Monday, November 25, 2013

Miscellaneous arguable comparisons, random precedents, and nostalgia

It would be hard to imagine a better weekend for Harvard against Yale. Harvard's football team beat Yale, for the seventh year in a row. Thanks to an upset win by Dartmouth over Princeton in snowy Hanover, Harvard wound up sharing the Ivy title with Princeton.

(Please, don't even think of complaining that Harvard cheats. After losing five years in a row, Yale hired 4 of Harvard's football coaches and has kept right on losing.)

Dick Friedman '73 has a nice piece about the Harvard-Yale game of 100 years ago, when Charlie Brickley drop-kicked five field goals to beat Yale, 15-5.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry is at once legendary and inexplicable. The two places could hardly be more alike. I imagine that pretty much every Yale student could equally well have wound up at Harvard and vice versa, but for some throw of the dice in the respective admissions offices. Walking in the crowd to the Yale Bowl, I was surrounded by cohorts of students who were, in aggregate, indistinguishable from each other except for the color of their clothing. They were all mixed together – pretty much every Harvard student has Yale friends from high school and every Yale student used to go to science fairs with people who wound up at Harvard.

As colleges, they are two peas from the same pod, their similarities far more notable than their differences. Yale has Colleges and Harvard has Houses. I'll happily entertain the notion that Yale might be a better run place than Harvard and that the educational experience might be better. I have no idea how you could get an impartial assessment of that, but I'm well aware that Yale is superb and Harvard could be a lot better than it is.

And yet Harvard seems to keep coming out on top. Six of the thirty-two Rhodes Scholars are Harvard students this year; three are Yalies. The Harvard team has won the William Lowell Putnam mathematical competition three of the past five years; the last time Yale placed in the top 5 was in 1991. Harvard was the North American champion in the international programming competition in 2012. There are 42 Harvard alumni in Congress; 19 Yale alumni. Maybe the legislature would work better if the numbers were reversed, but for some reason Harvard grads get voted in at twice the rate of Yale grads. Right or wrong, it's one of the reasons why I am so insistent that we take moral education seriously. What we teach and model for students makes a difference to what will become of the world.

This is not (just) a game. We are friendly rivals, but we are certainly competitors. In fact, there are lots of things on which we cannot cooperate, on pain of antitrust action. I remember how stunned I was back in 2001, when Neil Rudenstine stepped down as president, to read this quotation from him in the Boston Globe:
Some students have pressed him to use the larger endowment to eliminate student loans, a move Princeton announced to fanfare in January. But Rudenstine was dissuaded by a phone call from a group of nervous college leaders.

"Please," pleaded one Ivy League president with a billion-dollar endowment, "don't follow Princeton. You'll kill us." [Patrick Healy, March 2, 2001]
Er, that is not the way the free-market system is supposed to work.

We fight each other and, in theory at least, the competition is good for everyone. And Harvard keeps winning. My sense is that over the past thirty years or so, Harvard has become more iconic. It used to be that Yale jokes were funny; now they are either mean, or confusing (sorry, I don't get it – why isn't the question "How many Harvard students …?").

A Harvard student made a hilarious (and yes, in places mean) spoof of a Yale campus tour. This is the same fellow who got himself elected president of the Undergraduate Council as a joke – at least in part by promising students better toilet paper. Something I did fifteen years ago, actually!

The Yale Daily News has a curious article contrasting Princeton, Yale, and Harvard: As Yale Talks Grade Deflation, Princeton Pulls Back. The thesis is that Princeton's admission yield has decreased as Princeton's effort to constrain grade inflation has taken hold. Students admitted to Princeton and Yale are now more likely to choose Yale because they are already imagining Princeton and Yale transcripts being compared by employers and graduate schools who do not realize that Princeton controls the number of high grades it gives.
Most Yale undergraduates and third-party college admissions experts interviewed said that while grade deflation was not a decisive factor in causing students to choose Yale over Princeton, grade deflation does reinforce the perception that Princeton has a more competitive and less collaborative academic culture than Yale.
Elsewhere the article suggests that Harvard's grades are as inflated as Yale's but Harvard has a competitive environment like Princeton's rather than a collaborative environment like Yale's.

The evidence presented is rather thin and the authorities quoted are not giants of the field, so I am not sure any of that is true – except the fact that Princeton has done more to fight grade inflation than Harvard has lately. Harvard has stopped distributing information to the faculty about grading practices – not that it was ever clear that it was more deflationary than inflationary to let faculty know what their peers were doing.

To the extent we have been talking about anything like this at Harvard, the conversation has been about academic integrity – and that started before the Gov 1310 mess. It's rather too bad, because I am not alone in wanting to develop a more collaborative pedagogical style, and feeling a bit adrift about how to assess students' work when much of it is done jointly. The academic integrity discussion seems rather orthogonal to the pedagogical issues – not necessarily a bad conversation to have, but one that is sucking up way too much oxygen by comparison with improving how we teach.

One last comment about current events. There is quite a bit of activity and opinion-writing on the issue of "gender-netural housing," a rather abstract way of saying "letting men and women be roommates." I am guessing this will happen, but I am not at all sure it is a good idea. I cannot imagine that it will reduce the number of allegations of peer sexual assault, which of course is another subject of community concern. The notion that anything could possibly go wrong if you have 18 to 22 year old men and women living together, with plenty of alcohol around – well, pardon my patronizing attitude.

On the other hand, as with the toilet paper controversy, I read about the gender-neutral housing agitation with some nostalgia. Back in 1990, a wonderful young woman named Julia Shaffner lobbied for exactly the same thing, arguing that Harvard's housing policies were discriminatory, a civil rights violation in fact, because they were based on an assumption that students were heterosexual.

This was before I was dean, so our argument was healthy but in the abstract. And it was not the only argument I got into with Julia. CS 121 alums will recall that while I refuse to rename the "Traveling Salesman Problem" in gender-neutral terms, in deference to the many occurrences of that name in the literature, I agreed many years ago always to explain annually that it is a special case of the more general Traveling Salesperson Problem. Julia was the person with whom I struck that deal, while she was my TF in the course.

I wonder what would have become of her, had she not died of cancer at a young age. She was brilliant, tough, and lovely all at once. Quincy House awards a science prize in her honor annually.

For sure, she would be reading the Crimson and saying, "What? They still haven't gotten that housing issue right?"

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Added 11/26: A Yale alum points out that at least for comparing the number of congresspeople, I should have corrected for Yale's smaller size -- not just the college, which is about 20% smaller than Harvard, but the business and law schools too. True, and I actually meant to mention that. My correspondent also notes that the student bodies are not actually alike, because Yale College has larger and more robust performing arts programs than Harvard. How much does that make the place feel different?

In related news, above the fold on the front page of today's Boston Globe is a very nice article about computer science at Harvard, and specifically CS 50.


  1. typo in "in that tit was more deflationary" (No need to post comment)

    1. Also a typo in "Julia was the person with whom I struct that deal",
      "struck" not "struct". Interesting post.

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