Monday, October 20, 2014

Meanwhile, from another decade and in another country, …

Brooks Newmark, AB'80, Conservative Member of Parliament for Braintree in the UK, has resigned his position as Minister for Civil Society, after sexting allegations emerged. Newmark was slated to be the president of the Harvard Alumni Association next year, but has resigned from the board. He has announced that he will not seek re-election as MP.

The journalism itself has complications in the UK, which has weaker protections for the press than the US does, because the journalist seems to have deceived Newmark into sexting after picking up a rumor; only later did a woman report that he had sexted her. So the journalist is under investigation by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

Ugh.

Updated 9:15pm October 20 to reflect new information that Newmark has resigned his position on the HAA board.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Young Harvard Goes to Washington?

At least three young alums are running for Congress, and one for Senate:

Ruben Gallego, AB'04, is running for a Congressional seat in Arizona as a Democrat.

Elise Stefanik, AB'06, is running for a Congressional seat in New York as a Republican.

Seth Moulton, AB'01, is running for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts as a Democrat.

Tom Cotton, AB'99, already a Congressman from Arkansas, is running for Senate as a Republican.

Pretty unusual group. Gallego and Moulton both served in the Marines, Cotton in the Army. Moulton was decorated for bravery, something he never mentioned and the Globe, apparently, turned up only while routinely checking his military records.

Are there others?

"Public service" is a term that tends to be used at Harvard to mean community service, Teach for America, and so on. With all the "Excellent Sheep" blather about the myopia and narcissism of Ivy League graduates, it's nice to see alums in their 20s and 30s serving in the armed forces and running for public office.

It's one of the stated purposes of our General Education program to "prepare students for civic engagement." It would be nice to the university signal to its students that it takes that seriously. How about an "I voted!" sticker on the lapel in some November 5 Gazette photo of Faust, Smith, or Khurana?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Professor Mary Lewis's Question at the Faculty Meeting about Health Benefits

As the Crimson reported, Professor Mary Lewis of the History Department asked a question at the October 6 FAS faculty meeting about the recently announced changes in health benefits for nonunion Harvard employees, including faculty and "exempt" staff. (Any changes for unionized employees would, of course, be subject to collective bargaining.) The question was quite succinct and quite powerful. I reprint it below with Professor Lewis's permission. (We are not related.)
My question regards the administration’s recent announcement of changes to the health benefits package for Harvard Faculty, Professional and Administrative Staff not in a Bargaining Unit, effective with the coming “open season.”  Although depicted in the e-mail sent on September 3 as a cost-sharing plan with lower monthly premiums, what the plan actually does is substantially increase the annual expenses of those members of the Harvard community who are most vulnerable to illness or likely to need hospitalization.  By introducing deductibles, much higher co-pays for the emergency room, and very substantial out-of-pocket expenses for hospitalizations, the Harvard administration moves in the opposite direction of nationwide trends to amortize risk across large groups of individuals.  Instead, it places the burden of expenses on those of us with family members who have pre-existing chronic illnesses making them more likely to need hospitalization, to say nothing of individuals who suddenly and unexpectedly face serious illness or a catastrophic accident.  Instead of sharing risk, as the Affordable Care Act reminds us is the best way to lower healthcare costs in the long run, Harvard is asking those most at-risk to pay more.  For these individuals, the change in policy is in essence a pay cut.  I would like to know how and when this policy can be reversed.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Phony Law Enforcement Panic over Apple's Encryption

When Apple announced end-to-end encryption, meaning that it had no way to decrypt user data in at least some communications, I did not react strongly. I was not surprised with Eric Holder and others from law enforcement started hollering. They are reaping what they have sown, I figured. Post-Snowden, Apple and other technology companies are no longer trusted abroad. Foreign governments and foreign companies have good reason to think that US companies will turn over to the US government whatever our government demands. Whatever damage the Snowden revelations did to our relations with Anglea Merkel are not nearly as significant as what they cost the business interests of US technology companies. Apple's response is exactly right and exactly what is to be expected.

And Holder's reaction should have been expected too, except that I figured law enforcement had learned its lesson the first time around, during the first time the US threatened to require special backdoors so the government could get access to encrypted communications. Those were the Crypto Wars of the 1990s, and we told the story in Blown to Bits.
The ensuing, often heated negotiations, sometimes referred to as the “crypto wars,” played out over the remainder of the 1990s. Law enforcement and national security argued the need for encryption controls. On the other side of the debate were the technology companies, who did not want govern- ment regulation, and civil liberties groups, who warned against the potential for growing communication surveillance. In essence, policymakers could not come to grips with the transformation of a major military technology into an everyday personal tool.
On January 24, 1991, Senator Joseph Biden, a co-sponsor of antiterrorist legislation Senate Bill 266, inserted some new language into the bill:
It is the sense of Congress that providers of electronic communica- tions services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment shall ensure that communications systems permit the gov- ernment to obtain the plaintext contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriate authorized by law.
This language received a furious reaction from civil liberties groups and wound up not surviving … 
…very little email is encrypted today. Human rights groups use encrypted email. People with something to hide probably encrypt their email. But most of us don’t bother encrypting our email. In fact, millions of people use Gmail, willingly trading their privacy for the benefits of free, reliable ser- vice. Google’s computers scan every email, and supply advertisements related to the subject matter. Google might turn over email to the government in response to a court order, without challenging the demand. Why are we so unconcerned about email privacy?
… although outright prohibitions on encryption are now impossible, the social and systems aspects of encryption remain in an unstable equilibrium. Will some information privacy catastrophe spark a massive re-education of the Internet-using public, or massive regulatory changes to corporate prac- tice? Will some major supplier of email services and software, responding to consumers wary of information theft and government surveillance, make encrypted email the default option?
The bottom-line question is this: As encryption becomes as ordinary a tool for personal messages as it already is for commercial transactions, will the benefits to personal privacy, free expression, and human liberty outweigh the costs to law enforcement and national intelligence, whose capacity to eavesdrop and wiretap will be at an end?
 So it was with astonishment that I read today's editorial in the Washington Post, calling for "compromise":
A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.
Huh? The editors seem to have no idea what they are talking about. They are basically parroting what FBI Director Louis Freeh said about encryption back in 1997:
The looming spectre of the widespread use of robust, virtually uncrackable encryption is one of the most difficult problems confronting law enforcement as the next century approaches. At stake are some of our most valuable and reliable investigative techniques, and the public safety of our citizens. We believe that unless a balanced approach to encryption is adopted that includes a viable key management infrastructure, the ability of law enforcement to investigate and sometimes prevent the most serious crimes and terrorism will be severely impaired. Our national security will also be jeopardized. 
Have we learned nothing? Moreover, the usefulness of these warrants to get at encrypted data is being vastly exaggerated, as Bruce Schneier explains in a devastating analysis:
FBI Director James Comey claimed that Apple's move allows people to place themselves beyond the law" and also invoked that now overworked "child kidnapper." John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for the Chicago police department now holds the title of most hysterical: "Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile."
It's all bluster. Of the 3,576 major offenses for which warrants were granted for communications interception in 2013, exactly one involved kidnapping. And, more importantly, there's no evidence that encryption hampers criminal investigations in any serious way. In 2013, encryption foiled the police nine times, up from four in 2012 -- and the investigations proceeded in some other way.
Susan Landau also does a good job explaining the situation. My goodness, I did not think the Crypto Wars would get fought again so soon, and certainly not with the Washington Post lining up on the wrong side of the ball.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Against Concentrations

I have been puzzling about how Harvard could get resolve the big problems in undergraduate education. I have a modest proposal.

Of course, the first step is to define what problem, or problems, you are trying to solve. Here are a few.

1) Students are too grade-conscious. This drives them to make anti-educational decisions, taking courses that are graded softly or don't teach them much they don't already know, rather than taking courses they might learn from.

2) Honors, being based largely on grades, reward conservative course choices and punish risk taking. They are also enormously socioeconomically biased, since the people who get good grades on average over four years are the people who were already very well educated before they arrived at Harvard. (I have never seen data on that, but I would love to see a scatterplot of high and highest honors, or GPA, against family income. I'd guess that most of the outliers, the students with low incomes and high GPAs, came from independent schools with aggressive financial aid policies.)

3) Declaring a concentration is seen as a moment of truth, a crisis in identity formation, no matter how much we preach that it's what you know rather than what credential you bear that will determine your future success.

4) The Humanities are terrified that they are not attracting enough enrollments or enough concentrators.

5) The General Education program, a source of pride in theory, is treated with some derision by more talented students, and as game of hopscotch, with some excellent courses and a lot of strange ones, by the bulk of students.

6) We are losing our identity as a liberal arts institution because so many students are concentrating in Engineering and Computer Science.

Pardon a somewhat lengthy digression here. I think #6, though widely bruited, is nonsense, because as far as I am concerned applied science is perfectly consistent with liberal education. The notion that a liberal education is one divorced from utility -- learning for learning's sake, as we like to say -- is a crock. It is just an etymological confusion, where "art" is construed as something other than "science" and "liberal" is taken to mean free from utility.

The liberal arts are neither useless nor artistic. They are called "liberal" because they were the arts taught to the free people of the Roman republic, the citizens as opposed to slaves. They were the arts of citizenship. And of course they included mathematics, since that was among the skills, the useful arts, that Roman citizens were expected to have to take responsibility for their nation. And while I am at it, and while we are still buzzing about the naming of the School of Public Health in honor of the Chans, I have always wondered why the School of Engineering is not already named for Gordon McKay and described properly as a "School of Art." After all, McKay's will is quite explicit:













I am sure there is a good reason; I haven't fought my way through all the codicils. The point is, the campaigning for the Liberal Arts is not just about the Humanities. It is equally about techne.

But back to educational reform. Here is a proposal to deal with all these issues.

I hate "secondaries," what Harvard calls minors. As presently constituted, hey seem to bring out the worst inclinations of Harvard students, their tendency to seek credentials rather than learning. I think students would do less of that if left to their own devices -- but we actually incentivize them to seek secondaries and guts that will raise their GPAs rather than studying the things they would most like to learn. We do this by giving them gold stars for secondaries and giving them honors for GPA, at the same time as we disdain the inevitable consequences of rewarding these things and not others -- students too busy and too competitive to stop and think about who they are and where they are going.

But what if there were ONLY secondaries? Get rid of concentrations. Have departments, and interdepartmental committees, offer "secondaries," and require students to earn at least two, but allow students to earn several. (Of course "secondary" is no longer the right term if there are no concentrations. I'll use it just to convey the idea of a small cluster of courses with some disciplinary coherence and a bit of depth.)

Now that defining moment -- am I going to be an English major or a Computer Science major? -- disappears. You have to be more than one thing, or you don't get a degree.

Well, of course there are damned good reasons why we wouldn't simply do this. We think you are not well educated if you don't know something in depth. We want to produce top scholars too, and that required incentivizing, if not requiring, undergraduates to work at an advanced scholarly level.

Though frankly, we are pretty unclear about the purpose of concentrations. We react with mock horror when students overspecialize, even if they have satisfied all their Gen Ed requirements. We actually reduced the maximum size of concentrations a few years ago; they are not supposed to be mini-PhDs, was the battle cry. But of course the top students are always the ones who do the most advanced disciplinary work. Those are the ones who graduate summa.

So how do we incentivize a deeper education, and the engagement of students in advanced scholarship and research, while not requiring every graduate to have a concentration?

Well, first of all, having two or three secondaries, say in CS and biochemistry, might be more of an intellectual investment in the future than having a concentration in one or the other. Lots of fields are evolving out of the friction between existing disciplines. A few courses in each of CS and sociology might have been perfect for Zuckerberg.

And secondly, we could incentivize depth by basing honors mostly on senior theses. A department might well decide that the "secondary," which would require only a few courses, was not nearly preparation enough to write a thesis; to be eligible for that you would need several more courses, with some specificity about which courses. When it came time to award honors a department or committee could look at the entire program and give some weight to GPA, but the idea would be to judge people on the depth of their knowledge, as evidenced in part by the quality of the thesis they were able to write. Honors would become more subjective, but also less consequential.

I'll bet we'd get more humanities enrollments if people felt that they did not have to assume the identity of a humanist. Of course, the humanities courses would still have to win in the marketplace of ideas. But there would be less eye-rolling, by parents and peers, when a student announced that one of her secondaries was in English if another were in something more "useful." We could credibly argue, as we cannot today, that the ideal graduate really is broadly educated. (The CS concentrator who does as instructed, and takes one Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding course, one Culture and Belief Course, and one Ethical Reasoning course, may well not wind up with a credibly liberal education, but if she had a secondary in Philosophy or the Classics, I bet she would.)

And by limiting the size of secondaries, we would make more credible that what makes you liberally educated is not what the scholars in your department think of your academic expertise, it is your facility with thinking and reasoning and analysis and argumentation and presenting well considered solutions to actual problems of the world in all their complexity. Of course those would be rooted in the academic traditions of the disciplines. Educated people are expected to bring the full arsenal of their learning to bear on their problems they confront. Our education would get linked back to our civic purposes, without some childish required civics curriculum.

Now I'd love to know what's wrong with this idea. One thing that is possibly "wrong" with it is that it would end some of the risible cries of "turf warfare." In the politics of higher education, turf warfare is advantageous to those losing the battles, as it is a way to call for the battleground to be leveled artificially, for a shift in resources to make it a fair fight. If we simply acknowledged that the curriculum is largely elective and let students take the subjects in which they were interested -- within the parameters of the regulated marketplace I have argued for -- we would all have a greater incentive to meet students' needs rather than complain about the unfairness of the fight in which we are engaged.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Is this what they mean by "running a university like a business"?

When a university is "run like a business," the implication is that wasteful redundancy and costly inefficiency should be eliminated. But of course determining whether you are being efficient about the way you are running your business, or cutting the soul out of the enterprise, requires defining what business the university is in. My previous post about the marketplace of ideas notwithstanding, I don't want a system that eliminates Egyptology so Computer Science can grow. In fact, Egyptology is holding its own in the marketplace of ideas at Harvard; Peter der Manuelian teaches a cool Gen Ed course to captivated students, including some I have directed to the course. (Interesting fact: der Manuelian took an intro CS course from me while he was an undergraduate here. You can do a lot of things with a little CS, as I keep saying.)

The question of the day is, given that executive compensation in the private sector has grown out of proportion to the wages of the labor force, and (as Paul Krugman details today) the disproportion at the upper end of the executive hierarchy has grown to a degree few of us can imagine, should the same hold for non-profits? After all, the same forces that justify paying big salaries to the op executives of for-profit companies -- competitive pressures, the value returned by top talent, etc. -- justify paying them in charitable non-profits. Don't they?

There is something that doesn't feel right about that, given the commitment these non-profits make to serve the public good -- and to have taxpayers underwrite their operations, if in no other way, by exempting them from taxation.

Which brings me to the article I received today that got me thinking about all this -- about not Harvard, but the University of Chicago. It's written by David Mihalyfy of the Harvard class of 2002, now a graduate student at Chicago. It documents the amazing run up in compensation for several top administrators at that university.
New analysis of tax data from publicly available IRS 990 forms shows that eight high-level UChicago administrators have received more than $7.6 million in compensation increases since 2007-2008, even as the school moved toward and suffered a credit downgrade.
Over five years, administrators enjoyed pay increases of between 40 percent and 135 percent, and as a result each received $450,000 to $3.3 million from cumulative increases by the end of 2012-2013, the most recent year for which tax data is available.
UChicago thus ended up paying $2.5 million more annually for the combined services of these eight people — an increase from $3.4 to almost $6 million per year.
And we wonder why the public is skeptical that we have done everything we can to hold down the cost of our product.

Bonus links:

A fascinating Bloomberg piece on the history of fundraising for endowment, an art first developed into a science by none other than Harvard's greatest president, Charles William Eliot.

A lovely Bryan Marquard obituary for one of the all-time great marketers of ideas, Irven DeVore. And a terrific David Warsh column giving a nod to the marketing skills of David Malan, and pitching an important idea about computer science education.

I will have to return to say more about Homi Bhabha's citation of Deresiewicz's epistemological dogma ("a subjective perspective," -- "subjectivism should not always be confused with solipsism"):
“We ask of a scientific proposition, ‘Is it true?,’ but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, ‘Is it true for me?’ ”
(Deresiewicz actually attributes this formulation to Lionel Trilling.) It does not take the "willful ignorance" that Bhabha attributes to me to wonder what this means or where it will take us.

Here, by the way, is the full video of Deresiewicz's appearance at Harvard, complete with Bhabha's introduction.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

You're kidding, right? Carlyle tracked its LPs at their annual meeting?

The huge global asset management firm The Carlyle Group, at its annual meeting, issued ID badges to its limited partners--its investors in other words, the people who make the business happen--so it could track their comings and goings at the meeting. These are not employees who imaginably signed away all their privacy rights when they agreed to work for the firm. As the story explains,
Carlyle Group has more than 1,650 investors from 78 countries, according to its website. And hundreds of those investors show up at Carlyle’s annual meeting, which according to one LP is something like the Burning Man festival of the private equity industry.
The LPs who learned about it -- there was apparently no advance notice given -- were furious. One guy thought about giving his badge to a woman LP for the night so whoever was sleuthing their movements would have some fun analyzing the data.

After the infamous email privacy scandal at Harvard a couple of years ago I should not be surprised by anything. How could anyone at Carlyle have thought this was a bright idea? I get it at one level -- some wizard realizes something is possible, nobody ever told him anything about not doing stuff like this, and he might learn something, so why not?

But it's bizarre. It demonstrates a shocking myopia about the big picture. What information did they hope to get that would be more important than the outrage and mistrust a disclosure would precipitate? If your LPs don't trust you in this business, you are cooked. Why would anyone trust Carlyle with anything now?