Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Civic Education -- a Discussion at Harvard

How can schools and colleges help create a better citizenry? In 2011, this is a very touchy issue. Questions of civic responsibility are easily politicized. Listening to politicians of different parties interpret the Constitution, you might wonder whether they are reading the same text; no wonder educational institutions, so sensitive to inclusivity and avoiding politics, seem to prefer service programs to civic disputations. Voting rates are abysmally low, and educated people will tell you proudly of the weak excuses they have used to avoid jury duty. The great universities proclaim their new global identities so loudly that their sense of responsibility to the U.S. and its citizens can be hard to observe.

I started writing about these matters in Excellence Without a Soul, in my reflections on the difference between the post-World War II General Education curriculum at Harvard and its 21st century successor. This fall, I have related essays out in two books, Teaching America and What Is College For? (both the latter book and my essay in it are done jointly with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann). 

Thanks to the wonderful support of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, I have been able to pull together a wonderful group of panelists to discuss "The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World" at the Harvard Law School on December 5, at 6:00 PM. Please click the link to look at the lineup--Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Peter Levine, Elizabeth Lynn, Juan Carlos De Martin, myself, and Charles Nesson acting as provocateur (rather than "moderator"!). There is also an RSVP form on that page. Hope to see you there! I expect it will be an exciting discussion.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This Week's Government Attacks on Freedom of Speech and of Thought

I fear that for a variety of reasons, American governments, and especially the federal government, are increasingly willing to infringe Constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and of speech. Sometimes the assault is head on, on stages that are brightly lit by politically spotlights. Sometimes the assaults are apparently minor skirmishes, at hard-to-notice spots in remote regions of the bureaucracy.

Here are three I have noticed this week.

The first is the Stolen Valor Law, about which George Will has a smart column. This is the law--passed unanimously in the Senate and on a voice vote in the House--that criminalizes lying about one's military service. Of course nobody could think it was fine for someone to pretend to be a veteran. The question is whether making a false statement about military service is the kind of lying for which the proper remedy is a conviction under federal law, fines, and imprisonment. Why not?

Well, here is why not. Because when a federal law criminalizes lying, it puts the government in the business of determining what the truth is, and deciding whom to go after for shading it. Sometimes that is what we want--we do want the government to protect us against fraud, for example, where real money is at stake. Same for defamation, where truthfulness is, traditionally at least, an absolute defense. But in general, the courts have held that lying is protected by the First Amendment.

And we should not be arming federal prosecutors with weapons they can use for selective harassment. In a Veterans Day service I attended, all veterans were asked to stand at one point. From the context it was clear that the reference was to military veterans, so I remained seated, even though I think I am some kind of veteran, having served as a Junior Assistant Health Services Officer (equivalent to LtJg) in the commissioned corps of the US Public Health Service, on active duty 7/1/68-6/30/70 (sir!). If I had stood, would I have been committing a felony?

Every one of our elected representatives who voted for the Stolen Valor Law (note the misleading use of a material-goods metaphor to describe a speech act) wants us to know it. My other two examples are a lot more subtle.

The second is a proposal--now withdrawn, happily--to amend the rules that implement the Freedom of Information Act. The change, had it gone forward, would have stated that
When a component applies an exclusion to exclude records from the requirements of the FOIA …, the component utilizing the exclusion will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.
In other words, it would have allowed the government to a respond to a request to disclose a document it had a legal right (through specific provisions of the law) to withhold by stating, falsely, that the document does not even exist. Welcome to 1984, 2011 style, as proposed by the government that promised to be the most transparent in history. Thanks to the ruckus caused by Harvey Silverglate and others, this proposal has been withdrawn. I am guessing that it has been put in the bottom drawer against the day when some horrible act is perpetrated against the U.S. It will then be pulled out, ready to go as the PATRIOT Act was a few years ago, and implemented when the nation is in a spirit to sacrifice liberty for security.

Finally, what would you say if the government told you that you could have certain information as long as you did not think about it too hard or try to relate it to anything else you know? Sound like thought control? Then consider this report from the November 9 New York Times (thanks to Latanya Sweeney for bringing it to my attention):

A federal health agency on Wednesday restored to its Web site a database of doctor disciplinary actions two months after removing it from the Internet in response to a doctor’s complaints. 
But the return of the information came with a catch. It has a new requirement that anyone who uses it must first promise not to link information in the database with publicly available information, like court files, that would identify individual doctors. 
And that was exactly the way journalists for many news organizations had used the national data bank, which masked individual doctors’ names, as material for articles about weaknesses in the oversight of doctors with dozens of malpractice cases and gaps in disciplinary actions.
But the return of the information came with a catch. It has a new requirement that anyone who uses it must first promise not to link information in the database with publicly available information, like court files, that would identify individual doctors. 
And that was exactly the way journalists for many news organizations had used the national data bank, which masked individual doctors’ names, as material for articles about weaknesses in the oversight of doctors with dozens of malpractice cases and gaps in disciplinary actions.
I have been thinking for awhile that something like this could happen. In several talks I have given, I have suggested that we could, in the interest of protecting privacy, see government rules limiting how much data on a particular subject individuals could collect--making information sort of like fertilizer, legal in small quantities but requiring government permission to possess in gross. This is a different approach to the same problem--it has the government allowing people to have database A and database B, but prohibiting them from performing the trivial computer operation of "joining" them (seeing which parts of A line up with some parts of B). Since the regulations don't mention computers, just how the data is "use[d]," presumably even remembering something you had seen in one database and connecting it in your mind to the other database would be improper.

I am in favor of privacy, but there is nothing in the Constitution about it that is as absolute as the guarantees of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. As databases grow and we increasingly use our computers to amplify our guaranteed rights to think and to speak, we had better beware of well-intentioned but dangerous precedents like these, whether obscure or not.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Real Contribution to the Birth of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to Harvard with much fanfare today. He presented himself very well at the session I attended, in the newly renamed Farkas Hall (AKA the Hasty Pudding Theater, AKA the New College Theater). The session began with David Malan, who was acting as moderator, reading part of an email exchange between me and Zuck in January 2004 entitled "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis." We all had a good laugh about this as one of the germs of Facebook, though Mark noted that it was really a different project. When he asked me, back then, if I minded his using my name (he said today that he was being careful since he was scared of being thrown out of school), I replied "Sure, what the hell, seems harmless." David put the URL up on the screen-- for the record, the Facebook prototype was hosted at http://roam175-29.student.harvard.edu.

Facebook would surely have happened whatever I responded to Mark about his "Six Degrees" site (which enabled students to see how far they were from me in the network created by linking names that appeared in the same Crimson story). But it occurred to me that I had done something else a few years earlier that laid a foundation for Facebook, and indeed for all the current rage of student entrepreneurship. (The Gazette story has a lot about how much Harvard loves student entrepreneurs.)

In early 2000, I proposed and persuaded the faculty to repeal the age-old rule against students running businesses out of their rooms. Maybe it had made sense when a student business would involve moving goods (oranges, say) into and out of rooms. But it didn't make much sense in the Internet age. In fact, when students are making money by typing on a keyboard, there is no way to tell whether they are working for themselves or someone else, so there was no reason for one to be prohibited and the other encouraged. At first I thought there might be tax issues, but Harvard's lawyers helpfully advised that student businesses of reasonable proportions would not jeopardize Harvard's tax-exempt status.

So we killed the rule, and one of the grievances Harvard might have had against Facebook was pre-empted! There was some skepticism at the time about whether this was wise--it is nice to see the chorus of enthusiasm for student businesses today.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Harvard News

Harvard released its annual financial statements last week. You can download the whole report here or just read Harvard Magazine's summary here. (Try to find a story about it on the Gazette site. I couldn't, though I came up with a nice story about my colleague Michael Mitzenmacher's work on Yelp data privacy problems, another about the Digital Public Library of America, and a third about Mark Zuckerberg coming to town, so I can't complain!) The Crimson has a straightforward account. The headlines cite the $130 million deficit, which is not good but also not terrible on a $4 billon budget. Quoting the financial VP, the Crimson reports,
Shore cited a number of projects aimed at increasing the University’s operating efficiency as part of the cost-cutting effort. Among these are the consolidation of the University’s IT systems, the overhaul of the University library system, and efforts aimed at “better leveraging purchasing power with vendors.”
I am sure that the I/T consolidation was a good idea, whether or not it saves money; I am very impressed with the new leadership. So much the better if the new organization gives better service at lower costs. The "leveraging purchasing power" has been standard cant ever since Larry Summers complained about every professor buying his own bricks, or something like that. Maybe it adds up, but I rather think there would be more money to be saved if every professor did not have his or her own Center to begin with. I am worried, frankly, about saving money on the library system. It certainly was not obvious to me that having 70 libraries (a number that is commonly quoted as an indicator of the absurdity of Harvard's library system) is such a terrible thing for the world's greatest university. And it certainly is disappointing that Archives is now open to researchers only 25 hours per week. My freshman seminar students love using archival materials, but most of the hours they can access them are in conflict with class times or athletic practices.

The report cites some other things we are doing to restore our financial stability, and to avoid similar problems in the future. More of the infamous debt swaps are being retired. We are converting some debt from floating to fixed rates. And so on.

But it is worth contemplating Note 12 to remind ourselves how we got into this mess in the first place. We have borrowed $6.3 billion and have to pay it back at rates averaging 4.6%. We have floated $3.1 billion in fixed rate bonds at an average of 5%, and almost all of them have more than 20 years to go. Where is all that money? Look around you. The Northwest Building. The Center for Government and International Studies. The Fogg Museum. The pit in Allston, meant to be the foundation for a building that has not been built. Etc., etc. We borrowed so much that we can't borrow any more without risking our bond rating, though if we could do it, we could borrow today at much lower rates. We are paying $300 million per year in debt service.

And so the financial model is changing. We are pressing alumni to give "current use" gifts. They have responded remarkably well -- $277 million in current use gifts were given in the last fiscal year. But this is very unlike the old Harvard, which used to raise money for its buildings before it built them. Now a quarter-billion dollars in annual giving, solicited in preference to endowing professorships and scholarships, isn't enough to cover the interest payments on our debts. We are increasingly reliant on income from sponsored research, at a time when the Congressional "super-committee" may well decide to slash federal grants (a terrible idea for the economy in the long run, regardless of its impact on universities).

A little more than wo years ago, Fred Abernathy and I laid it out in the Boston Globe. Sorry about the paywall: here are the central paragraphs:
The story goes back to 2001. With much fanfare about President Lawrence Summers's bold vision, Harvard started a building campaign, mostly to grow the size of its science facilities by more than a third. Average yearly expenditures for facilities jumped from under $150 million in 1995-2000 to $495 million from 2001-2005, to $644 million in 2009. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences - about half the university - grew from about 600 professors before 2001 to 700 in 2006 and was projected to reach 750 by 2010. With this growth spurt already underway in 2004, Summers told the faculty not to think small. Its ambitions were limited only by its imagination, he said - Harvard could always come up with more money from its "deeply loyal friends." 
All that growth has now come to a crashing halt. The half-finished science lab in Allston has been mothballed; the faculty, only recently expanded, will now have to shrink. 
Are these the consequences of a market downturn no one could have predicted? Not in Harvard's case. By January 2006, the faculty itself was warning that Harvard's plans depended on extremely optimistic financial projections. 
Hoxby addressed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on behalf of a committee charged with scrutinizing the administration's plans. The Arts and Sciences budget - roughly $1 billion - was in balance, but with all the growth that was underway, she said, by 2010 it would be in deficit by at least $108 million. 
The biggest item was interest payments - the buildings were mostly debt-financed, in a sharp departure from Harvard's past practice of raising the money first. Add to that the salaries of the new faculty and the costs of operating those huge new science laboratories. Where would the money come from? The Faculty of Arts and Sciences had saved up $73 million, but that account would quickly be depleted as it was used to balance the budget. Selling endowment assets wouldn't work either, because almost all those funds had to be used as donors had stipulated, not for building undreamed-of buildings. So there were only two possibilities: a lot more money from donors, and very high investment returns. 
Was it wise to borrow so much? The Arts and Sciences dean explained that it was like a homeowner assuming a mortgage. Going into debt was OK, because incomes rise. And President Summers termed the whole borrowing-to-build plan an "extraordinary investment."
This year's report is the sound of the other shoe dropping.

The closing paragraph of our opinion piece suggests some governance reforms:
The Harvard Corporation is a dangerous anachronism. It failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities. Some of its members should resign. But the Corporation's problems are also structural. It is too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be. Until the board can be restructured, the fellows should voluntarily share their power with the overseers. And Harvard should reveal the risks of its business plans, as would be required if it were a publicly held corporation. 
 This was nothing more than what a lot of people were saying in private but nobody else was saying in public. In the intervening years, the Corporation wisely decided to expand itself; I give Drew Faust a lot of credit for engineering that. I am quite happy about the new people who have been appointed (if less happy about one who remains). And I was quite happy to see the Gazette, even if it was mute on the financials, report that the Corporation has created a rational committee structure and included on the key committees some individuals who are neither Fellows nor Overseers. I don't expect Harvard to go overboard on transparency any time soon, but the more eyes that look at the books and at major building decisions, the more likely it is that someone will speak up when they see a powerful president or Corporation member pushing something that puts the university at risk. I am not holding my breath waiting for the risk reports Fred and I suggested, but I hope the echo chamber that was Harvard governance when we got into this mess under Summers is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Solar Energy Investment

A letter in the current Harvard Magazine, by an astronomer at UCLA, prompts me to blog about my photovoltaics. Professor Jura has described his experience here.

I live in an old house in Brookline, perhaps half a mile from the Brigham and Women's hospital. One day I noticed that, in spite of the houses around us, the flat roof on the garage has a pretty clear southern exposure. After getting in a contractor and running some financial models, I determined that a PV installation would pay for itself in about 7 years. It went online in May, and so far the energy production is a little ahead of the projections. Generates 5 kW peak and should produce about 7 MWh/year. The financial model has three components: tax credits for part of the capital investment; reduced electric bills because I pay only for net usage; and income from sale of State Renewable Energy Credits, one per MWh I generate independent of my electric usage.

System is depicted below. It is all but invisible from the street. And you can look here to see its production, either power or energy, by either day, week, or month. PV panel prices have softened in the past year so I'll bet it would have a shorter payoff period if I were starting today. Glad to answer any questions offline.