Monday, October 7, 2013

Charlie Ducey

Charles P. Ducey passed away on Saturday at the age of 65. Charlie had been the head of the Bureau of Study Counsel while I was dean of the college. That's Harvard's ambiguously named counseling service, which also provides academic tutoring and study skills courses. Its creation in the 1940s was an act of genius, since students go the Bureau thinking they need help with study skills and may discover that their difficulties in studying are rooted in their emotional development rather than their academic training. Harvard would never create such an organization today, with its deep history of concern about human development and its peculiar, World War II vintage "Bureau" name. But it worked, and still works--a relic of a more holistic Harvard.

Charlie was trained in the Classics and psychoanalysis. Without pretense and with great care, he could put any situation involving a student in its proper mythic and analytic contexts. His greatest value to me and others in the College administration was not for the good he did students--and there are countless students he helped--but in helping us understand what might lie behind some destructive or aberrant behavior, and therefore tailor the most constructive, educational response, not based on any simple this-act-gets-that-penalty rulebook He could be gentle and he could be tough; he could explain the context of acts but he acknowledged evil when he saw it.

At Charlie's inspiration, there was a Committee on Student Research Participation, independent of the usual IRBs that approve research on human subjects; its sole purpose was to protect members of the Harvard community against the scads of researchers (including Harvard students) who would like to say something "scientific" about Harvard students. It was typical of Charlie to be protective of students and the institution and cautious about the motives of those who wanted to study them. I dug out a typical set of directives Charlie (on behalf of the CSRP) sent back to one researcher:

  • Remove from the survey Questions #2 (race/ethnicity) and #10 (family income). Harvard's policy disallows the first as potentially tendentious (no reason to believe this simplistic classification tells you anything useful about your subjects) and not apparently relevant information, while the second could be regarded as intrusive into a student's privacy. The remainder of the survey seems unobjectionable.
  • Despite the extensive material you sent us, you do not make clear your study's hypotheses or objectives.
  • Your methodology seems problematic, in that you aim to characterize a subculture (athletes) without also surveying the majority culture for normalization. You cannot therefore distinguish sample-specific findings from population trends.
  • We discourage your performing simplistic comparisons of Michigan and Harvard, if you were so inclined. The environments for student athletes, and the significance and organization of athletics at the two colleges, are so disparate as to discourage simple conclusions, certainly from as limited an instrument as a self-report survey.

All of that was hard work, work that required experience, broad knowledge, precedents and pitfalls. For all that I was grateful. Eventually one too many professors got annoyed about the extra layer of approvals they had to get to study Harvard students (as opposed, say, to BU or MIT students); some higher authority got a call, and the CSRP was dissolved.

After leaving Harvard during an inevitable reconsideration of the Bureau's relation to the increasingly medicalized mental health services, Charlie had a private practice for a few years and then suffered a dreadful stroke, which left his speech very impaired and his mobility limited. His kind and agile mind was intact, but the physical trap in which it was imprisoned made productive work all but impossible. Eventually other ailments compounded his debility and he could not survive. Here is the Globe death notice.

I miss him; I don't know anybody like him.


  1. Harry, thank you for offering your insightful and caring perspective on my father's mind and personality. I can't sufficiently express how helpful it is during this time. It brings a smile to my face to be reminded of what he was like at that time in his life, before the disastrous brain hemorrhages he suffered in 2007. My dad understood how sacred life is, and fought for it with every fiber of his being after the stroke from the hemorrhages and even more so after the cancer diagnosis just months ago. I know that you meant a lot to him and it is comforting to be reminded that he lives on in your memories and feelings, and in those of others' lives he touched over the years.

    On a light aside I am an IRB Manager and while I would like to believe it is an impossibility that anyone could believe IRB review is insufficient protection (please infer mild sarcasm as you see fit), I guess what once could have been a stimulating debate with my dad will have to be tabled for another lifetime.

    1. Michael, my warmest good wishes and deep condolences to you and your family. Thanks so much for checking in here!

  2. Mr. Lewis, thank you for such a kind and informative post about Mr. Ducey. In addition to his many accomplishments, he left an incredible legacy in his children, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for many years.

  3. "Remove from the survey Questions #2 (race/ethnicity) and #10 (family income). Harvard's policy disallows the first as potentially tendentious (no reason to believe this simplistic classification tells you anything useful about your subjects) and not apparently relevant information, while the second could be regarded as intrusive into a student's privacy"

    If race is a simplistic classification that does not tell you anything useful, will Harvard stop giving racial preferences in admissions? Will it stop compiling data about the "diversity" of students and faculty?

    I don't see the problem with collecting information about race and income from subjects. Sometimes you may find demographic patterns you did not expect.

    1. You can argue with Charlie about all this when you meet him on the other side. Are you ignorant of the fact that Harvard, like all universities receiving federal financial aid monies, is required to request, collect, and report race/ethnicity data?