Wednesday, July 31, 2013

OMG. Was It Something I Said, Mr. President?

My blog post about Larry Summers's ethical complexities went live at 8:44am today. As I am writing it is the top blog post on the HuffPo home page, "above the fold." (Though I wonder: Does the HuffPo have a dynamic layout algorithm, customizing content in "Daily Me" fashion? Maybe Arianna knows I like reading articles by this Lewis guy and places them high in my edition of the paper.)

Then some time today, President Obama went out of his way to defend Summers. As the New York Times reports,

Speaking to members of the House Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama said in answer to a sharp question from Representative Ed Perlmutter of Colorado that he believed Mr. Summers had been maligned in the liberal news media, according to several House Democrats who attended the meeting. 
Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said the president described Mr. Summers as a rock of stability who deserved credit for helping to steer the American economy back from the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession. Mr. Obama, Mr. Connolly said, singled out the negative coverage of Mr. Summers in The Huffington Post.
The Huffington Post itself provides a little more color:
During Wednesday’s meeting, one Democratic lawmaker, who requested anonymity, said the president became agitated and rose to Summers’ defense in response to Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) walking up to the microphone and simply saying, "Larry Summers. Bad Choice." 
In paraphrasing Obama's response, the lawmaker said the president replied, "Hey, don't talk sh*t about him because he's actually a pretty good guy. And then he said, 'If somebody talked sh*t about you like that, I'd defend you too."' (The lawmaker added that Obama didn't use the expletive.) …
After Wednesday's meeting, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told reporters that Obama said he felt Summers has been treated unfairly. 
"He gave a full-throated defense of Larry Summers and his record in helping to save the economy from the dark days of '09,” he said. "I mean, Larry Summers is a very capable person. I think the president showed real moxy in rising to his defense."
Now when I saw that, it never occurred to me that I was the one who ticked off the president. I am too irrelevant to matter, and I am not a perpetual thorn in Obama's side. It is true that I have published in the HuffPo before, including another piece about Summers and Shleifer, but only because a friend asked me to write something to help puff a new book of hers. I don't actually read the Huffington Post unless someone sends me an article. I don't consider myself a liberal and I think most people consider me a conservative, at least by Harvard standards. Harvey Mansfield once called me a liberal, but I am not sure it proves anything to stipulate that I am to Harvey's left. Anyway he seemed to accept my word when I told him I was not a liberal, and then invited me to speak at a conference he was organizing on the state of the University a decade after 9/11. I am not enrolled in any organized political party (or any disorganized political party either). 

And of course I am not the only guy writing critical stuff about Summers in the Huffington Post.

Anyway, this is the sort of statement you make only when you are NOT going to appoint the guy. If Larry and Janet are kindergartners in a poetry reciting contest and the teacher goes out of her way to say what a terrific guy Larry is, doesn't that mean that Janet is about to get the prize?

Still, when someone emailed me to say I had touched a nerve, I began to wonder. Those passages from the deposition, particularly the one about how ethics in Washington is a set of arbitrary rules, at a minimum could make for some interesting confirmation questions. (The flip side of suggesting that ethical rules are arbitrary, and what you need to do is adhere to whatever the rules say, is to suggest that if the rules don't prohibit it there isn't anything wrong with it and you might as well do it if it's profitable.)

But nah. Can't be me Obama is talking about. Not only am I not a liberal, I didn't say anything unfair.

Unless maybe it's my statement that "Summers' moneymaking is less about greed than ego." Is that unfair? OK, you win then; it's unfair, I take it back. Summers's moneymaking is about greed after all.

Larry's Conflicts

I am grateful to the Huffington Post for running my long blog post on Larry's Conflicts. It's way beyond their recommended length, but I decided the story needed to be told one step at a time, because it is so easy to dismiss specific examples. I am very glad that I was finally able to get onto the record some of the material from Summers's deposition in the Shleifer case, as that document is not widely available. Thanks to the journalist who, years ago, gave me a copy.

I also wanted to remind the larger audience that always linking Summers to his NBER speech overstates the significance that had for the faculty, by comparison with his evasions and compromises about the Shleifer mess. The reaction Summers got when he foisted his theory (which he surely got from reading Steve Pinker's book, though he never mentioned that) was largely due to the fact that he had just been talking to women faculty about the tenure track and said nothing of the kind to them. But the Shleifer affair was Summers' real problem; that corruption is what drew faculty from every quarter.

And that clueless arrogance about his own smartness is Summers's most disqualifying liability for the Fed job. Look what happens to the markets when Bernanke hints one thing or another. You don't want someone in this job who loves to attract attention for his cleverness--especially someone with weird ethics about financial conflicts of interest.

At a larger scale, I think about how little anyone now thinks about the merits of humility in leaders. I might have quoted what Eliot (whose name graces Summers's chair) had to say about the incentives for university presidents. Or what James Kabaservice quotes from Plato's Republic in the front matter to his book about Kingman Brewster:
If we want the best among our Guardians, we must take those naturally fitted to watch over a commonwealth. They must have the right sort of intelligence and ability; and also they must look upon the commonwealth as their special concern--the sort of concern that is felt for something so closely bound up with oneself that its interest and fortune, for good or ill, are held up to be identical with one's own.
The great and admirable leaders, of universities and the nation, all think that way, don't they?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Want to get email notices of my blog posts?

Thanks to Simson Garfinkel, who has kindly set up a feed burner so anyone can get an email every time I post a new item. [Corrected version of this post, with proper thanks added!]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Recurring Summer(s) Nightmare

Get me an Ambien, or whatever is the favorite of people having nightmares. I am having flashbacks and can't sleep. In a piece tactfully called "Larry Summers is an Unrepentant Bully," Huffington Post Business Editor Peter Goodman writes,

In the fall of 2008 -- just after many of the nation's largest financial institutions teetered toward collapse, prompting the government to unleash a taxpayer-financed rescue -- I called Larry Summers at his Harvard office to ask him whether he had any regrets. 
Specifically, I wanted to know how Summers had come to view his actions as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, where he had joined then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to dismantle the government's authority to regulate trading in derivatives -- the very financial instruments then playing a central role in the crisis. 
Summers immediately took charge, barking that we were off the record -- a directive that I rejected, prompting him to raise his voice. He accused me of conducting a "jihad" aimed at unfairly implicating him as a cause of the financial crisis. 
I promised to call him again before my piece ran, giving him time to reflect. I left messages but didn't hear back, so I left one more, reminding him of my previous calls. When he finally called, his legendary condescension was fully engaged. 
"The probability that you left me a message that I did not receive is approximately zero," he said. When it turned out that his secretary had been mixed up about the date of my messages (or maybe it was Larry who was mixed up?), he turned on her, criticizing her sharply with me on the line. 
There are worse things in life than terrible phone manners, imperiousness and excessive confidence, but …

That sounds just like the guy we remember fondly as president of Harvard.

And then there is another piece, this one in the New Republic by Noam Scheiber, entitled "The New Larry Summers Sure Looks Like the Old Larry Summers." This is a commentary on an Ezra Klein piece in the Washington Post which reports that the White House thinks "a lot of the opposition to Summers is based on bad or outdated information."

Now where have I heard that before? Oh, right. That is what Bob Rubin told the Harvard presidential search committee back in 2000 or early 2001. As Richard Bradley reports in Harvard Rules (pp. 78-79),
Rubin called three members of the search committee who had particular doubts …. It was true, Rubin admitted, that Summers had once had what Rubin would call "a rough edges" issue. But he'd mellowed, Rubin insisted. This was a man who'd successfully negotiated with congressional leaders and foreign treasurers, who'd survived and prospered for a decade in a viciously partisan Washington environment. His temper existed more in legend than in reality. Rubin's seal of approval worked. "Rubin made us confident that we weren't getting a bull," one member of the committee later said. 
I wonder, is it Rubin again who is telling Obama, "Don't worry, he's changed"? Scheiber goes on.

As for the other key criticism of Summers—that he doesn’t play well with others, something that’s central to making the Fed work—the White House suggestion that it, too, is “outdated” strikes me as delusional or willfully ignorant. … Summers clashed constantly with fellow administration officials, most famously budget director Peter Orszag and White House economist Christie Romer. Often it was about matters of national urgency, and so a little heat could be forgiven. But all too frequently it arose from pure pettiness and immaturity. One example:  
About six months into the administration, [Summers] and Orszag were scheduled to join the vice president at a White House event. When Orszag arrived, a body man seated him next to Biden, only to return a few minutes later and ask him to move. Summers had insisted on taking the seat even though it was assigned to Orszag. “I’m really sorry. We had a seating chart. But Larry walked in and saw that you were sitting next to the vice president,” the aide said. [Orszag agreed to move; a third administration official who was present confirmed this account.]  
It wasn’t just running antagonists like Orszag and Romer that felt the impact of Summers’ rough edges. The origins of Rahm Emanuel’s ill-fated attempt to procure a personal car for Summers date back to a day in the fall of 2009, when Summers groused to the then-chief of staff: “Life sucks around here. I waited thirty minutes outside the Capitol because you fuckers can’t get your motor pool to work right.”  
And then there were the senior Treasury officials whom Summers managed to alienate, like Lee Sachs (Geithner’s top financial consigliere during the first two years of the administration) and Matthew Kabaker, widely regarded as one of Treasury’s brightest stars at the time. Summers seemed to delight in pummeling these two during their hours-long debates over how to respond to the financial crisis. Now, as I say, these were consequential debates, so you’d expect some flashes of emotion. But Summers favored a distinctly unbecoming approach—including a need to taunt his sparring partners as they went back and forth. “Lee, you’re losing this argument!” Summers would thunder. “You’re getting crushed!” 
… Fed chairman simply isn’t the right job for someone with his shortcomings. … In the end, I don’t think Obama is doing Summers any favors by pushing him for it. The longer the White House holds him up as the top candidate, the more damaging it will be to Summers himself, because the list of drawbacks really is quite lengthy.
I remember, when the Harvard faculty spoke of Summers' failings of common civility, they were repeatedly ridiculed in the press as pantywaists, frail things who bruise like the princess with the pea. So what if he is a bull in a china shop; who wants to live in a china shop?

But it was all true then at Harvard just as it will be true again in the Fed: You have to be able to work with people to get them to work for you. The humanists in particular came in for dismissive treatment; they just weren't used to the no-holds-barred, rough-and-tumble style of the economists. But that was never it. Economists have manners too. At a 2006 faculty meeting reported in the Boston Globe,
Caroline Hoxby, one of two tenured women in economics, the department where Summers teaches, spoke of the ties between scholars, their mentors, and students as a "a great shimmering web" when a university is functioning at its best. 
"Every time, Mr. President, you show a lack of respect for a faculty member's intellectual expertise, you break ties in our web. Every time you humiliate or silence a faculty member, you break ties in our web," Hoxby said. "When you engage in speech that harms the university's ability to foster scholarship and that is not thoughtful, not deliberate, and not grounded in deep knowledge, you break ties by the hundreds."
Right after that meeting Summers experienced an epiphany. "I am determined to set a different tone. I pledge to you that I will seek to listen more, and more carefully, and to temper my words and actions in ways that convey respect and help us work together more harmoniously."

And heck, after that he hardly had another problem at Harvard.

Summers has not changed. He can persuasively pretend to change, but he can't change. Mr. President, please don't. Listen to what people are trying to tell you. For the good of the country, don't get taken in by any talk about how Larry Summers is a changed man.

Other pieces worth reading:
Wait, Larry Summers is now the Favorite for the Fed? Can We At Least Talk It Over First? (Scheiber)
Fears Rise that Larry Summers Likely to be Named Fed Chairman IRyan Grim)
Larry Summers Nomination Would Bypass "Steady" and "Right" Janet Yellen (Zach Carter and Ryan Grim; don't know if that piece is right about Yellen but it is right about Summers)
The White House Wants Larry Summers for the Fed. But Will They Actually Choose Him? (Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas: "All else being equal, President Obama would like to choose Larry Summers; Right now, the White House is trying to figure out how equal all else is")

Steps in the Evolution of Higher Education

One of the standard arguments of the evolution deniers is that there aren't examples of fossils half way between species that are held to be on the same evolutionary path, one having evolved from the other. There are swimmers and then there are walkers, goes the argument, and you claim that the swimmers walked out of the water at some point and became walkers, but there are no fossils of fish with elbows. Then a few years ago a Greenland expedition that included my lamented late colleague Farish Jenkins found one. Named Tiktaalik, it even had a neck. (Tiktaalik seems not itself to have been a missing link, just one of nature's amphibious locomotion experiments, some of which worked out.)

I wonder how we will think about today's higher education innovations a few decades from now. Perhaps some of the new institutions will prove to be nature's failed experiments, mutations that had some brief promise in a new environmental niche, but the niche was not big enough or enduring enough to foster long term survival, or it got filled by some better-suited variant institution. Or perhaps some of the equally transitory experiments will evolve into stable species, and we will rediscover them as we look back and try to remember how the world got to its new form. At the moment, there is a lot of guesswork and experimentation.

Already, it seems, the rush for American universities to open campuses in Singapore is going through a retrenchment period, in spite of the Singapore government's efforts to turn the country into a higher education hub. The University of Chicago is shutting down its Singapore campus and moving it to Hong Kong. NYU's Tisch School of Arts and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas have both announced they are closing up shop in Singapore. The reasons cited are the same in each case: It's too expensive to do business in Singapore, and the home institution can't afford the continuing subsidies. The strength of the Singapore dollar is mentioned as part of the story that these American-brand degree are not seen as being as valuable as the American parent universities thought they would be.
"If a branded school is unable to persuade its students to pay their market fees, then it suggests that the brand may not be so attractive after all," said [a government official].
Still, others are staying, and the Yale-NUS campus is set to open next month. It will be interesting to see whether there are enough environmental nutrients (that is, Singaporean and American dollars, and Asian students) to keep them alive. So far, none of the closures seem to be related to the issues that deeply concern the Yale faculty: how to teach in the spirit of open inquiry and free speech in a place where you can be jailed for criticizing the government (or for homosexuality, or a variety of other things that are not constraints in American universities).

At some point the American universities that are venturing into authoritarian states in search of fame and fortune are going to have to square their values with the values of their host countries. NYU President John Sexton's statement about NYU's Chinese campus won't wash forever: "I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression." Anything can be political, and for a university in which students can expect to study and discuss any kind of social issue, giving up on the right to political expression means giving up the pursuit of the truth.

In other news, the Minerva Project, the online university that promises to recreate the feel of an elite American liberal-arts college, is teaming up with the Keck Graduate Institute. Huh? The Keck Institute is about as far from a liberal arts college as you can get it academia. It's got only forty faculty, all in the life sciences, and grants only graduate degrees. The announcement trumpets the perfect fit between these two institutions with so much enthusiasm that you know it is about as true as Anthony Weiner's assurances that his mayoral campaign is not about him. And in fact, the fit was so perfect that Keck was Minerva founder Ben Nelson's second choice. Pomona turned him down, in part because some faculty "questioned whether Pomona was just being used as means for Minerva to get regional accreditation."

Now why do you suppose they would worry about being used? Really, by now they should have forgotten that way back in April, Nelson said he would use "various loopholes" in the accreditation process to get his university launched--specifically, that the accreditation process is simpler if you can partner yourself with a place that is already accredited. Keck fits that bill perfectly, for sure.

Can't help wondering if there is a connection between the Keck board and the chair of Minerva's Advisory Committee, the man who this week is, depending on the source, either tied or ahead in the race to be chair of the Fed. Or maybe Summers is just skilled in the art of regulatory loopholes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Keating Report

Michael Keating, the attorney retained by Harvard to provide a complete account of last year's email searches, issued his report yesterday. Summaries appear in the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

It is a careful and apparently exhaustive account of the particular email searches that happened in the context of the so-called leak by a resident dean. It does not answer any question beyond that. In particular it gives no clue about how often email searches are conducted, and of whom; the best information is from the president's reassurance last year that they happen "rarely." I did not expect to learn any new information on that, since Mr. Keating's charge was limited to the facts of the searches conducted last fall. Nor was the report intended to consider other issues raised by this case, such as the question of whether it would be wise in the future to follow the precedent of announcing an Ad Board case to the media via a press release.

Except for some confusion about a footnote, which I explain below, I am disappointed with the report in only one respect. The report goes to some length to state that the actions of those who authorized and conducted the email searches were taken "in good faith." However it imputes no motive or intent to the dean who forwarded the email to a student, stating simply "One of the listed emails was sent, on August 16, 2012, by Resident Dean X to a student advisee. Resident Dean X forwarded the `case process' email to the student less than 10 minutes after Dean Ellison sent it." I and others (for example, Professor Thomas in today's Globe story) have speculated that the dean was simply trying to provide the student with accurate and helpful advice, and never thought about the e-mail forwarding as a leak to the Crimson or a breach of confidentiality. Since the report goes to such pains to remove any suspicion from those who did the searches (the phrase "good faith" appears three times, and there are other statements of what various administrators "believed"), the omission of any similar conclusion about the intentions of the Resident Dean might be interpreted to mean that Mr. Keating was less confident, or not confident at all, that those intentions were as pure. I am not sure why, having imputed benign intentions to some of the players in this drama, the report is coolly nonjudgmental about the Resident Dean. If it is true that the dean was simply trying to give the student good advice (and the fast-forwarding suggests that the dean had no more complicated plan), the report might have said so.

The most important development going forward is that university officials are using a different voice about privacy protections. William Lee of the Harvard Corporation says in a prepared statement,
Mr. Keating found those involved in the searches to have acted in good faith and with a guiding desire to safeguard the confidentiality of the Ad Board process. That aspect of his report is reassuring.  His detailed account of how these searches were done, however, makes it even clearer than before that there is much work ahead in improving the University's policies and protocols concerning privacy of, and access to, electronic communications.  
President Faust's statement is even stronger:
Unfortunately, the detailed factual account in Mr. Keating’s report deepens my already substantial concerns about troubling failures of both policy and execution. The findings strengthen my view that we need much clearer, better, and more widely understood policies and protocols in place to honor the important privacy interests that we should exercise the utmost vigilance to uphold. A university must set a very high bar in its dedication to principles of privacy and of free speech; these are fundamental and defining values of our academic community. The searches carried out last fall fell short of these standards, and we must work to ensure that this never occurs again.
And in the Globe, Lee said very much the same thing:
"Hopefully, it will never happen again,” William F. Lee, a member of the Harvard Corporation, said in an interview. …. Even with “the unprecedented nature of the events, the urgency of the events, the fact that students’ privacy and individual rights were involved, it’s clear that the policies that we as a university had in place were inadequate to the task,” Lee continued. 
I am very glad to see such a consensus around the need for better and more exacting policies and practices for electronic searches of Harvard communications. On page 20, Mr. Keating's report notes two existing policy statements. One is plainly applicable only to students. The other is in the "Information for Faculty" handbook, and reads as follows:
The unauthorized examination of information stored on a computer system or sent electronically over a network is a breach of academic and community standards. Authorized system support staff however, may gain access to users’ data or programs when it is necessary to maintain or prevent harm to the University, its computer systems or the network.
For the life of me, I can't remember ever seeing that. The Information for Faculty is not voted by the Faculty, and I do not know who wrote that paragraph or when this language entered the handbook. It is a document professors are expected to know and obey, but since it is not faculty legislation, we are unlikely to notice changes year to year unless a dean points them out. Nor do I know by what authority language like this gets added.

This passage actually looks like a maladaption of the student policy, which refers to the need "to maintain or prevent damage to systems." With a little editing, perhaps that became a need "to maintain or prevent harm to the University, its computer systems, or the network." The Keating report states that the searches were done pursuant to this policy, which is, of course, extremely permissive.

The report does not mention another permissive email privacy policy, in the Employee Handbook (Section 2, no link because it is behind a login screen):
Electronic files, e-mail, data files, images, software and voice mail may be accessed at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose. Access may be requested and arranged through the system(s) user, however, this is not required.
The report does, however, dismiss the FAS Faculty email privacy policy as basically nonexistent, and in fact unknown to the Office of General Counsel. Footnote 3 on page 20 states:

The OGC Attorney did not review a policy, entitled “FAS Policy Regarding the Privacy of Faculty Electronic Materials,” which was posted on an Information Security & Privacy website at <>, rather than the FAS website. That policy had never been approved by the OGC, and in 2012, no attorney at the OGC appears to have been aware of its existence. Also, neither the HUIT Employee nor the FAS administrators who approved the searches knew about it. In 2005, the FAS consulted with the OGC concerning a proposed privacy policy, but the OGC was never advised that the policy had been adopted by anyone or posted to this particular website. Also, as a matter of practice, the OGC is not asked to “approve” privacy policies adopted by different institutions at the University. Further, when the OGC is asked for guidance about whether particular actions comply with applicable policies, it focuses on the policies posted to the website for the relevant institution, such as the FAS website, or printed in the relevant handbook. 

Now a fair amount has been written and debated about this policy over the past year (see my blog post about these various policies, for example). This is the policy that requires notice of searches, and also stipulates a particular form of approval; maybe the searches were done in a manner consistent with the policy and maybe not. With the policy vacated, the question of whether it was followed becomes moot.

It seems entirely fair that since the policy was so poorly disseminated, the issue of whether it was scrupulously followed should be regarded as a technicality. I have said elsewhere that the more important and interesting question is whether the threshold for doing a search (which is permissible under some circumstances under all these policies, and will surely be allowed sometimes under any policy adopted in in the future) was set too low. I am interpreting the bottom line of the report and the official comments on it to mean that those who undertook the searches thought in good faith that the threshold had been exceeded, but that in light of this experience the threshold may need some recalibration. The great challenge to the Barron committee, which is writing a new policy, will be to find words and protocols to set that threshold low enough to give comfort to the lawyers and high enough to restore community confidence.

At the same time, Footnote 3 did not sound quite right to me, and since I was pretty sure I got the ball rolling that led to that faculty email privacy policy, I have tried to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to its appearance on Harvard's web site.

Ironically, what got me started back in early 2005 was exactly the discomfort of which the President spoke yesterday. This email explains the genesis of the mysterious disappeared faculty policy. I sent it on March 13, 2005 to the director of FAS computer services, with a copy to Richard Hackman, chair of the FAS I/T committee:
I raised this question with Richard for the I/T committee a few days ago. As I have learned a little more, thanks to conversations with [Harvard University Chief Information Officer] Dan Moriarty and with Hal Abelson of MIT, I'm including Richard in this followup for him, first contact for you. 
Following the resignation of the Boeing president because of emails showing he was having an affair with an employee, a student asked me, "Who can read my email?" I'd generalize that to who can read faculty, staff, or student email. It's the policy question in which we are interested, not the reassurances about how well your staff are trained (though god knows that is probably the most important thing as a practical matter!). 
Here is what I can figure out. If there are pieces I am missing I'd appreciate knowing that.
I wrote the privacy policy for students, which was, I think, voted by FAS before it was put in the Student Handbook. HASCS has put that language in its own policies in a place that suggests they apply to all FAS systems and users. I wonder if that broadening was done by you or by you and some FAS dean or committee. Anyway it's a good thing.
At the university level there is a personnel manual item that says you have no privacy at all - Harvard can read your email for any "business" purpose. I am uncertain whether this personnel manual applies to faculty or just staff. In any case it is pretty amazing to read - I am sure it conforms to the law but it is certainly very far from community expectations today. (And even more amazing that you have to go through PIN authentication even to read that you have no privacy!) And even if it does not apply to faculty but does apply to staff, would university policy trump FAS policy for a staff member if there were a request from the Center? 
MIT has a policy which looks broader, simpler and more reassuring, though I am not sure it really is since the ball gets kicked to a VP to decide. I have an inquiry into that VP to find out what he thinks that means. 
I am attaching a collection of snippets of these various policies. If I am missing any, do let me know. I really wonder if it makes any sense to set these policies separately in 10 Faculties given the way computers are networked, with a potential of 30 different policies (for faculty, staff, and students) or more (if the Center has its own view, which it may well regard as trumping any policies adopted within a Faculty). 
By the way, my question has nothing to do with the (to me) obvious fact that the university will comply with any subpoena or court order. The question is just what the university can do for its own purposes by way of reading email of users of its systems. I should also say that some of these policies made more sense once than they now do. The staff policy in the personnel manual doubtless reflected (a) email storage as a scarce resource and (b) OGC's insistence on giving no more assurance of privacy than the law would require, which was not very much on business machines.
This email, which sounds hauntingly familiar in places (really? why not have 10 policies for 10 Faculties?), started a thread of discussion in the FAS I/T committee and elsewhere. I can't really say what happened next, but the minutes of the June 2, 2006 meeting of the FAS I/T committee include this item:
5. E-mail privacy policy Dan Moriarty reported that, after extended consultations andnegotiations, a new policy regarding the privacy of faculty e-mailhas been written and approved.  This policy, which is attached(email_privacy.txt), for the first time affirms that e-mailmessages and electronic documents on Harvard computers areconsidered confidential and will be accessed only in specific andextraordinary circumstances.  Note, however, that the new policyapplies only to faculty, not to staff or students, for whomexisting policies remain in place.  Members expressed gratitude toDan and his colleagues for their work in providing greaterprotection of electronic materials developed and stored by faculty.
The minutes don't say who the consultations and negotiations had been with, but intervening exchanges indicate that the Office of General Counsel was, reluctantly perhaps, involved in the discussion. The attachment included the text of the Faculty policy referred to in Footnote 3:
New Policy Regarding the Privacy of Faculty Electronic Materials
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences provides the members of itsfaculty with computers, access to a computer network and computingservices for business purposes, and it is expected that theseresources will be used in an appropriate and professional manner.FAS considers faculty email messages and other electronicdocuments stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential,and will not access them, except in the following circumstances. 
First, IT staff may need access to faculty electronic records inorder to ensure proper functioning of our computer infrastructure.In performing these seervices, IT staff are required to handleprivate information in a professional and appropriate manner, inaccordance with the Harvard Personnel Manual for Administrativeand Professional Staff.  The failure to do so constitutes groundsfor disciplinary action.
Second, in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedingsand internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may beaccessed and copied by the administration.  Such review requiresthe approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the GeneralCounsel. The faculty member is entitled to prior written noticethat his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstancesmake prior notification impossible, in which case the facultymember will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity. 
The policy has disappeared (been disappeared, I am tempted to say) from where it used to appear on the Harvard web site:

That is as far as I can go toward resolving the confusion as to whether the policy actually existed or not. I had good reason to think that it did, and so did anyone on the FAS I/T committee, but if there was no followthrough, or the minutes are somehow inaccurate, OGC may well have had good reason for thinking it did not. I have no way of knowing, and never asked, who exactly approved the policy, as reported in the minutes. Professor Hackman stepped down from the chairmanship of the committee after that meeting, and he passed away in January 2013.  Dan Moriarty left the University several years ago. 

I don't think it really matters, as the important issue at this point is what policy the Barron committee will recommend, and in particular how to define the circumstances in which searches will be permitted in the future. But perhaps this little historical record documents that those who have been citing this policy have been doing so, as the saying goes, in good faith.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Harvard Campaign and the English Language

Harvard is finally launching a major capital campaign. Leadership instability caused years of delay, the House renewal project could not be put off any longer, and Harvard's endowment took a huge hit (see, from Bloomberg, this good reminder of why Larry Summers might not be the best person to prognosticate interest rates for all of us as chair of the Fed). In the meantime the student body has, by design, become less able to pay Harvard's list prices, financial aid has become more generous, science has gotten more expensive, and the Engineering School, intellectually constrained because it is physically landlocked, will move to a new site across the river in Allston. So it is time for Harvard to launch its campaign. It is no secret that the "quiet phase" has been going on for some time now. Rumor has it that the early returns are promising.

I am all for it. After a bumpy start, a thrilling vision for Allston is emerging; I hope it will come together for the campaign kickoff. A generation of my students, many of whom came to Harvard on scholarships, have prospered since the last campaign. Even those whose parents were able to pay Harvard's "sticker price" know that they have gotten back far more than they invested, through the "beauty, individuality, and wealth of associations" they experienced (to quote Santayana) and the opportunities they had to depart from whatever they thought they were going to college to achieve. The time has come for them, and other Harvard alumni, to pay their debt to the future, their moral obligation to help Harvard make possible for future generations what was possible for them.

In the way politicians announce that they are going to announce their candidacy for some office, President Faust officially announced in May that the campaign would be announced in September. Given that the campaign was a long time coming, the announcement, a sort of manifesto, is disappointing, as several alumni have observed to me privately. It doesn't sing. In fact it doesn't even hum. It doesn't elevate the spirit, or inspire optimism or pride. In fact, five minutes after reading it, I couldn't remember what it said.

I fear that criticizing language is rather like criticizing hairstyles or clothing. We are supposed to have enough respect for individual differences and cultural diversity not to get elitist over the way things are said, as long as the prose is, more or less, grammatically correct. I find this when I correct students' writing—they take offense, as though I was suggesting that their hair was the wrong color.

So no offense is meant here. It's obvious that the prizewinning author of This Republic of Suffering did not actually write the document over which her name appears, and I don't know who did. I just keep thinking this is Harvard. This might do for Eastern Missouri State, or even Yale! But Harvard should be able to say something more profound about our future, and say it better. For the success of the Campaign, which is vital to our future, I hope September's rhetoric will be better.

Take the second sentence of the manifesto: "The process of preparing for a campaign is one that focuses us on defining our future." Wouldn't any freshman writing teacher have marked that up, perhaps thus: "The process of pPreparing for a campaign is one that focuses us on defining our future." (If not simply "defines our future.") Well, perhaps the sentence really is intentional, because apparently the very first thing Harvard wants us all to know about the Campaign is the dreary process by which it was planned. The next several sentences list the many people and groups who were consulted, perhaps as a way of warning off those who think nobody asked them. We do love process at Harvard, and talking about it. Process is clean, unlikely to excite animosity, a ready tactic for the defense in case of litigation, and a counterargument to claims of bad results. Once when a terrible appointment was made, I was told that the process was impeccable. It involved lots of interviews, letters, and other documents; it just did did not involve an off-the-record telephone call to the candidate's supervisor. But it was a good process, I was told, completely by the book, so I should hold my tongue about the incompetence of the person who got the job.

After the windup, we get the pitch, or rather the seven pitches. But they aren't really pitches; they are rubrics, abstract categories like "Nurturing talent and leadership requires investment." Any fool can see where that one is going, but apparently it is too soon to say anything specific like "scholarships" or "professorships." That will come in September.

It is much less clear what other rubrics will mean in practice. "Harvard is dedicated to the generation of new knowledge, which will increasingly be discovered at the intersection of disciplines." Let's leave aside the question of whether it was necessary to stipulate that Harvard is less interested in generating old knowledge. What does this really mean for the future of departments and disciplines? Will we be looking for central funding to establish more and more interfaculty programs and institutes, or is some more radical restructuring contemplated? It is a serious question, and very timely, because Nicholas Christakis has a provocative piece in the July 21 New York Times, "Let's Shake Up the Social Sciences." I am no fan of that "shaking up" metaphor, which suggests that the current condition is so poor that even a random re-arrangement would be an improvement. But I am a big fan of Christakis, and I regretted his decision to leave Harvard for Yale—perhaps because he thought it would be easier there to pursue exactly the sort of interdisciplinary research the campaign manifesto suggests Harvard should be doing.

The level of abstraction gives the document a cotton-candy quality, pleasant enough but saccharine, nonnutritive, not very filling. One is left wondering, after all that consultation and planning, whether there is any vision of what Harvard will become, any tune that we will not be able to get out of our heads once we heard it sung in September. The flabby language doesn't help, and in fact goes hand in hand with the poverty of thought. As George Orwell wrote in his masterful essay "Politics and the English Language" (pdf),
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. 
The manifesto violates pretty much every principle Orwell lists. I have already suggested a couple of transgressions against "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out." Another is his warning against dying metaphors. Harvard's power needs to be harnessed in the first paragraph, but our curiosity needs to be unbridled in rubric 5. As Orwell says, "By using stale metaphors, … you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself." And it is an offense to the warning against pretentious diction to anticipate the end of school by reminding us that "the academic year approaches its Commencement finale."

Orwell suggests these simple rules.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 
  1. What am I trying to say? 
  2. What words will express it? 
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? 
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  1. Could I put it more shortly? 
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? 
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.  
Consider those principles while reading just the main verbs of the sentences of this document: are anticipating, is, have been engaged, have worked, have shared, has worked, are helping, will hear, offers, will shape, is dedicated, will advance, will seek, must attract, must sustain, will pioneer, aspire, will enhance, will ensure, will affirm, must transcend, must offer, must embrace, will create, must provide, must revitalize, will propel, look. You could write a few pages about almost anything using the same series of verbs.

Or see how many tetrasyllabic words are used in the seven rubrics: dedicated, generation, increasingly, intersection, university, discovery, humanities, integrated, distributed, intellectual, society, consequential, community, understanding, transformative, innovation, increasingly, integration, curriculum, cosmopolitan, opportunities, significant, international, explorations, civilizations, creativity, immediate, instrumental, curiosity, discovery, innovation, creativity, discovery, engineering, experience-based, intellectual, aspirations, environment, intellectual, programmatic, revitalize, accommodate, collaborations. Of the 450 words in the rubrics, 45 of them—10%—are words of four syllables or more, almost all from Latin or Greek roots. As Orwell says,
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.  
There once was another way, though I wonder whether it is possible any more. In 1869, when Eliot became Harvard president, the first words out of his mouth were both grand and simple.
The endless controversies whether language, philosophy, mathematics, or science supplies the best mental training, whether general education should be chiefly literary or chiefly scientific, have no practical lesson for us today. This University recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics. We would have them all, and at their best.
No fair comparing any institution to Eliot's Harvard, perhaps. His transformation of the university was unlike anything that had happened in America or is likely ever to happen again. But this was not Herculean Eliot speaking, in the fullness of his miracle-working, or at the end of his forty-year career as his portrait was being put on a US postage stamp. This was Eliot the 35-year-old chemist arriving from MIT under deep suspicion, having nudged out a genial pastor for the presidency after multiple ballots. He had no place to stand, but announced how he would move the earth.

I added the italics because that last sentence of Eliot's first paragraph as Harvard president is so remarkable. Will the president of a research university ever again utter a sentence of nine monosyllables?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summers to the Fed?

Politico reports that former Harvard president Larry Summers may be Obama's choice to head the Fed. Richard Bradley has an astute close reading of the Politico reporting, pointing out the fingerprints of Summers' own hands in the way people who know him muse this or that about his interest in the job.

Summers is said by those who know him to be in no way campaigning for the job, despite a recent flurry of stories about his potential nomination. His office said he was golfing with no access to a cellphone when POLITICO tried to reach him on Tuesday. People close to Summers say he has settled into his current teaching role at Harvard and is not especially eager to move back to Washington full time. …

"Settled into his teaching job" except, of course, for the time he spends giving speeches and advice to everyone from hedge funds to the Minerva Project. The New York Times reported that he had made more than $5 million in a single year from D.E. Shaw: "A Rich Education for Summers (after Harvard)". Could he be lured away, if the president begged? Informed but anonymous sources say yes:
But others say that if Obama asks, Summers would certainly agree to serve
We have seen Summers' skillful manipulation of journalists before. On March 4, 2006, New York Times columnist John Tierney published a column entitled "The Faculty Club" about the Summers presidential debacle. He quoted a "contrarian academic" as making an interesting observation about the effect of tenure on faculty appointments. I had never heard this particular point made -- except once, a few days before, when I heard Summers himself make it in his remarks to Harvard parents. It certainly looked like Summers had gotten Tierney to carry his water for him by quoting Summers himself anonymously. I wrote to the Public Editor:

I write in regard to John Tierney's column of last Saturday …. I was at the event last Friday at which President Summers gave the interesting answer to a question about tenure,
that without it we professors wouldn't hire people better than we are. I had not heard that argument before, at least not put that way. I was stunned to read almost exactly the same language the next morning out of the mouth an anonymous academic quoted in Tierney's column, immediately preceding a paragraph on the woes of President Summers. 
… I wonder about the journalistic ethics of quoting, as an anonymous source, the individual who is in fact the subject of the opinion piece. It seems to me that in this situation the reader has a right to know the conflict of interest in the opinion being quoted.
The editor responded that he did not get into the journalistic practices of opinion writers.

So it seems Summers still has his media connections working for him. If I had to guess, I would say he is not only campaigning for the Fed job, but doing so 24x7.

There is one related point about the Politico reporting with which I would find fault, though it is a common failing among journalists.

You know the classical use of epithets such as "wily Odysseus" and "pious Aeneas," where a figure is repeatedly characterized by the same memorable trait? Well, with Summers it is that he was brought down from the Harvard presidency because of his women-in-science remarks at NBER. Here is Politico's nod to that Achilles heel:

Summers, who drew criticism in 2005 for remarks as Harvard president on women’s aptitude for science, would certainly face contentious confirmation hearings.
Now it is certainly true that Summers drew criticism for those remarks, but neither this story nor any other recent Summers story I have read mentions something of greater significance to the Harvard faculty and more relevant to his fitness to lead the Fed: His passivity and prevarication about the corruption of his protegé, Harvard economist Andrei Shleifer, who conspired to defraud the government of millions of dollars through sleazy exploitation of his role in a government-funded Harvard program to help bootstrap capitalism in Russia. As David Warsh summarized,

After its mission to advise the Russian government on behalf of the US State department collapsed in 1997 amid a welter of conflict of interest charges, Harvard closed its Institute for International Development. After losing a long court battle, and partly as a consequence of it, the university relieved Lawrence Summers of his presidency (but made him a university professor) and revoked economics professor Andrei Shleifer’s endowed chair.
(Warsh's Economic Principals site has many more extensive pieces about the Shleifer affair and its significance.)

The scandal, which was extensively documented by David McClintick in his Institutional Investor piece "How Harvard Lost Russia," played a major role in turning the Harvard faculty (including some who thought the tempest over the women-in-science remarks was overblown) against Summers. The Crimson accurately reported the dramatic moment in the February, 2006 faculty meeting when Summers lied to the faculty about his involvement with Shleifer and his self-dealing in Harvard's name:
The article, in the January issue of Institutional Investor magazine, suggests that Shleifer’s relationship with Summers shielded the professor from the consequences of the scandal while at Harvard. 
At Tuesday’s meeting, many professors let out murmurs of disbelief when Summers said he was not sufficiently familiar with the facts of the case to comment on it. 
“I have taken no role in Harvard’s activities in the courts, nor...familiarized myself with the facts of the situation,” Summers told Abernathy. 
“Do you have no opinion of this situation?” Abernathy queried in response, having already stepped away from the microphone. 
“I am not knowledgeable of the facts and circumstances to be able to express an opinion as a consequence of my recusal,” Summers said, eliciting more murmurs from the audience. 
The murmuring in the room was indeed audible. The consensus of the chatter after the meeting was that the Summers presidency was cooked. It was one thing to make a mistake, or to be loyal to a friend; it was another thing to lie about one's awareness of a financial scandal that cost the University of which Summers was president tens of millions of dollars in penalties.

Why do journalists always use the women-in-science incident but not the much more serious Shleifer incident when giving the thumbnail of Summers' problems as president? Of course the Shleifer affair is hard to explain quickly, and unlike the women-in-science remarks for which Summers eventually issued an apology, Summers has never said anything about the Shleifer affair (except in depositions), so a cautious journalist might feel there was another side to the story that should, in fairness, be allowed for. And once one or two journalists tag Summers with the women-in-science epithet, the easy thing for the next lazy journalist is just to repeat the same description.

But I suspect that there is another reason journalists (with very few exceptions) never bring up the Shleifer affair. It's because Summers, and his nameless but well connected friends, like the women-in-science explanation for his Harvard problems. It makes him more acceptable to certain segments of the right, for whom slaughter at the hands of feminist harpies would be a heroic form of death. And most of all, it utterly distracts attention from the bigger and more significant scandal, the pussy-footing with financial corruption and the inability to tell the truth about it.

Summers has been so successful in getting the press to do his bidding, that I suspect the women-in-science trope is one of his own promotion.

After Summers stepped down from the Harvard presidency, quite a few people thought that he might wind up in Washington some day, but probably not in a role that would require Congressional confirmation, because that McClintick article would get dredged up again. But perhaps bygones will prove to be bygones, and almost everyone will have forgotten. After all, Shleifer's wife Nancy Zimmerman, a hedge fund manager also involved in the Russian affair, was reported by the New York Times to have been part of Obama's inner circle of economic advisors. 

Suddenly, Republican obstructionism doesn't sound like such a terrible thing to me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Is it surveillance if only computers are watching?

Robert J. Litt, the NSA General Counsel, participated in a panel discussion last week giving some official details on the NSA surveillance programs. The video is here. Litt acknowledges certain things and makes other categorical denials, consistent with the denials President Obama has made that the government is not listening in on all our telephone calls. Because Litt kept referring to notes, it seems fair to assume he was choosing his words carefully, though his language and presentation style was informal and not robotic.

Litt first addresses the "telephone metadata" collection, which he says is authorized under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Litt points out that the authorizing language is there for everyone to see, and here it is. It is entitled "Access to certain business records for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations"and it describes how certain government officials
may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.
Telephone call metadata, numbers calling and called and time of call, are surely business records of the phone companies (how else could they produce monthly bills?) and there is a long history of court affirmation that no wiretap order is needed for law enforcement to acquire such information. What this law provides that is unusual is a prohibition on telling the subjects of search that their records have been turned over to the government.

At about 18:00, Litt says,
Despite what you may have heard about this program, we don not collect the content of any communication under this program. We do not collect the identity of any participant to any communication under this program. And while there seems to have been some confusion about this …, I want to make perfectly clear. We do not collect cell phone location information under this program, either GPS or cell site tower information. Not sure why it has been so hard to get people to understand that because it has been said repeatedly.
I speculated a couple of weeks ago that the content of all telephone calls is being recorded, and cited a couple of odd statements that supported my speculation. Litt flatly denies that telephone calls are routinely being recorded. Or does he? He denies, not once, not twice, but three times in three sentences, that various things, including the capture of the content of telephone calls, are being done under this program. Of course that might just be lawyerly conservatism. He can speak only to what he knows about, or only to what he is authorized to speak about, and on this particular occasion that is the two surveillance programs Snowden disclosed. So we really can't conclude anything about the recording of voice conversations, except that if it is being done, it is not being done under this particular program under the authority of Section 215.

Moreover, Litt makes clear that (as the statute demands) the data is turned over to the authorities only upon execution of a specific request. "Each determination of a reasonable suspicion under this program," Litt says around 21:00, "must be documented and approved. And only a small portion of the data that is collected is ever actually reviewed, because the vast majority of that data is never going to be responsive to one of these terrorism related queries. In 2012 fewer than 300 identifiers were approved for searching this data."

So the government is not entitled to browse willy-nilly across this vast database, and does not do so. And, as Litt states elsewhere in this presentation, it does not do massive data analysis or pattern recognition on the database as a whole. It waits for a specific query to be authorized by the FISA court and then gets just the slice of the metadata-base associated with that identifier.

So here is my question. The Fourth Amendment states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It seems that the government's position is that the telephone metadata is neither searched nor seized when it is recorded, only when it is produced in response to a query. Under what authority is the data collected in the first place? Litt explains,
In 2012 fewer than 300 identifiers were approved for searching this data. Nevertheless we collect all the data because if you want to find a needle in the haystack, you need to have the haystack, especially in the case of a terrorism related emergency which is … and remember this data is used only for terrorism related emergencies.
Emphasis mine. The italicized phrase is crucial, because it would justify recording anything, as long as the government doesn't peek at it until it has a specific court order. The mere collection of data raises no constitutional issue, because it is not a search or seizure. It's just the thing that you obviously need to have done to have any prayer of finding what you are looking for, once you are authorized to look for it.

We have recently learned that every piece of postal mail is photographed before it is delivered. Access is granted to law enforcement rather routinely, under much looser conditions than stipulated in the PATRIOT Act section authorizing access to business records. For example, the images of envelopes have been used to harass a political opponent of an Arizona official.

In relation to the PRISM program, the other of the two surveillance program Snowden disclosed, two law professors writing for the New York Times note that there are strict limits on surveillance of US citizens.

How could vacuuming up Americans’ communications conform with this legal limitation? Well, as James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told Andrea Mitchell of NBC, the N.S.A. uses the word “acquire” only when it pulls information out of its gigantic database of communications and not when it first intercepts and stores the information.If there’s a law against torturing the English language, James Clapper is in real trouble.

Once the database exists, it is going to be very hard to resist the temptation to use it. Depending on circumstance, terrorism may not be the worst crime that stored communications could help solve. Derek  Khanna asks in the Atlantic, If PRISM is good policy, why stop with terrorism? Child pornography for example --- how readily might countless horrible crimes against innocent children be solved if law enforcement could only access that database?

I am very troubled by the idea that gathering information requires no special authorization, as long as the gathering is done by some blind, automated process, and nobody peeks until a court authorizes it. The distinctions between "reading" and "searching" are human metaphors; the details of what the computers do are not precisely anthropomorphic. What sort of activity is automated indexing, for example?

Is it really true, either legally or morally, that the potential need someday to find a needle is all the justification that is needed to collect all our hay as it goes blowing by? Will we really be able to resist the temptation to use the data for other purposes? Surely we would want law enforcement to probe the phone records of a latter-day Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was a purely domestic terrorist. And once we begin, where will we stop? Why shouldn't law enforcement at every level be able to crack crimes by pulling data from these databases?

We are all guilty of something. Read Harvey Silverglate's Three Felonies a DayAnyone who thinks they have nothing to hide is a fool -- just ask the person whose mail was monitored by that bullying Arizona sheriff, or one of the blacks arrested for marijuana usage at a much higher rate than whites.

The only way to stop is not to begin. Collecting data willy-nilly is a constitutionally unlawful seizure. I hope the developing litigation puts and end to it.