Monday, July 17, 2017

Further comments on the social club policy

FAS has set up a website for faculty to post comments about the policy. (Actually, the report, which links to the site, says "faculty and students," but students tell me they can't log into it.) Here is the comment I just posted there.


This drastic recommendation is the product of anecdote and generalization, rather than data and analysis. The anecdotes are largely about men’s clubs, and though the report doesn’t mention it, most of the students affected by the policy would be women. Rather than targeting the malefactors and placing them in statistical context, the report uses dramatic stories to justify moves against clubs that have done nothing wrong. It is as though an attack by somebody’s Rottweiler was justification enough for taking away other people’s service dogs, St. Bernards, and poodles.

The use of “exclusivity” to consign all the women’s clubs to the same fate as the most drunken of the men’s final clubs seems almost certainly designed to meet the President’s condition of not inviting a lawsuit—which recent Crimson reporting suggests may happen anyway. Women members will testify that these organizations have grown for reasons that have nothing to do with the drunken parties that happen at some male final clubs; alumnae have told me that the support they received from other members was not just enjoyable, but essential to their success at Harvard. The report offers no evidence that getting into one of the women’s organizations is particularly competitive, relative to the psychic rewards of membership (it is probably less stressful than repeatedly being “lotteried by application” out of limited-enrollment FAS courses). The report’s vague call for “increased efforts to foster other social opportunities for students” sounds a good deal like a recommendation to “repeal now and replace later.” Of course, the argument that women’s organizations are “discriminatory” is irrefutable—but also entirely abstract: no evidence is offered that men have ever wanted to join them.

But these are practical details. Even if we were to conclude that the clubs “should” not exist, and that our students and alumnae are exaggerating their importance, the whole idea of punishing students for joining private, off-campus organizations—for peaceably assembling, as the Bill of Rights puts it—is deeply wrong.

It is true that the rights enumerated in the First Amendment are dangerous to established order. As Americans, we can ridicule our president, and can gather peaceably together in groups that cause the authorities to suspect that we are up to no good. It took supreme confidence on the part of the Founders to build into the Constitution the assurance that the government would not interfere with these activities. It might watch us closely and stand ready to respond when we break a law, but Congress could not make the speech or assembly itself unlawful. The reason these things are allowed, even when they are considered obnoxious or worse by prevailing social standards, is that the Founders understood that society is not static, and they had confidence that an enlightened if not always harmonious society will in the long run be better off, that social progress will occur, if people are allowed to speak and assemble peaceably even for reasons the authorities find offensive.

Harvard is a private institution and is under no legal obligation to follow the principles that apply right outside Harvard Yard. On the other hand, we should consider ourselves to be, if anything, more enlightened than the average place in America, more capable of governance through the rule of reason. This absolute ban—modeled on a policy for rural institutions where fraternities were residential and the entire social structure was drastically different—projects a lack of confidence that students should be allowed the same freedoms that the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. It is as though we don’t think that appeals to facts and reason will work with our students, and therefore there is no other way to proceed except by making a rule and then enforcing it with discipline. Yes, something must be done, but it is simply not true that everything else has been tried. For example, as I testified to the committee, the College has never tried (that I am aware) even the simplest of campaigns: to tell students not to join or go to the worst of the clubs, and why, and to explain the same forcefully to the parents of incoming freshmen. My own freshman advisees last year, who entered the College when it was at peak alarm about the ills of USGSOs, reported that no one had said a word to them about this subject in any orientation, proctor meeting, or written communication.

We are an educational institution. We teach students in everything we do. If we can teach students to guard themselves against infectious diseases without quarantining them, we can get them to stay away from those clubs where we have good reasons to think they should not go. Let’s give our students, and ourselves, more credit than to say that the only possible response is an outright ban, which to be effective would have to be enforced by some system of tips from informants, surveillance of off-campus restaurants where suspiciously regular dinner meetings might be taking place, and Ad Board punishments.

To proudly adopt a ban would be to teach by example that when a national leader attacks the free press or peaceful protests, he may be responding quite appropriately to the irksome downsides of citizens’ exercise of their civil liberties. Just because the rest of the world is finding authoritarianism more congenial than personal freedom, that doesn’t mean Harvard has to follow suit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The new policy about social clubs

The report of the committee chaired by Professor Clark and Dean Khurana has now been posted. Harvard Magazine has a good summary, including a link to the report: Harvard Committee Recommends Banning Clubs. The Boston Globe also has a story, in which I am quoted: Harvard panel recommends barring students from final clubs. Here is the full text of what I sent the reporter:
The recommendation manages to put Harvard in a position that combines arrogance with insecurity. The University would suspend ordinary freedom of association rights so that Harvard can pick which off-campus clubs students can join. And at the same time the report displays a lack of confidence in Harvard's mission to educate students to make choices for themselves. Instead Harvard would do the easy thing: make a law and punish the nonconformists. This is not the way to prepare the citizens of a free society. 
It contains one particularly significant sentence: “The President will make the final decision.” So we have a committee, hand-picked by the dean, declaring that the matter is not under Faculty jurisdiction. I don’t know how the Faculty will react to the policy itself — I would like to think they would not support it — but I would be very surprised if they would agree that this matter is not within their authority to decide.
There is a great deal more to be said about this. The same rhetorical devices are being used as in the past: Some clubs are bad, so we must ban all clubs. We'll have to figure out later how to replace the positive roles some clubs play in the lives of some students, once we have killed them off. No data (read Professor Haig's minority opinion at the end). No acknowledgment that most of the groups and students affected are not the final clubs and their members.

I think the most interesting question may prove to be the constitutional issue suggested in the second part of my statement to the Globe. The report assigns responsibility for enforcing the policy to the Administrative Board. The Administrative Board administers the policies for undergraduate affairs adopted by the Faculty, which draws its authority over undergraduate affairs from the Fifth and Twelfth Statutes. The report says that no special oaths will be needed because the policy will be incorporated into the Handbook. But nothing gets incorporated into the Handbook by presidential fiat. The Faculty votes the Handbook every year, and votes major changes to it individually before the Handbook as a whole gets voted at the end of the academic year. It simply makes no sense to say that the President will decide this and then it will go into the Handbook, unless the fundamental principle of faculty governance over undergraduate affairs has been altered in the Statutes. "The President will decide" and "it will go in the Handbook and be enforced by the Administrative Board, whether the Faculty like it or not" are inconsistent statements, unless the Statutes have changed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The AS11 staff, then and now

Applied Sciences 11 was the original name for CS50, a course I created in 1981, before Harvard had either courses called "Computer Science" or an undergraduate degree by that name. AS11 wasn't a renaming of Nat Sci 110, it was a whole new enterprise, an attempt to be systematic and scientific about the introduction to the science of computing, more rigorous than Nat Sci 110 and with less of the Santa-suit lecture stunts that I had pulled in Nat Sci 110. It is hard to remember how thinly staffed we were in those days. Not only did I not get a leave term or even summer support to prepare the new course, I actually taught AM108 (now CS121) simultaneously in the fall of 1981. And the previous term hadn't been a light one--I was teaching AM110 (now CS51). (My whole teaching record, and an almost complete list of my TFs, is here.)

The second year I taught the course, the midterm was on Hallowe'en, and I invited the TFs over to my house for dinner after we finished grading. Margo Seltzer--now my colleague two doors down but then an undergraduate--arranged for everyone to show up with tweed jackets, mustaches, and pipes. (I still wear tweed jackets, but the pipe and mustache are long gone.) Here is the group photo, about which I blogged five years ago.
A remarkable number returned for the Celebration of Computer Science on my 70th birthday.
Left to right, Ted Nesson, Lisa Hellerstein, Phillip Stern, Michael Massimilla, HRL, Craig Partridge, Christoph Freytag, Margo Seltzer, Larry Lebowitz, John Thielens, John Ramsdell, Phil Klein. Rony Sebok also showed up, a few minutes too late to make it into the picture, and Larry Denenberg and boo gershun, who didn't make it into the original picture, were also at the event. So that is 14 of the original 23 came back 35 years after the fact (no more than 22 are still living). Sweet!

Thanks everyone!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Harvard's nondiscrimination hypocrisy

I have an op-ed by that title in the Washington Post.

Birthday stuff

I turned 70 on April 19. I made the decision some time ago to creep toward retirement around now. So I am giving up my role as Director of Undergraduate Studies in CS, a role I have had most years since even before there was a CS undergraduate major. I will be teaching half time for the next two years (I have already blogged about the cool new Classics of Computer Science course I will be teaching). I then have a year of saved sabbatical, so will transition to Research Professor or some such title on July 1, 2020.

To mark the moment, and to celebrate what has happened to the field of CS at Harvard and elsewhere in the years since I started teaching at Harvard in 1974, SEAS put on a big celebration on my birthday. Many of my former students and teaching fellows attended, and there was a terrific program of talks. You can watch all six hours of it if you are a beggar for punishment! Here is the video -- thanks to the CS50 team for producing it and getting it up so quickly. (If you just want to hear what I, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg had to say, go to about 20 minutes from the end.)

And Harvard Magazine has a nice report on the event. Thanks to everyone, and especially to Margo Seltzer, David Parkes, and Henry Leitner for their roles in putting this together.

We were able to reproduce a facsimile of A 30th Anniversary Family Photo, which I will post when I get it.

In the meantime, here is another classic -- six women computer scientists of the class of 1980 all came back for the celebration. That really means a lot to me! From left to right, Jeanette Hung, Jennifer (Greenspan) Hurwitz, Betty (Ryan) Tylko, Diane (Wasserman) Feldman, HRL, Christine (Ausnit) Hood, and boo gershun. Thanks!

(Added June 7: Video link repaired. Also here is a shorter video with some greetings from other former students.)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Tip of the hat to Dave Fahrenthold!

Harvard, the Crimson, and my family are all proud that Dave Fahrenthold '00 of the Washington Post has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, for his work investigating Donald Trump's charitable donations and for breaking the "Access Hollywood" video story. Dave is married to my daughter Elizabeth (see family photo). Before he met her, he covered me for the Crimson while I was dean. See this early example of his thorough, fair-minded work covering an uncooperative subject!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

This week's developments in USGSO policy

The Crimson reported a confusing development this week in the battle over “Unrecognized Single Gender Social Organizations” at Harvard.

Traditionally all-female final clubs and sororities will be allowed to retain their “gender focus” for the next few years—and potentially beyond that period—while complying with the College’s policy penalizing single-gender social groups, according to Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich.

This fulfills the Implementation Committee’s recommendation that it “supports the idea of continuing to allow the female final clubs and sororities to operate with gender focused missions, with the understanding that the positive contributions of those organizations to the campus community would be assessed in three to five years.” There is a catch, however.

Friedrich clarified, however, that any groups’ gender-focused mission should exist simultaneously with “substantive advancement toward full inclusion,” including gender inclusivity.

This development brings two thoughts to mind.

First, when I referred in my original remarks before the Faculty to an Index of Prohibited Organizations, I was half joking. I didn’t think anyone would actually have to keep a list, because everybody knew which organizations were covered: The men’s and women’s Final Clubs, and the fraternities and sororities that were restricted to Harvard students. Targeting that constellation of clubs may not make a lot of ethical sense (seems odd that Lambda Upsilon stays off it by having MIT and Wellesley members), but at least it’s pretty well defined.

But now a published list really will have to exist. Someone in University Hall will have to make judgments about which groups have a “gender focus” and which are just women’s groups. Which groups are making “substantive advancement” and which groups’ advancement is less substantive. Which groups are making “positive” contributions and which groups’ contributions are neutral or negative. The keeper of the Index will move groups onto and off the list in accordance with periodic audits—another new concept introduced recently, which seems to mesh with the Implementation Committee’s recommendation that student groups submit their “demographic breakdown” to University Hall.

In the absence of a published Index, a student affirming her compliance with the USGSO policy could not know whether the organization of which she was a member was prohibited or not.

(At this point I was going to write a sentence or two explaining what was wrong with having a dean keeping the Index and deciding which organizations to move onto it on the basis that they are utterly without redeeming social value. I couldn’t make myself do it. If you don’t see anything wrong with this, probably nothing I could say would convince you.)

That was one thought. The other was surprise that the University would adopt an implementation plan that so plainly discriminated against men’s organizations. We have only the Implementation Committee report and the Crimson interview to go on, but it seems that what is described as a “gender focus” loophole is in fact strictly for women’s groups, and no men’s group can escape the Index on the basis that it makes positive contributions to the experience of its members.

Whatever the asymmetry between the experience of men and women at Harvard, I am surprised that the University would so starkly state that all men’s organizations are worthless and intolerable but women’s organizations can be useful and will be tolerated, having in its recent pronouncements focused exclusively on nondiscrimination as the rationale for the policy. It’s a very odd idea—gender discrimination in furtherance of gender nondiscrimination.

I have to wonder if this implementation plan meets President Faust’s minimum requirement.

“I hope that, and trust that, during the process things that might concern me would be communicated during the process,” Faust said. “Ultimately, I want to be able to ensure that this policy is not going to get us sued instantly, is legal, is something that the governing boards feel is acceptable to implement.”