said that following a Crimson article about sexual assault in 2010, resident deans were instructed to direct all media inquiries pertaining to College-wide issues to University Hall or HPAC. Van C. Tran, who was a resident tutor in Lowell House from 2005 to 2011, said that when he was at Harvard, tutors were free to talk to the press about day-to-day issues on which they had direct knowledge, but were discouraged from speaking about major University news events.
Yet HPAC's efforts to help shape the message are not just responsive to administrators seeking assistance or to journalists seeking information and sources. Online and in the Gazette, it seeks to produce and disseminate positive content often leave out some of the University's biggest stories.
If you only got your news from the Gazette over the past decade, you would not know about the faculty uproar that led to the 2006 exit of former University President Lawrence H. Summers. You would have had to scour the police reports on page two to learn that a man was fatally shot in the basement of Kirkland House in 2009. You would have only heard of administrators breaking FAS policy with secret email searches in a Q&A that briefly mentions “the controversy over the searches” and was published two months after the Globe first broke the story. And this week, you would have had no idea that Hammonds's exit as Dean of the College came amidst this same controversy.
Some community members have expressed concern over the absence of what they believe to be the biggest issues facing the University in a publication that, according to HPAC's website, covers “University news, faculty research, and campus events.”
“If anything, I think that the willingness to put under the microscope our faults as well as our successes is a measure of how great a university we are,” said Richard Parker, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.
But Heenan pointed to the Gazette story about Smith's letter announcing the cheating scandal investigation as an example in which HPAC was as transparent as it could be, noting, as the article does, that Harvard could only provide so much information under the constraints of confidentiality laws.
On the other hand, from the Gazette to Facebook and Twitter, HPAC uses a variety of methods to push positive stories.
Left: On May 18, 2009, a man unaffiliated with the University shot another unaffiliated man in the basement of Kirkland House during a botched drug deal. The shooting victim died the next morning.
Center: The Harvard University Gazette, a biweekly magazine published by Harvard Public Affairs and Communications that, according to HPAC's website covers “University News, Faculty Research, and Campus Events,” made no mention of the shooting in its next issue on the cover or stories written by its staff.
Right: The only mention of the fatal shooting in the next issue of the Gazette appeared as several lines in a regularly published police reports section.
In early 2012, a senior communications officer told The Crimson that HPAC had created a position exclusively for that purpose, which the officer said produces “huge dividends” in the form of coverage that paints the University in a flattering light. For example, in 2011, the person in that role circulated the story of Reserve Officers' Training Corps coming back to Harvard's campus after a 40-year absence, which garnered positive national coverage for Harvard.
But Classics professor Richard F. Thomas said he thinks it is important to show the outside world a balanced portrait of the University.
“Clearly in my view there's too much concern about the brand, and the protection of the brand,” Thomas said. “I think there are times when that is the case, when basically PR has sort of taken precedence over substance.”
Perhaps even worse, some say, a culture of image-consciousness may be quietly infiltrating the University's decisionmaking process.
“One doesn't have the sense that people are talking from a strong value system; one has the sense that everything is very carefully crafted,” Gardner said. “We feel that in the end, you don't have administrators who are dealing with an academic value system and deciding ultimately on the basis of that and not on what so-called experts tell them to do.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: June 9, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the name of the division that was moved from Brattle Street to the Holyoke Center. In fact, a branch of the government and community affairs unit of the Office of Government, Community, and Public Affairs, not the entire OGCPA, was relocated to join another branch of the OGCPA, the Harvard News Office. The article also incorrectly stated the timeframe in which the move, as well as the renaming of the OGCPA as Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, took place. In fact, those shifts occurred in the 2010-2011 school year, not with Heenan's arrival in 2008. The graph accompanying the story also incorrectly pegged the creation of HPAC in 1998. In addition, the story incorrectly reported an inaccurate number of central communications employees over time due to erroneous information on the HPAC website. The story and the graph have been updated to reflect the number of full-time equivalent University employees who work for or service the central communications office outside of the government and community affairs unit.
CORRECTION: July 9, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of full-time equivalent University employees who worked for or serviced the central communications office outside of the government and community affairs unit in 2012 and 2013 due to erroneous information on the HPAC website.