Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Economist on the sanctions

Harvard's policy against single-sex clubs is not working, writes Emma Duncan. of the Economist (behind a paywall).  It's a good short summary of the way the logic of the sanctions has gotten twisted and missed its target. I'm quoted, speaking sympathetically on behalf of the many women in CS who were members of women's clubs, and also pointing out the strange political alliances this issue has created, on both sides.

One unnamed former Harvard administrator, no fan of the final clubs, notes, “If we’d happily write letters for people who were members of the Communist Party or the NRA, it seems lunacy to say that we’d refuse that to somebody who wanted to join one of these clubs.” The Communist Party example is a reminder that Joseph McCarthy went after a Harvard professor (Wendell Furry) for having been a member of the Party, and President Pusey stuck up for his right to continue teaching without any dishonor at Harvard.

I really do wonder about the status of the Harvard Knights of Columbus and the Harvard Daughters of Isabella. These groups are not only single-sex and composed exclusively of Harvard students---they use the Harvard name, something that none of the blacklisted clubs do. We were repeatedly told that the fact that the USGSOs were off campus and private was a minor technicality, since they were so dependent on Harvard's good name. Well, these organizations are even more closely tied to Harvard---and operate under the control of a national or even international mother organization, another black mark against the fraternities and sororities. I asked about these organizations in a faculty meeting, and got no clear answer. On what basis are their members not subject to sanction? (To be clear, I am only pointing out how twisted the logic has gotten, not calling on Harvard to take on our good neighbors at St. Paul's!)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

How far do the sanctions go?

Apologies to my regular readers for the long silence. I have been busy! I finished a discrete math textbook I have been working on for a while with my former teaching assistant Rachel Zax (now an engineer at Google). It will be out in March, published by Princeton University Press. I started on an edited collection of classic papers of computer science, to be published by MIT Press. And I’m working on a second edition of Blown to Bits with my previous co-authors plus Wendy Seltzer of the W3C.

In the meantime, the College’s sanctions regime has been challenged in two lawsuits, one in federal and one in state court. The group behind the challenge is called Stand Up to Harvard. Links to the two complaints are on this page. The state complaint is particularly interesting, because it is based in part on a specific Massachusetts statute, in Chapter 12:

Section 11H. Whenever any person or persons, whether or not acting under color of law, interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, or attempt to interfere by threats, intimidation or coercion, with the exercise or enjoyment by any other person or persons of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the United States, or of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, the attorney general may bring a civil action for injunctive or other appropriate equitable relief in order to protect the peaceable exercise or enjoyment of the right or rights secured. 

Section 11I. Any person whose exercise or enjoyment of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the United States, or of rights secured by the constitution or laws of the commonwealth, has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, as described in section 11H, may institute and prosecute in his own name and on his own behalf a civil action for injunctive and other appropriate equitable relief as provided for in said section, including the award of compensatory money damages. Any aggrieved person or persons who prevail in an action authorized by this section shall be entitled to an award of the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys' fees in an amount to be fixed by the court.

I am not a lawyer and I have no idea what precedents exist for the application of Section 11I, but I can certainly see the argument for its relevance to this situation, in spite of Harvard’s status as a private institution.

From the beginning, some colleagues have suggested that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, that there is no danger of any larger infringement of students’ liberties since the sanctions policy is narrowly targeted and just aimed at killing off the Final Clubs, which everybody hates anyway. Of course it has turned out, as the Chronicle documents, that if that was the aim the policy has missed badly. (And to the friend who told me not to make a federal case out of it, it really is a federal case now.)

But here is the thing that I’ve been worried about all along. I don’t believe the actual reach of the policy is nearly as limited as the written rules suggest.

Do the sanctions have sharp edges, rendering students ineligible for certain specific distinctions and leadership opportunities if they belong to one of a specific list of clubs, but having no consequence for students who don’t seek those specific honors or are not members of any of the blacklisted clubs? Or do the sanctions have a penumbra? When Harvard administrators make a narrow ranking choice between two students for some distinction that is NOT on the official list, will their judgment be colored, explicitly or unconsciously, by the knowledge that one of the students is a member of one of the blacklisted organizations? Letters of recommendation are the obvious example. If a student is a member of a USGSO, how will the dean answer the question, “Is this student really one of your best?” for distinctions that are NOT on the official list of prizes and positions unavailable to USGSO members?

Or what if the student is not a member of any of those organizations, but is a member of some other non-Harvard organization that would fail to meet Harvard’s nondiscrimination standards if it tried to gain official recognition from the College? One of the ethnic sororities, for example, which escape the sanctions regime since they are deemed “inclusive” by virtue of admitting Wellesley students? Or the Harvard Knights of Columbus chapter? There is nothing in the Handbook for Students to suggest that there is any problem with joining these groups. But wouldn’t the deans consider joining such a group to be, if not over the line, at least a little bit out of step with Harvard’s deep values of inclusivity? If strict adherence to Harvard values is so important that you can’t be captain of the Tiddlywinks team if you belong to a noncompliant organization, then when Harvard is making decisions on the basis of featherweight differences, why wouldn’t it take into account such slightly off-target indicators of students’ values?

What does Harvard Law School think about the character of students who belong to organizations that the College has blacklisted, or organizations that resemble them? After all, the sanctions policy has been voted by the President and Fellows, so students are warranted in wondering if HLS is making its judgments in the spirit of the College’s club-membership test of Harvard’s “deepest values”. (This fear is mentioned in the Chronicle piece cited above. Previously, when this question came to me from a student, I asked HLS, but in response got only a link to the Law School’s admission site.)

Now it may well be that nobody is willing to say anything in the middle of ongoing litigation. But there is another possibility. The policies have been word-smithed to crush the single-gender organizations in a legally defensible way. It would then serve Harvard’s purposes to leave doubt about the borderline cases. “If you are worried that the values of your organization aren’t wholly consistent with Harvard’s values, well, we’re not going to help you by saying you shouldn’t be worried. But you don’t really need to know the answer; you can protect yourself by not joining the organization or keeping quiet about your membership.” Keeping 'em guessing expands the de facto reach of the sanctions without the legal risks that would come with articulating a broader reach.

But without some clarity about the extent of the penumbra, students would then be justified in worrying that they are living in a police state in which everyone is an informant and that every private deviation from Harvard’s definition of “inclusiveness” risks being held against them. 

Here’s a realistic thought experiment. Suppose you were a senior at Harvard applying to law school and needed a letter from your dean. (The deans live and eat with the students in the Houses so they get to know them personally and understand them as whole, complex people.) Now suppose you were a member of a conservative religious congregation, one that separates men and women in services, and your dean is of the same faith but of a more liberal persuasion. Would you invite your dean to services? 

That is the sort of sharing of cultural richness on which the entire College enterprise is grounded and all our theories of learning in a diverse community are based. We are all about getting out of our comfort zones and sharing our differences. But if a student asked me whether I thought such a generous invitation was wise idea, I’d advise against it today. In a Harvard where students are expected to adhere to complete gender inclusiveness as a mark of devotion to Harvard deepest institutional values, there would be too much risk that the dean would come away thinking that a student willing to be relegated to the back of the house at services did not bleed true Crimson.

Bonus links: My letter to a congressional committee about all this, and the wonderful remarks of William James from which I quote at the end: “The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.”

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Unique Family Photo

This photo includes (I think!) all current members of the Harvard faculty whom I have taught. Thanks to everyone for making the effort to show up, and thanks to Eliza Grinnell for her typically masterful staging and camerawork!
Two questions. Am I missing anyone? And can anyone think of another Harvard professor who has had eleven of his or her students on the faculty simultaneously?

Left to right:
Peter Manuelian, Philip J. King Professor of Egyptology
Michael Mitzenmacher, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., Professor of Computer Science
Scott Kominers, Associate Professor of Business Administration
Salil Vadhan, Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics
Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science
Stuart Shieber, James O. Welch, Jr. and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science
Margo Seltzer, Herschel Smith Professor of Computer Science
David Malan, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science
Rebecca Nesson, Lecturer on Computer Science
Jenny Hoffman, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics
Alexander Sasha Rush, Assistant Professor of Computer Science
Henry Leitner, Senior Lecturer on Computer Science

Everyone in the photo has a faculty appointment and took a course from me. Mitzenmacher, Vadhan, Malan, Seltzer, Nesson, Rush, and Leitner were also my TFs.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"Not discipline"

It should not be a surprise that after a year and a half, Harvard has wound up where it started during Exam Period of 2016: Students who are members of unrecognized single gender social organizations (USGSOs) will be barred from receiving certain distinctions, including team captaincies and fellowship nominations. Does the phrase "leadership positions supported by institutional resources" include the presidency of the Crimson and of the student body? These are the closest analogs that exist in student society to central institutions of the American democracy, and it is hard to see why, under the new regime, Harvard would leave these elected positions up to the whims of the voters. It will be interesting to see that detail, given that the Crimson is editorially in favor of the sanctions. Perhaps it will announce a policy of self-policing, if the College chooses to exempt it.

It is worth saying a word about team captaincies, which have been little discussed, perhaps because faculty know and care less about sports than about Rhodes scholarships. Institutional interference in captain elections marks the end of a long struggle, detailed in Ronald Smith's Sports and Freedom. College sports began as a form of adolescent escape from institutional control, and over the decades, as institutional control of student life has relaxed until recently, institutional control over athletics has become nearly complete. The selection of team captains was, until May 2016, the last, tiny bit of unregulated turf where the students representing the institution were free to make their decisions for themselves. No more, at Harvard anyway (and Harvard is where all this started).

The crucial, lawyerly words in the announcement by President Faust and William Lee (Senior Fellow of the Harvard Corporation) are "not discipline":
The policy does not discipline or punish the students; it instead recognizes that students who serve as leaders of our community should exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity that are so important to our campus. 
An otherwise estimable student who is sent away from the Fellowships office upon disclosing her membership in some women's club might be forgiven for thinking she has been punished. But at Harvard it seems, a word means what the President and the Senior Fellow choose it to mean, neither more nor less. By declaring that ineligibility for honors and distinctions are "not discipline," what President Faust and Mr. Lee are saying is that the Statutes are not implicated, the matter is not one for the Faculty to decide, and no Faculty vote is needed to carry out the policy. A recent Crimson story suggests that the College is debating whether it really wants to press its luck with the Faculty by keeping this matter out of the Handbook for Students.

The Twelfth Statute states, in part, "The several faculties have authority … to inflict, at their discretion, all proper means of discipline …." And, if there were any doubt, the Fifth Statute states in part, "Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are together in immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences," and "Each faculty includes in its membership all the professors, associate professors and assistant professors who teach in the department or departments under the charge of that faculty." The Fifth Statute goes on to stipulate a specific exception to the authority of the Faculty: violations of the Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities, which may be handled directly by the dean of a Faculty. By its specificity, this clause underscores the exclusive disciplinary authority of the Faculty on other matters of discipline.

So it is important that the USGSO policy not be discipline, because if it were discipline, and disciplinary action were taken against a student without a Faculty vote authorizing that policy, that student could challenge the action as not properly authorized.  A private institution can do almost anything to its students except fail to follow its own rules, and Harvard's rules are that the Faculty is in charge of discipline.

The Corporation's decision to insert itself into student life policy-making marks a change of incalculable significance. Their hand has been strengthened by the Faculty's decision not to affirm its own authority by passing my motion, and by the Faculty Council's almost unanimous support of weird motions by Professors Allen and Howell which were both withdrawn before their sponsors were forced to explain what they actually meant. As it turns out, according to the Lee-Faust proclamation, instead of deciding on policy, the Faculty is reduced to monitoring an allegedly non-disciplinary student life policy voted by the Corporation. Once so diminished, it is unlikely the Faculty will ever reclaim its statutory authority.

We are back to where we began, with a values test, a litmus test for determining whether students "exemplify the characteristics of non-discrimination and inclusivity." And along with that, we are back to all the old contradictions and inconsistencies in that litmus test. Why is a student in a multi-ethnic, socioeconomically cross-cutting women's group less exemplary than a member of the Asian American Sisters, or the tenured faculty of the Mathematics Department, both of which are de facto less ethnically diverse single-gender organizations? Why does a student become more exemplary by quitting an ethnically diverse Harvard sorority and joining an ethnically homogeneous sorority with members from MIT?

The answer is that the whole exercise has not been about increasing inclusivity but about getting rid of the final clubs, in a way that will not invite a lawsuit. The policy may well not achieve either end. But it would crush a variety of ethnically and even socioeconomically diverse private organizations on the basis that they are not gender-diverse—ignoring the fact that gender and ethnicity are not equivalent qualities. If they were parallel, Harvard would prohibit single-gender rooming groups.

As I have said before, women will be the big losers from this Corporation decision. The news that the sororities plan to ignore the sanctions and proceed with their recruitment should be taken to mean that these groups provide something that is important enough that women are willing to pay a price for getting it. The clause in the Lee-Faust letter about these groups is transparently reprehensible:
We also recognize the concerns expressed by women students about the deficiencies in the campus social environment that have led many to seek membership in sororities. The College is committed to continuing the necessary work of addressing these issues in ways consistent with our broader educational mission.
Note the artful misrepresentation of what the women's groups provide. The letter from the 23 women does not refer to "deficiencies in the social environment," a phrase that suggests room for parties or casual conversation from which men should not be excluded. What these groups are providing is far more consequential—support, mentorship, and empowerment. It is insulting to dismiss these women's concerns as something the College is vaguely "committed … to addressing" while putting the sanctions into effect immediately.

There is a real problem with certain clubs, but it's never been identified and the sanctions regime won't solve it. The sweeping generalizations, the misuse of the worst of transgressions of the worst of the final clubs as arguments for shutting down all the women's clubs—these are not only illiberal but intellectually embarrassing. Alums old and young seem to be awakening to the fact that the nannying has gone too far.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Price

Professor Ben Friedman gave the best speech during the debate on November 7. He observed, among other things, that if we have learned anything over the past year and a half, it is that
the life of the Houses, those jewels of the Harvard structure, is nowhere near as engaging to our students as it should be, and in consequence it is losing out to life in other venues. What have we done in response? An all-too-familiar feature of American business behavior…is that when a firm’s product is losing out in competition, the firm’s response is not to improve its product but to seek to get the regulators to take its competitor’s product off the market. In effect, that’s what we have been doing here. Think of what we might have accomplished—think of what we still might accomplish—if we redirect the time and talent and energy that this faculty has put into this two-year-long discussion…to thinking about how best to re-invigorate life in Houses, rather than simply looking to shut down the alternative that too many of our students now prefer instead.
(The entire Harvard Magazine editorial opinion from which this passage is quoted is very much worth reading.)

Harvard can't seriously think that problems with House life are due to the clubs. Harvard cannot on the one hand credibly claim that off-campus clubs so damage the Houses that students who join them should be disgraced or even expelled, and at the same time build a "campus center" to draw students out of the Houses, and encourage students to take faculty out to lunch at local restaurants under the "Classroom to Table" program. There is something bigger going on with House life than could be cured by shutting down the clubs.

Let's stipulate—even though I don't believe it—that it is Harvard's job to more fully manage students' social lives. (After all, one reason students come to Harvard rather than, say, Bowdoin is because of the greater opportunities to have fun and to do interesting things off campus. I hope the next administration will be less socially oriented and will refocus us instead on academic matters.)

Viewed from a very high altitude, the problem of social life in the Houses has some unacknowledged origins. It is a familiar complaint that social life is bad because the Houses are more crowded than they used to be, and more crowded they surely are. That's unfortunate, but all things considered, I think Harvard has made the right tradeoff in educating a few more students rather than housing a smaller number in more spacious quarters.

The problems of social life in the Houses are more the result of other changes over the years. One is that a college with a 1:1 sex ratio generates more socializing—and thus the need for more social space—than the all-male college for which the Houses (and the old clubs) were designed. The pressure on social space became more intense as roughly the same number of students became 50-50 men and women, and as significant changes occurred over the same decades in the way young American men and women socialize with each other.

Also, while Harvard was assuming from Radcliffe complete social and residential responsibility for women students, it absorbed and renovated the Radcliffe dormitories (in the Quad), but allocated Radcliffe Yard, once the center of academic, social, and administrative life for women undergraduates, almost entirely to graduate education and research. (Only Agassiz Theatre remains an undergraduate building.) Inevitably, that put pressure on other social and administrative spaces for undergraduates. (As has the increasing number of College administrators.)

So Professor Friedman is right. We might have spent the last year talking about the life of the Houses rather than the evils of single-sex clubs. But the waste of time and energy that might have been devoted instead to improving House life is only one, and not the most serious, of the costs of this misadventure. I can think of several others.

The financial costs of the assault on the clubs are likewise not the most serious, but the resulting antipathy of alumni and parents (such as Heather Furnas) can't be welcome. Yet it may not matter. Fundraising numbers are robust. Two nine-figure gifts in the past decade have come from alumni of the professional schools (Gerald Chan and John Paulson), not the College. It may be that, like everything else in American society, alumni influence is tipping toward the top hundredth-of-a-percent of an increasingly financially stratified population. Has Harvard's fundraising model so shifted that the institution can afford to be indifferent to alumni loyalty?

The cost that bothers me most is the personal cost to students, especially women. Women will be the big losers if harsh sanctions are imposed on members of single-sex clubs. When the sanctions were announced under cover of exam-period darkness back in May 2016, did the President or the deans even know how many women belong to such organizations? Nothing was said about women's clubs in the initial announcements. Indeed, by citing sexual assault, those announcements suggested that the moves were meant to help women. In September 2016, the President sounded this half-hearted acknowledgment of the existence of women's clubs:
We need to be sure that we provide women with networking opportunities, with the support they need. We need to figure out the ways to do this. The women’s clubs have grown up because we, as a community, have not done that adequately. And so I don’t think that being this kind of organization — one that was created because something was withheld from you — is the best way to address these women’s needs.
This is the sort of logic that the Letter from 23 Undergraduate Women characterized as "astonishingly patronizing." Women are not joining sororities because the doors of the Porcellian are barred to them. None of the reports and pronouncements over the past year make any attempt to understand the sociology of the sororities and women's final clubs. No evidence has been presented that any of the ugly labels attached during the debates to the male final clubs applies to any of the women's clubs.

The attack on all clubs demonstrates exactly the indiscriminate stereotyping we hope students will avoid in other contexts. The women's clubs operate quietly, and women have their good reasons to join them. They provide something (actually, different things to different students) that those students find useful, supportive, or empowering. There will be a cost if what the clubs provide is taken away, and it is shameful that Harvard trivializes that cost. God save us if our graduates use such uninformed, ideological methods when they go to Washington to craft social policies for the nation.

The governance question, detailed several times by Professor James Engell, was skirted but not settled by the outcome of the November 7 vote. Is the Faculty in charge of the discipline of undergraduates, as the Statutes plainly state? The president refused to say. She recently said that anything that has to be put in the Handbook will be voted by the Faculty, but claims uncertainty about what matters those might be.  At the same time, attempts have been made to confuse "the Faculty" with "faculty," for example by referring to the Clark-Khurana committee as a "faculty committee," even though barely half of its members held even the lowest of faculty ranks.  The Faculty is an allegedly self-governing corporate body, with statutory responsibilities, committees of elected members, and binding formal votes, while "faculty" could refer to anyone with a faculty title whom the administration chooses include in its deliberations. The wording of the Howell motion ("it is the responsibility of the faculty and administration of Harvard College") deceptively blurs this distinction—there is no faculty of Harvard College, and conjoining "the administration" as an equal partner cedes to the administration the statutory authority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Finally, and related to all these concerns, the handling of the sanctions has created mistrust that will not easily be repaired. The source of the mistrust is that a badly conceived plan was promoted on the basis of a preposterous dogma: That single-sex organizations are inherently odious, that the very idea of a single-sex organization should excite the same revulsion as does the Ku Klux Klan. (Somehow while all this was going on, President Faust found time to speak at the inauguration of the new president of Wellesley College.) That lie (which has also corrupted the "inclusivity" initiative) created many inconsistencies and absurdities—for example, that the Women's Center is morally superior to a women's club because men can use it, or that the Black Men's Forum is OK because it isn't a forum for black men. This explains why the rationale kept shifting, though never enough to explain why some harmless organizations had to be killed off along with the dangerous ones.

The assertion of authority by Senior Fellow Bill Lee in a recent Crimson interview tends to confirm what I suspected. This attack on single-gender social organizations started at the Corporation level, as a risk mitigation endeavor. After one Title IX lawsuit, and a long history of bad behavior at certain male final clubs, Harvard's legal governors were worried about the extent of its financial exposure, and so the president and deans took the most aggressive actions against the clubs of any administration since the late 1990s. But their plan of action was couched in moral language rather than the language of safety and risk, and resonated with certain lines of progressive thought.

So even though this all started because some of the clubs posed risks, students were never told to stay away from them, only that students should hate them. Since the lawyers (I am sure) shot down any idea of treating women's clubs differently from men's, or some men's clubs differently from others, the category of offensive organizations kept morphing by expansion, not contraction.

And the administration, having crawled out onto a precarious moral limb to much applause, could not admit that the original motivation was a perfectly reasonable worry about student safety and Harvard's financial exposure. To be sure, the worst behaviors of the worst clubs kept getting cited—in fact, one speaker on November 7 cited a recent hazing death of fraternity pledge at a state university in arguing against my motion. One faculty colleague described this as "emotional blackmail," but I bet it swung a few votes. Sadly, the death of a Harvard undergraduate barely two weeks earlier suggests that loneliness may be a more serious death risk for Harvard students—and as the letter from the 23 women observes, that risk factor seems likely to be increased, not decreased, by shutting down the off-campus clubs.

The night before they were released, a member of the College administration showed me the letters from Dean Khurana and President Faust announcing the sanctions regime. My immediate reaction was, "No one will believe you." That is, no one would believe that the stated reasons for the crackdown were the real ones. Now the Senior Fellow has expanded his unprecedented involvement in the structure of undergraduate life by declaring that the as yet unnamed next president of Harvard will not change the policy that was announced so abruptly and unwisely on May 6, 2016.

This has been a nightmare for Veritas.