Five years ago this spring, in March of 2009, an Adams House senior enlisted 30 of his friends to help him inflate 6,000 blue balloons, transforming the Adams Art Space into a sea of latex and static. The idea, he told The Crimson, was to give his peers an opportunity to enjoy themselves.
“One thing I’ve noticed about Harvard is that people tend to take themselves and their lives too seriously,” said Will M. Skinner ’09, who was behind the project. “We need simple fun things sometimes.”
And so it was, whether or not Skinner intended it to be this way, that inflation itself was made manifest—a physical representation of a concept that seems to haunt Harvard’s campus year in and year out. If the inflation of so many blue balloons was a happy antidote to our excessive self-seriousness, the claims leveled against Harvard students that invoke the word inflation are, more often than not, negative ones.
Whoever is to blame for the perpetuation of such stereotypes—the media seems a likely culprit, but then again, so do we—Harvard students are continually accused of partaking in an education that inflates, perhaps artificially, our credentials, our grades, and above all, our egos. The word is a loaded one; it is tied up in questions of class, race, and privilege. Inflation, when it comes to Harvard students, tends to make people wince.
In December of this school year, Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 stood up in a Faculty meeting to ask Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris if he could confirm that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College was an A-. Harris told the assembled faculty that “a straight A” was, in fact, the most frequently awarded grade, while an A- was the median grade. Mansfield was angry, but he was not surprised. Instead, he wrote in an email to The Crimson, he was “further depressed.” Inflation, simply put, deflated Mansfield.
What sometimes got lost in the subsequent debate over Harvard’s academic standards was that this conversation was hardly new. Peer universities like Yale and Princeton were (and are) actively engaged in their own investigations on the matter, and, for his part, Mansfield had been outspoken about grade inflation since the 1970s. In 1993, Mansfield told Harvard Magazine that grade inflation coincided with the advent of affirmative action admissions processes. “Many white professors were unwilling to give C’s to Black students,” he said, “so they wouldn’t give C’s to white students.”
But inflation does not always refer to grades; it is a versatile term and often has a more economic meaning. In 1981, the Cambridge City Council was concerned that Harvard’s long-term low-interest mortgage loan program was forcing neighbors of Harvard professors to pay “artificially inflated property taxes.” The Council asked that the University provide detailed information about the program in an effort to protect Cambridge residents who weren’t affiliated with Harvard from such inflation.
And in 1993, Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine refuted the claim that universities’ use of students’ tuition dollars to fund research was causing the inflation of tuition costs. Another important factor in rising costs, Rudenstine reminded reporters, was the economic inflation of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Once again, Harvard had to defend itself against the perception of its inflated status.
Next, Rudenstine’s students looked around at the job market and applied their own inflation, exaggerating or in some cases flat out lying about their qualifications. "I think in general, people inflate their resumés," Derek C. Araujo ’99 admitted to The Crimson in 1996. Still, some students countered that they chose not to inflate their resumés for reasons of moral responsibility.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is the all too common practice of ego inflation that, for many, accompanies an acceptance letter to Harvard College. Every November, thousands of eager fans don blue and crimson apparel and make their way to the Yale Bowl or the Harvard Stadium to participate in the biggest annual showing of their (perhaps inflated, almost certainly elitist) school pride. In 1982, a group of MIT students decided to prank this hallowed gathering by building “a larger-than-life balloon emblazoned with the school’s initials” that would self-inflate and rise from below the field partway through The Game.
“The ground began to shake,” reported The Crimson in a retrospective 2002 piece. “A nozzle burrowed its way out of the turf near midfield and began to inflate a large black balloon. The crowd stood in quiet awe while both teams retreated wearily from the minivan-sized globe.” Images of this incomprehensible inflation were broadcast across the country that day, providing onlookers nationwide with a very visual substitution for the negative connotations surrounding “inflation at Harvard.”
So remember, as administrators and commentators throw around accusations of inflation like it’s going out of style, that the word has many meanings at Harvard. Sometimes, it’s just a well-placed balloon, or 6,000 blue ones; low cost, not for a grade, and certainly not on Will Skinner’s resumé.