Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Bright Idea About Take Home Exams -- From Yale, of All Places!

The idea: Don't give them. So reports the Yale Daily News.

Admirably stating the obvious for the benefit of faculty who, in New Haven as in Cambridge, apparently can't be counted on to figure it out for themselves,
[Dean of Yale College Mary] Miller and Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard urged professors who use take-home final examinations to consider switching to an in-class examination. Though the University has traditionally discouraged take-home exams, Miller said, she wanted to re-emphasize other options in light of the recent events at Harvard. In-class examinations enable students to better balance their finals schedule and maintain a healthier lifestyle during the exam period because on take-home finals, students often take more time than the three hours budgeted for in-class examinations, she said.
I wonder: Is there less a sense at Yale than there is at Harvard that professors shall not be told how best to run their courses? The only advice Harvard has given its faculty is to be clear about our collaboration policies, and to meet with our departmental colleagues "to share best practices on how we can each foster a culture of honesty and integrity in our classes and learning assessments," as Dean Smith put it in his late-August email to faculty. 

As I have said since the beginning, the "cheating scandal" seems to me less an issue of student culture than one of faculty behavior. For some reason, they seem less afraid to talk about that in New Haven.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day Care in Holyoke Center?

There has been a little chattering among a few of my faculty colleagues about child care -- how limited and how expensive the options are. Of course this is an issue that affects staff as well as faculty, but to begin with I want to think about it just from the perspective of the faculty.

The Harvard-affiliated day care centers (not actually run by Harvard -- each is on Harvard property, but is corporately independent, with its own board of directors) offer convenience if you work at Harvard but (I am told) no price advantage over other child care centers. You can save some money by using one of the two Harvard-affiliated co-op centers -- but then, of course, you have to co-operate, by donating your time taking care of other people's children, which may be neither convenient nor appealing.

Both my daughters are alumnae of what were then called the Radcliffe Child Care Centers. Given the total absence of other options in the 1980s, we were glad to be able to use these centers (my wife and I were both working and we did not go the co-op route). I am less happy to discover the problem has not gone away, and that Harvard has, perhaps, not kept up with advances. The Stata Center at MIT has a day care center, very visible on the ground floor (where there are also a gym and a cafe). I gather it is well planned and well run.

How much should Harvard invest in a benefit that is of use to only part of its employee base? One could argue that people who have chosen not to be parents, or for whom parenthood is impossible, have their own challenging personal needs, which compromise their work lives. Is parenthood special in some way that makes it sensible for Harvard, exceptionally, to mitigate its financial burdens?

I don't know the answer to that question. I have some moral qualms about the answer, frankly; in principle I would prefer that the University just pay faculty more and let them decide how to spend the money.

But day care could easily become a competitive disadvantage for Harvard -- in the way the lack of a "tenure track" used to be, before two-career couples became the norm and Harvard suddenly realized it was losing its top senior faculty candidates because their spouses were unwilling to give up their law partnerships, etc., at mid-career in another city. And it could also be argued that it would pay the university in productivity to deprive faculty of their standard, legitimate excuse for not teaching classes or showing up for meetings that begin before 9:30am or end after 5:00pm.

If there are reasons to re-think any of this, this is the moment to do it. President Faust told the Crimson that she hopes that a student center may come into being in Holyoke Center. That is the perfect location for a university-run day care center, like the one in the Stata Center.

How about it? Good idea, given Harvard's financial condition, and what it might cost and what other uses that imagined money could be put? How would the cost-benefit analysis be done, when the benefits (recruitment and retention of faculty, productivity of faculty, improved work climate for faculty) are so hard to quantify?

And then there are the questions about staff. If the center is Harvard-run, should faculty get priority? On the one hand there are certainly other benefits faculty get that staff do not. And there is greater competition for faculty than for staff. But then the moral issues re-emerge. The cost of child care is an even greater stress on less well-paid Harvard workers; could Harvard really create a center from which they were excluded? I doubt that it could or should. And then what about grad students? But what if limiting was the only way to get its cost within a feasible range? Would it be better for the university not to have a center at all than to have one that is limited?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Decline of Civilization department

Spotted in the Harvard Business School parking lot, among the manicured lawns and carefully landscaped bushes, as I was walking from the garage to the Yale game yesterday. Maybe they meant "Really"?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Harvard's Financial Report (III)

Would someone who is better at math than I am please tell me whether I am crazy to regard this statement, from the Harvard Management Company's annual report, with extreme skepticism?
To maintain purchasing power, HMC’s investment professionals aim for a long-term annualized rate of return of approximately 8 percent, so the endowment appreciates even after a normalized 4.5 percent to 5 percent distribution rate. 
Two questions.

1. Who else in this business is these days distributing 5% on the theory that they will be generating 8% returns over the long run?

2. The difference between the planned return and the planned distribution, namely 3-3.5%, results in endowment appreciation only if the inflation rate is less than that over the long run.

And I don't mean the general inflation rate, I mean the rate at which university expenditures inflate. Hard to predict what that will be, but historically it has been more than 3%, I think. For example, "Our benefits cost has doubled in the last 10 years," says EVP Katie Lapp in an interview with the Gazette. Benefit increases are promised to be contained going forward, but Lapp continues that the offer on the table to Harvard's unions entails increases "ranging between 2 and 3 percent in wages."

Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how the endowment is going to grow or even stay level even under the improbable circumstance that the 8% and 4.5-5% figures are accurate. Are the quoted numbers any more than wishful thinking?

And if not, what is going to become of Harvard, especially if it has to survive another recession?

Harvard has a whole risk management office, which monitors everything from data security to the safety of day care centers. Are the governing boards watching Harvard's financial planning assumptions with the same steely eye?

PS. Note that the distribution to the Schools will not be 4.5-5% even under these assumptions, since 0.5% will be retained by the center, as I discussed earlier.

Verizon and Speech Control

We did not hear as much in the 2012 election cycle about the national communications infrastructure as we did in 2008. In the interim, the FCC adopted some some Net Neutrality rules -- providing that service providers such as Verizon can't pick and choose what to deliver to your house, or indeed whether it wants you as a customer. Verizon wasn't happy, but the issue didn't make much campaign news.

Over the summer Verizon appealed the new rules, and the decision now rests with a federal court. Verizon has taken a strong stand, on basic Constitutional grounds. "Broadband networks are the modern-day microphone by which their owners engage in First Amendment speech," states their appeal. So, Verizon and their fellow appellants argue, the FCC rule "violates the First Amendment by stripping them of control over the transmission of speech on their networks."

If the court upholds that interpretation of the Internet, the consequences would be staggering. As an Amicus brief filed yesterday by Susan Crawford and other experts explains, 

the law, and Verizon itself, have long recognized a sharp distinction between providing a facility whereby someone else’s speech is transmitted and expression itself. The Communications Decency Act, which was enacted as part of the same 1996 statute on which Verizon relies to attack the Open Internet Rules here, provides that “No provider ... of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Readers of Blown to Bits will remember this as the "Publisher or Distributor" question (p. 234). Verizon, having enjoyed its status as a mere distributor to avoid liability for the speech it transmits, now wishes to be treated as a publisher so it can at its whim censor that speech, and pick and choose to whom it is delivered. As Verizon itself said in a previous court case quoted in the Amici brief,
The minute that anyone, whether from the government or the private sector, starts to control how people access and use the Internet would be the beginning of the end of the Net as we know it....When a person accesses the Internet, he or she should be able to connect with any other person that he or she wants to[.] 
It is scary to think how this might play out -- and not at all obvious that a deregulatory-minded Supreme Court, if the case got that far, might not agree with Verizon that it should be left alone as a private party to block, alter, slow down, or edit the bits that flow through its pipes without government interference. And that would be the end of the Internet as "the most participatory form of mass speech ever invented," in the words of the opinion that struck down part of the Communications Decency Act.

Another reminder, if anyone needed one, that elections matter because the judiciary is the last protector of civil rights, including free speech rights, when the privately-bought-and-paid-for Congress can't be counted on to do its job.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Books that Watch Students Read Them

The Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus Blog (sorry about the paywall) reports that a publisher of e-textbooks is going to offer professors a new feature: The ability to monitor students as they read and report back to the authorities.

Those details are what will make the new CourseSmart service tick. Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.
The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.
 When asked if this isn't creepy, Mr. Devine says "Not if it helps you succeed." But surely ends do not always justify means (water torture might work even better, after all).

The comment thread is interesting. Some object because, they say, it won't work -- students will figure out how to game it. (But tracking eye saccades, so the professor can get word by word data for each student rather than page by page, will probably be next.) Others defend the practice on the basis that students can opt out (though that itself is arguably a privacy issue). Others complain that time spent reading is a poor measure of anything since students simply read a different speeds. Another just says "Relax and welcome to the 21st century," going on to explain some other electronic learning tools that help both instruction and assessment.

I think I react to this in other terms: dignity, maturity, independence. To the extent colleges behave as though they believe students are lab rats, to be trained through operant conditioning, they aren't doing anything to create intellectual excitement or an inclination to continue learning when unsupervised. And if higher education does not aspire to such things, we might as well be replaced by MOOCs, without those expensive dormitories, libraries, and student laboratories. If students aren't doing their reading, maybe we need to look deeper at why rather than resorting to surveillance in order to force them.

University Throttles Information

A grand lede for a silly story. It's connected to the previous post in that both illustrate this principle: Technology makes lots of things possible. The fact that things are possible and legal doesn't make them good ideas. Sometimes we need to take a step back and exercise some judgment based on principles to which technology itself does not speak.

OK, with that out of the way, here is the story: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON LIMITS REPORTERS' LIVE TWEETS DURING GAMES. Huh?

Well, you know the riff about "pictures, descriptions, and accounts of this game" that at least used to precede broadcasts of Major League Baseball games? Here is some current text explaining the limits of your rights to talk about a Yankees game if you buy a ticket and go to the ball park:
So there! It seems you are not allowed to come back from the game and tell your kids what happened. "Go read a report authorized by the Yankees," you are apparently supposed to say.

 Intellectual property!

This is silly of course. It is one of those absurdly overbroad and unenforced contracts that we all accept without thinking about it. In Fenway Park anyway, where similar license terms apply, nobody will stop you from taking a photo of the field (unless you are blocking somebody's view).

Incredibly, the University of Washington has decided that tweets by reporters are threatening an important revenue stream, the licensed transmission of live accounts of games. So they have implemented this policy:
Credential Holders (including television, Internet, new media, and print publications) are not permitted to promote or produce in any form a “real-time” description of the event.  Real-time is defined by the NCAA as a continuous play-by-play account or live, extended live/real-time statistics, or detailed description of an event.  Live-video/digital images or live audio are not permitted.  Each of the aforementioned descriptions is exclusive to the official athletic website of the host institution (, the official athletic website of the visiting institution, and any designee of the UW department of athletics.  Periodic updates of scores, statistics or other brief descriptions of the competition throughout the event are acceptable, as long as they do not exceed the recommended frequency (20 total in-game updates for basketball, 45 total in-game updates for football).  Credential Holder agrees that the determination of whether an outlet is posting a real-time description shall be in UW’s sole discretion.  If UW deems that a Credential Holder is producing a real-time description of the contest, UW reserves all actions against Credential Holder, including but not limited to the revocation of the credential.
So the good news is that this does not apply to fans--only to journalists, including "new media" journalists. On the other hand, it doesn't apply to UW press folks either. God forbid someone should follow the Twitter stream of the struggling local newspaper reporter rather than the institutional press office. After all, a university needs to be run like a business, and NBA teams have implemented similar policies. Gotta keep up with the times.

But a university is more than a business. Universities are instruments of human enlightenment. They should not be teaching their students that every bit of information has its price, to be extracted by the legal owner. Of course the UW policy acknowledges that college football is just a branch of the entertainment business. But along with the pretext that the players are students comes the message that real students, and professors, should not give away for free information for which they can demand a price. That message is contrary to the spirit of learning, and a university that sends it should be ashamed of itself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One Thing Leads to Another

Some time in the 1980s when I was teaching a big introductory computer programming course, one of my TFs brought to my attention two programs that seemed to be copies. They were submissions by two students in his section. I asked the two students if they could explain the similarities and they claimed they could not. They had not communicated or discussed their papers. In fact, they had never met each other and neither even recognized the other's name.

Students confronted with their sins often initially deny wrongdoing (and for that reason I no longer surprise students with such accusations -- I email them and ask them to come see me, so they can get past the denial stage while sleeping on it). But I thought for these two students to deny that they even knew each other was pretty bold. It gave me pause. As I am wont to do when puzzled, I brought it up in TF meeting, showed my assistants the two papers and asked them how they thought we should handle the situation. 

A couple of other TFs recognized the submissions as matching ones they had received. It turned out there was a chain -- everyone had been careful not to cheat with someone in their own section, as they knew their TF would spot the similarities immediately. They had not calculated that as the chain grew it might reconnect. The two original students may well have been telling the truth about not copying from each other.

Today such assignments are cross-compared automatically and not only are cheaters revealed, but the full structure of any web of influence is disclosed in an instant. 

I thought of this story while reading the New York Times news analysis this morning, Online Privacy is Also In Play in Petraeus Scandal. As the report states, 
The F.B.I. investigation that toppled the director of the C.I.A. andhas now entangled the top American commander in Afghanistan underscores a danger that civil libertarians have long warned about: that in policing the Web for crime, espionage and sabotage, government investigators will unavoidably invade the private lives of Americans.
Most of us are now used to (even if, apparently, not fully conscious of) some of the unusual properties of bits: that they stick around indefinitely, that they can be moved and stored at almost no cost, that they can be searched easily. And I am glad that the public is now suddenly aware of the low level of legal protection for your email, if you use a cloud service like Gmail.

But this case makes a somewhat different point. Social connections tend to be numerous and many of them weak. Gumshoe investigations used to require a lot of effort to track down who knew whom who knew whom. Some human judgment was required to discriminate between potentially strong or suspicious connections; a chain of three or four weak connections would get you so far from the origin and into a circumference of such huge size that it just wasn't worth following all the leads.

No more. The full social web of any of us is a scary thing. Even people without infidelity issues have second-cousins-by-marriage involved in sketchy activities. Do we all need to ask ourselves, for example, whether we should have been more careful about refusing small favors from distant relatives? Must every molehill be viewed as a potential mountain?

So I am glad to see that people are asking how it was that half a dozen mildly annoying emails from one woman to another led to the resignation of the CIA director, and what that says about our expectations for government officials and others. Let's get real: we can't keep losing good people this way, foolish men though they be.

But I also think Harvard is going to have to ask itself how much it really wants to know before it launches another "cheating" investigation like the one involving Gov 1310. According to the Crimson, this started when the professor reported 10-20 students to the College, which subsequently decided to compare all the hundreds of take-home exam papers to each other. It seems this was done by hand over the summer, not electronically, but the fact that the papers were easily retrievable was likely a digital phenomenon. I am told by relatives of students in the course that until fairly recently, the College was still contacting students with new examples of allegedly suspiciously similar papers submitted by other students.

One can see the scope of this case as evidence of a deep rot in the moral fabric of Harvard students, or even college students in general. I tend to see it more as the result of faculty negligence. Perhaps we will be able to make a clearer judgment about all that when the College finishes its work and reports the body counts.

In either case, it illustrates, as the Petraeus case also illustrates, the risks in the digital era of asking too many questions while in a self-righteous frame of mind. Why not have automatic cheat-detection software review all papers submitted to all courses, or all email sent by top government officials? Because the world has ambiguous and evolving standards (and while Gov 1310 seems to have been egregious, I doubt that precision about collaboration is likely to become universal any time soon). In a world of imprecise standards that require human judgment to apply fairly, the full social cost of surveillance, the collateral damage in shattered dreams of relatives and friends, and the intimidating effect on the community of making plausible but unwise accusations, will be greater than the benefit to be gained from the attempt to keep society squeaky-clean. We need to remember that just because digital technologies have given us tools to do important investigative work with unprecedented efficiency and thoroughness, that does not mean we should use those tools to the full extent of their capabilities. Such tools also allow us to create destruction at a scale that used to be impracticable if not impossible.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Harvard Financial Report (II)

After reading my last blog post, an alum in the financial world sent me this note, quoted by permission:
Isn't the bigger story that no one has been willing to take any responsibility for the mistakes and the overreaching that occurred in the past decade? Especially galling to me is the loss of institutional memory and the new paradigm that says nothing counts before 2010.
The alum is right, of course. Everything is about how we keep moving forward as we recover from the financial collapse at the end of the last decade; there is not a whisper about how we got into the mess in the first place.
Three years ago, Fred Abernathy and I wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe highlighting what had happened. (Sorry that the full text is behind a paywall.)

IF AN ORDINARY corporation had the kind of fiscal year Harvard University just had, some of its directors would be gone. Long-term investments down $11 billion; another $1.8 billion lost by top management speculating with cash accounts; another half-billion gone in an untimely exit from a debt rate gambit. The institution left so illiquid that it was forced to sell assets and issue bonds at the worst possible time, just to pay the bills. A publicly held company would have experienced a shareholder rebellion - especially after the Globe reported that the chief investment officer had repeatedly warned the president about the risks he was taking with the institution's cash. …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. That exercise in transparency would surely serve Harvard well. 
There have been changes in the Corporation, but some of those who oversaw the meltdown are still there, including Robert Rubin. There is no more transparency now than there ever was.

If the reaction of the alum quoted above is representative of any general alumni sentiment, the capital campaign may be a tough sell.

And by the way, what would be the impact on the campaign, or on higher education generally, if charitable deductions are limited to $35,000 as the New York Times today suggests may be under consideration?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Harvard's financial report

Harvard Magazine has a clear, comprehensible translation of the recently released Harvard financial report. The Campaign is going to be important, because revenue is not going up (if you set aside now-exhausted stimulus funding, research funding is hardly growing at all, and undergraduate tuition receipts are going down, inflation-adjusted, though continuing ed and executive ed are showing healthy growth). Reading the grim news, one can't help wonder about the continuing expansion in non-educational bureaucracy (here and there).

Particularly interesting to longtime Harvard watchers is what has happened to the "strategic infrastructure fund," introduced by President Rudenstine as a 5-year, temporary tax on endowments to fund the clean-up and development of the newly acquired Allston site. I well remember the faculty meeting where this was explained; professors were extremely skeptical. Of course they had no actual say in the decision, and the president explained that it just had to be done and we would all eventually reap the benefits. So how has it turned out? President Summers extended its timeline to 25 years and expanded the uses to which it could be put. And now, like almost any tax imposed by any government, it has become permanent and has been utterly repurposed. Harvard's ambitions for Allston are vastly diminished, and what projects are left are going to be built through fundraising or private partnerships. Instead, as the Magazine summarizes,
treating the 2001 assessment mechanism as an Allston-related decapitalization item no longer makes sense; rather, it is an assessment on endowment assets that defrays central operating expenses, and so, from an accounting sense, is an operating item: a financial-reporting change that reflects, in fact, almost revolutionary upheaval in Harvard’s fiscal assumptions, operations, and position.