Harvard Goes Gaga

by Nathan Harden

Some Ivy League universities are content to host guest lectures by MTV personalities. Others, like Harvard, have taken the trend a step further in the form of long-term collaboration. This news comes from the AP:

Lady Gaga is launching a foundation with the help of the MacArthur Foundation and Harvard University.

The Grammy-winning singer announced Wednesday that she is launching the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on youth empowerment and “issues like self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring and career development.”

Gaga’s partners include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

The foundation will be directed by the 25-year-old singer and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta.

“Together we hope to establish a standard of Bravery and Kindness, as well as a community worldwide that protects and nurtures others in the face of bullying and abandonment,” Gaga said in a statement.

Nothing wrong with someone advocating for “bravery and kindness.” And I’ve got no problem with universities’ engaging with artists or celebrities under circumstances that make sense. But one wonders: What is the driving force behind our leading universities’ growing obsession with pop-culture celebrity? Is it compatible with these universities’ proper goal of advancing higher learning? Are we infantilizing college-age kids and trying to keep them entertained at all costs? Does a long-term partnership with Lady Gaga, despite her considerable abilities as an entertainer, really make sense for Harvard University?

The purpose of this post isn’t to poke fun at a pop singer. Rather, in my mind this story raises important questions about Harvard. On the surface, a Gaga/Harvard partnership is just silly. Good for a chuckle. It’s also a symptom of a deeper problem. How does Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying foundation connect to Harvard’s purpose as an institution of higher learning? That is, I think, a question without a good answer.
What we are seeing is an elite academic culture that is adrift, with no real sense of why it exists or for what purpose.