Sunday, December 29, 2013

More of the Same Can Be a Whole New Thing

That is Koan #5 of Blown to Bits, and it is the thing that Justice Leon seems to get in his opinion that the NSA "metadata" collection program is unconstitutional, and the thing that Justice Pauley seems not to get in his contrary opinion. On the basic question of whether the collection of all the telephone numbers called from all the telephones in the US, Justice Pauley goes straight to the Supreme Court's 1979 decision in the case of Smith v. Maryland in which the Court ruled that telephone users had no expectation of privacy in such telephone numbers, since they were disclosing them to the telephone company, which needed to retain them in order to complete the call and carry out its billing operations. In Pauley's words,

The collection of amounts of information unprotected by the Fourth Amendment does not transform that sweep into a Fourth Amendment search. … The fact that there are more calls placed does not undermine the Supreme Court's finding that a person has no subjective expectation o f privacy in telephony metadata.
 Justice Leon sees things exactly the opposite way.
… the Smith pen register and the ongoing NSA Bulk Telephony Metadata Program have so many significant distinctions between them that I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones. … I find that plaintiffs have a very significant expectation of privacy in an aggregated collection of their telephony metadata covering the last five years, and the NSA's Bulk Telephony Metadata Program significantly intrudes on that expectation.
It seems to me (IANAL of course) that we are at a hinge moment and only the Supreme Court can reconcile the tension between the public's privacy and security interests. It is as though we are reliving the progression from Olmstead to Katz in the world of wiretapping. In Olmstead, Chief Justice Taft wrote in 1928,
By the invention of the telephone fifty years ago and its application for the purpose of extending communications, one can talk with another at a far distant place. The language of the Amendment cannot be extended and expanded to include telephone wires reaching to the whole world from the defendant's house or office. The intervening wires are not part of his house or office any more than are the highways along which they are stretched. … The reasonable view is that one who installs in his house a telephone instrument with connecting wires intends to project his voice to those quite outside, and that the wires beyond his house and messages while passing over them are not within the protection of the Fourth Amendment. 
Though Justice Brandeis wrote a memorable contrary opinion in that case, he lost the argument, and it was not until 1967 that the Court found that wiretapping required a warrant. Evincing an interpretation of the Constitution which the 1928 court would have found curious, that "the Fourth Amendment protects people, rather than places," Justice Stewart wrote,
We conclude that the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the "trespass" doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government's activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner's words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth, and thus constituted a "search and seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. 
The issue today is not about the changed status of wires but the changed status of bits. How many bits have to be aggregated before the picture they create become so sharp that having the government see it becomes, as Justice Leon wrote, "almost Orwellian"? It will be fascinating to watch this conservative court come to grips with what exactly it will want to conserve.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Financial News

Two things worth noting:

1) Beth Healy of the Boston Globe digs down and figures out how it came to pass that (as reported on this blog) the MBTA pension fund invested with Buddy Fletcher. Turns out one of the MBTA pension fund managers went to work for Buddy and then sold his former colleagues on this cool thing Buddy had going. All fine and dandy within applicable regulations.

2) Harvard Magazine does a much better job following the money trail in Harvard's recent financial statements than Harvard itself did in its own reporting. Imagine that! As the Magazine says,
Harvard’s spending in fiscal 2013 was driven by costs other than salaries, wages, and employee benefits—in contrast to the prior year …. Compensation costs, which continue to account for about half of operating expense, rose 4 percent, with salaries and wages up 4 percent. Employee benefits rose 6 percent—in line with the growth in fiscal 2012 after accounting for a one-time adjustment.
But non-compensation expense increased 7 percent, including costs for a number of “strategic initiatives” listed in the report: the edX online collaborationdevelopment of Allston properties, and the capital campaign itself. …Beyond its operating budget, Harvard is spending a lot on capital projects, includingthe art museumsthe Business School’s Tata Hall, and the undergraduate House renovation (a total of $404 million in fiscal 2013, up 19 percent), with much more in prospect as the campaign underwrites further business school building, the Allston science complex and other projects recently approved in the institutional master plan, and so on.
Of course the Campaign is hugely important. But there is going to have to be another way to make ends meet in the long run. As the Magazine concludes,
… at some point, in some way, collecting revenue from the edX online courses will likely figure in the mix. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Was He Thinking?

It was so obvious it couldn't possibly be true. A warning about a bomb in some Harvard buildings, three of them places where an exam was about to take place, the fourth a freshman dormitory. When my brother emailed me from Texas on Monday to ask what was up, I replied, "Somebody really does not want to take his final exam." Just so, as it turned out.

Law enforcement were able to figure out whose laptop had been used to access the anonymizing network Tor around the time the warning email had been sent. That doesn't necessarily mean that that student, Eldo Kim, actually sent that particular email. But it certainly provided law enforcement with ample reason to have a chat with Mr. Kim. Turns out Mr. Kim had dropped some other breadcrumbs. He had blasted the Quincy House student list for help preparing for the exam in Gov 1368, one of the exams given that morning. In any case, when confronted, he confessed, even after being Mirandized.

So he was worried about the exam and did not want to take it. I get that part. But why on earth did he choose to disrupt the lives of hundreds of his peers by canceling their exams as well as his own, and threaten the welfare of the community too by summoning in police and fire units?

It's easy to "sick out" of an exam. That's an abuse of the health system and an inconvenience to the doctors and nurses who have plenty of actually sick people to treat. But the radius of inconvenience caused is pretty limited.

Mr. Kim's acts were selfish to the point of narcissism. We have already started to hear that he was under stress---so reports his lawyer---though maybe it is "self-imposed stress." The lawyer also reports that Kim loves Harvard and wants to come back.

No. I get it---people are under stress, people snap. But there is an inexcusably hollow moral core to a person, even a mentally disturbed person (and no one has suggested Mr. Kim showed any signs of serious mental illness), who conveniences himself by disrupting the lives of hundreds of his peers and the safety of the civil community in which he lives.

Maybe there is a cultural factor. Mr. Kim is Korean by birth and a naturalized US citizen. I visited with some higher education officials in South Korea a few years ago and asked them what their biggest problem was. I was shocked to be told "suicide." I wonder if Mr. Kim has committed an Americanized form of suicide.

Suicide is bad enough; this bomb hoax was more like a murder-suicide.

This was a calculated act --- Kim didn't just pull a fire alarm (another old trick for disrupting an exam). It took some work to create the fraudulent email account and inject the clever email into the anonymizing network (two out of the four buildings will blow up, good luck guessing which two!). Though Kim did not do enough work, it turns out. He failed to realize that there was a reason Harvard registered his laptop the first time he connected to its wireless network. I am glad he was caught, I am angry at him and consider him an evil person. I am glad that on top of that I don't have to be ashamed of him as a computer science student for his poor grasp of network technology! (See Michael Mitzenmacher for more on that.)

Kim should be dismissed from Harvard. That is the technical term for being sent away forever, not for the usual one year that plagiarists and drunken pugilists get. (Dismissed students can in theory be voted back in, and as a nonbeliever in capital punishment I suppose I would leave that door open, in case he wins the Nobel Peace Prize a couple of decades from now.)

Kim should also get a good sentence of time behind bars, and I expect he will. When the Dersh says you  are going to have a hard time finding anyone to defend you, you know the odds of getting off light are against you.

Having said all that, I still find something worrisome about this situation that I hardly dare mention. But what the hell.

Was it an accident that this incident, like the infamous cheating scandal, happened in a Government course? (I guess we don't know that it was the Gov 1368 exam Kim was trying to get out of, but that would seem a logical inference from the fact that he was worried about it and he had an exam that morning and that the Gov 1368 exam was that morning.)

This is from a comment by "Classmate" on a Crimson story:
 It was a fairly easy class, but the exam was worth a very significant portion of the class grade, and we still haven't received a single (concrete) assignment grade to date. 
Now that's an anonymous comment, and the rest of it is very sympathetic to Kim. And it may not be an accurate description of the course --- I would love to know. The course syllabus states the requirements this way:
1. Short in-class quizzes covering assigned material for the day, class participation and performance, total of 30 % 
2. Policy Paper and Presentation 30%  
3. Final Examination 40% 

I am reminded of how different courses are from each other.

I just turned in the 118 grades for CS 121. That's the biggest the course has ever been, by almost 50%. It is a tough course. There are 10 homework assignments. Each homework assignment has 3 parts to be turned in separately. These are math problems, no computer programming. People worked like hell, an assignment every week, a midterm exam, a final exam. We had a minor cheating issue about a month into the course and, instead of turning anyone over to the Ad Board, I wrote in huge letters on the blackboard at the next lecture, "DON'T BE STUPID!" and yelled at the whole class for 5 minutes, using my best angry-father voice. I think it worked.

If you want to be stressed, mine would be a logical course to be stressed in. And when the dust settled, a few clearly hoped that their grade would have been just a little higher than it was. But mostly students in the course sent me nice notes after the course was over. They thanked the TFs, who they could see, with over 3000 papers to grade, were working just as hard as they were. Some walked into my office with a big smile on their face when they stopped by to look at what they had done wrong on the final exam.

There really seem to be multiple Harvards. The experience of the Gov students, if the tales of Gov 1310 and that comment about Gov 1368 are accurate, is in a different universe from the experience of CS students.

And the weird thing is, students seem to be emigrating from the easy majors and joining the tough ones. A freshman came into my office recently, the graduate of a top prep school. He had intended to study literature but was enrolled in CS 50, which he thought was cool. He wanted understand what it would mean to major in computer science.

Of course CS 50 and other CS courses have their own issues of cheating and other bad behavior. But it seems that in general, the ambitious Harvard students are choosing to run up hill, and they like it. Are the bottom-feeders, like Mr. Kim, being disproportionately left behind in fields where they have gotten the impression they can cope without much effort?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mandela and Harvard

That is the title of my opinion piece published in the Crimson today. It's about both.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Happy Birthday, Grace Murray Hopper

Click out the nice surprise by clicking on today's doodle. And if you have ten minutes to kill in an entertainingly educational way, watch this video of Hopper's appearance on Letterman, passed on to me by Henry Leitner. She visited Harvard at around the same time and I had the honor of meeting her; her appearance is 100% in character.

The main conference room in Harvard's CS building is named in her honor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

What Do You Do When the Students Get Better?

The Crimson reporter who interviewed me for today's followup story on rising grades asked me if students had improved over the years I have been teaching at Harvard. By some interpretation of "better" the answer is surely yes. It's a question about a statistical distribution, but the system is so complicated that it is hard to untangle the various effects.

For example, as I mentioned earlier, Harvard has won the Putnam mathematical competition in three out of the past five years. So our student population way over represents the very pinnacle of mathematical gifts in the 18-22 year old world population. That doesn't mean that the left tail of the distribution has gotten shorter, or even that the mean has shifted. Nor does it say anything about who is turning up in any given class. In my own case, Computer Science courses seem to be drawing both more of the extremely gifted mathematicians and more of the very average (that is why I started teaching CS 20). But that is today. Ten years ago it was different and ten years from now it will be different again.

So giving everybody the grades they deserve has unpredictable statistical results. Most of responses to changes in the student population have nothing to do with grading, which just has to take care of itself. The better responses are educational. Over the years I have been teaching here (this is #40), I have turned several courses that used to be graduate level into undergraduate courses, because too many undergraduates were taking the graduate level courses and doing extremely well. My signature course, CS 121, is an undergraduate version of a graduate level course I myself took as an undergraduate. I first offered it (under the name Applied Mathematics 108) back in 1978 (Paul Spirakis and Oded Shmueli were my first TFs). CS 124 was an undergraduate version of a graduate course on algorithms. That started off as Applied Math 119 in the spring of 1982. Bill Gasarch was my first TF.

Michael Mitzenmacher, my faculty colleague who commented on my grading post below, unwittingly I'm sure posted himself on this topic yesterday on his own blog. There are too many students in CS 124. There are too many students in CS 121. And too many of them are too damned smart. Time to create a new course.

Go read Michael's blog. You will see there, live, the process of academic evolution in response to changes in the student environment in which we professors live.

Matt Yglesias has it right. This isn't a grading problem. It's an admissions problem!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on the Grading Asymptote

During the question period of yesterday's faculty meeting, Professor Mansfield said that he had heard that the modal grade at Harvard (the most frequently given grade, as he put it) was A–. As the Crimson accurately reports,
[Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay] Harris then stood and looked towards FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation. 
“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
These complaints are a very old issue. Letter grading started at Harvard in 1886, and the first anti-inflationary committee report was issued in 1894! As I wrote in Excellence Without a Soul (p. 115),

“[The Committee on Raising the Standard] believes . . . that by defining anew the Grades A, B, C, D, and E, and by sending the definitions to every instructor, the Faculty may do something to keep up the standard of the higher grades. It believes that in the present practice Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily—Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity.” More broadly, the Committee opined, lax grading was compromising the very significance of a Harvard degree. “One of the chief obstacles to raising the standard of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work. . . . These students maintain themselves in technically good standing with so little work that our degree would be seriously cheapened if its minimum cost were generally known.” 
Back in 2001 I did my best to reconstruct historical data; it seems that grades have been rising for a long time, not continuously, but more or less without interruption, except for the decade of the 1970s. I noted that "the present rate of increase can't go on forever." The news about the median and modal grades at Harvard don't settle the question of changes in grade point averages, but I'll bet they have continued to rise, though at a slower rate simply because they can't be higher than 4.0 in the Harvard system.

What is to be done?

With all due respect to my friend and colleague Professor Mansfield, it is not clear to me that anything needs to be done. Sorry to sound complacent, but almost any remedy I can think of would have side effects that are worse than the problem (which I dissect in detail in Excellence Without a Soul and will not burden you with here).

Toughening up on grading practices would run counter to other educational initiatives and desiderata with which we are engaged. For example, grading is higher in smaller, less anonymous courses. And we are trying to reduce the number of larger, more anonymous courses. It's pretty reasonable to think that faculty are softer on students they know well, and the trend is to try to improve education by making the experience more intimate. (That is actually implicit in the other story in today's Crimson, the success of the multiple, smaller life sciences concentrations.)

If it is still true (it was true a decade ago, but no recent data are publicly available) that grades in humanities courses are higher than grades in science courses, then any attempt to lower grades would probably have a differential effect on the humanities. But the humanists are well aware that they are already losing students and are alarmed about the trend lines. I can't imagine they would welcome any effort to make their courses less attractive by making the grading tougher.

We are also trying to reduce stress, and arguably tougher grading might raise stress levels. Though it is not really clear to me; there is always going to be competition as long as more than one grade is possible. And students get stressed even about ungraded courses they are virtually certain to pass -- they get stressed about their performance as a matter of personal pride even if the professor's assessment means next to nothing.

In any case, given the long history of claims of imminent harm from soft grading and the difficulty I have in finding a lot of slackers in my classes, I am skeptical about the direness of the problem. When new colleagues ask me what the community norms are, I typically tell them to grade however they want, as long as they will be able to look back in 3 years and remember who was a star, who was a workhorse, and who was just getting by.

Of course the situation in computer science may be atypical, since almost no employer asks candidates for transcripts. They administer a kind of oral quiz in the interview and try to figure out what the candidate knows. Grades are pretty irrelevant.

Having said all that, here are two suggestions that I think might help.

1) Require every department to have a discussion of grading once a year. Hand out the grades assigned by everyone in the department so they have to look at their own and their peers's practices while everyone is watching. Have someone from the administration go to the meeting to make sure it happens. No quotas, no rules, just information and a requirement for talking to each other about what grades are being given and why. The underlying idea here is to make the conversation more intimate, conducted not by a dean from on high but in a collegial way, by people the faculty have to interact with every day and whose respect they value.

2) Make grades less important. Here is one idea.

Largely decouple honors from overall GPA, which is a meaningless soup of uncertified ingredients. Set some generous minimum threshold, and then throw the matter of cum, magna, and summa recommendations to the departments, giving each department some kind of quotas. Only the departments can look at students' transcripts and tell the difference between an ambitious program and a lazy one. Have departments make their honors recommendations however they want, based on the transcript, a thesis, and whatever else they know about the student. This would greatly reduce the incentive to take easy courses or to fight for microscopic increases in GPA, or to take courses that are not educational because the student already knows the material. (When I am on a prize committee that shares transcripts, the difference between differently ambitious transcripts with identical GPAs is pretty apparent.)

Of course this could be opposed as impractical or unfair. Students want to know exactly what they have to do to graduate magna and there would be no way to know in this subjective system. But these students all got into Harvard via exactly such a subjective system, one that does not ignore grades and scores, but uses them only as part of a more holistic review of essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Students would have to agree would they not, that such a system can produce pretty good results?

And departments might not like the system because they don't know their students well enough to make these decisions in any non-mechanical way. Well, they could use a mechanical way if they preferred. Or they could get to know their students better!

See also this curious story. Can't vouch for its accuracy! As Yale talks grade deflation, Princeton pulls back | Yale Daily News. And for those who haven't seen it, a homily about grades I gave years ago at Morning Prayers. Beggars for punishment can also read this homily about education requirements.

[Revised 11:15pm on 12/4 to include note about grading in the humanities and reference to second Morning Prayer talk.]

[Added 12/5: I should have mentioned that what I propose for honors determination resembles what happens right now in Phi Beta Kappa elections. That was probably in the back of my mind while I was typing actually.]

Monday, December 2, 2013

Should the Crimson Act Like a Real Newspaper?

The question arises because of a recent story, Two Harvard Students Arrested, Charged with Assault and Battery on a HUPD Officer in Unrelated Incidents. The Crimson printed the names of the two students, and so far the story has drawn more than 90 comments. Some of the comments (all anonymous, as far as I noticed) are the usual silliness and anger. But a fair number of them seem to be serious, though not in agreement. Depending on the point of view, either (a) of course the names should have been printed, that is what happens when you get arrested – your arrest record becomes public, and the local paper prints it, if the story is worth reporting at all; or (b) it's terrible that the Crimson is tarring the reputation of these students, who have not been found guilty of anything yet, who may have been arrested on false pretenses, who should not have to live with the story surviving in Crimson archives and turning up in Google searches long after the actual incident has been put to bed.

I think the Crimson has been struggling recently with how it wants to play the game – in essence, is it going to be more like a high school newspaper, subject to administrative oversight and always kind in its reporting, or is it going to try to do real journalism, the kind that holds the powerful to account and occasionally pisses them off? I am glad that the Crimson backed off a practice it should never have adopted – allowing university officials to edit their quotes as the price of being interviewed at all. As Nicholas Fandos explained in his profile of Dean Michael Smith,
Ever since The Crimson instituted a new policy banning quote review at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, the person with the most power at Harvard College has not agreed to fully on-the-record interviews with The Crimson, and has not met or spoken with the paper in any capacity this academic year.
I don't know when the policy of allowing "quote review" was instituted at the Crimson; it was surely a bad idea, as, if known, it makes reporting less credible (and if not known, it makes the reporting dishonest, since what is presented as said by an official was actually out of the mouth of the communications staff).

Fandos, who wrote a number of the stories on the email searching scandal, is now the Managing Editor of the Crimson. He is a good reporter and I wish him well.

One could take the view that the Crimson should be doing hard-nosed investigative reporting, but still be the voice of students, and therefore respectful of them, if not of the administration. By that logic, I suppose, the Crimson would print the name of a professor who was arrested for assaulting an HUPD officer, but not of a student. There remains the problem of peer disputes, where the student victim might think the paper was picking sides by protecting the identity of the assailant.

In any case, it seems to me that the paper would lose all credibility at that point. Readers would have to assume that it was pulling punches whenever a student issue was being reported.

If the Crimson starts pulling punches, it's cooked as a serious organ. I doubt it would attract in the future the likes of past editors Anthony Lewis, Linda Greenhouse, David Sanger, or current star reporters at the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold and Rosalind Helderman, or dozens of other graduates of the Crimson school of journalism. (OK full disclosure: Fahrenthold used to cover me, and wound up marrying my daughter. A good reminder for you Crimson reporters –– be tough but be fair. You never know where your subjects will turn up in your later life.) Its editors would not get good jobs in journalism after graduating, as they now often do, because it would be known that the organization was no longer teaching good journalistic practice.

So it seems to me the answer to the question is an obvious "yes." It is a bit disturbing that so many people–probably students–commenting on the story think the answer should be "no." Makes me worry about the future of journalism if Harvard students think the role of journalism is to protect their fellow students.

Friday, November 29, 2013

License Plate Privacy Act?

There is a bill before the Massachusetts state legislature to prevent the state government from using license plate scanning technology to collect and share license plate information: which cars were where when. The Boston Globe has a perfectly reasonable op-ed arguing in favor of the bill.
The NSA scandals show what happens when we give vast powers to government agencies to spy in the dark: mission creep and the potential for serious abuses of power. We hope that police, who themselves object to being tracked as they go about their workdays, will join with the ACLU to call for sensible legislation to regulate the use of license plate readers and the collection, retention, and data-mining of our sensitive location information.
But there is an important difference from the NSA data. The micro data is inarguably public. Lots of people see lots of cars on the street every day and could notice the license plate numbers if there was any reason to do so.

I wonder, therefore, about citizens' ability to collect this information for themselves. People can buy license plate reading cameras and set them up on the side of their houses or on their front lawns.  They can organize themselves to crowdsource to create a national database. Maybe the Boy Scouts can give a merit badge to scouts who tie a hundred plate numbers of cars parked in neighborhood driveways to their owners' names.

Can this be outlawed too? If not, do we really want to keep out of police hands a database that the public could assemble for itself? If this kind of data aggregation can be outlawed, how would it be done? Would there be some quantitative threshold, so private citizens could retain small amounts of data but would need a license to collect a lot? What if the database is distributed so nobody has possession of the whole database, but it is possible to query it?

In other words, are there certain kinds of information that will in the future have to be treated the way we now treat nitrogen fertilizer – OK to buy, sell, and possess in small quantities, but subject to heavy regulation when handled in bulk?

Numerical Mysteries

Two puzzles to contemplate for those not busy celebrating Black Friday:

1) What is the smallest number that can be trademarked?

The New York Times has a story about the Hells Angels, describing how vigorously the Angels defend their rights to the number 81 (as in, the ordinal positions of H and A in the Roman alphabet). Some (though not all) of the defending happens through recourse to the legal system. Is there a smallest number that an entity could lawfully claim as its own?

If zero isn't taken yet, can I have it?

2) What the correct rate at which to consume an extremely delightful commodity that is finite in supply but lasts forever?

Around forty years ago I bought several bottles of Boal Madeira from an 1897 solera. Now that is not an 1897 vintage, but there are certainly some molecules of the 1897 vintage mixed in. I think I've uncorked only two bottles. One was for a very large numbered birthday or wedding anniversary of some elderly friends, and the other was after Thanksgiving dinner last night with the whole family. It was incredibly good, rich and fragrant and warming. The cork was solid.

Now as I understand it, you could in theory keep an old solera going forever, because the system involves replacing part but not all of the barrel every year. But apparently the EU regulations now ban the marketing of solera wines. So what I have may literally be irreplaceable, and, unlike old Bordeaux, won't turn bad as far as I know. How precious does an occasion have to be before I open another bottle? Or do I leave it to my kids and let them figure that out?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

They Aren't All Angels

I have done enough bragging on this blog lately, about my students and about Harvard. Time to highlight Harvard's role, and my own, in turning out charlatans. 

Well, I did call out Noah Freeman recently.

But today's subject is Buddy Fletcher, that is, Alphonse W. Fletcher, Jr. Harvard AB 1987 in Applied Mathematics. My student. My advisee. Once the toast of Harvard, when he donated a University Professorship in his own name in 1996:
"We are extremely grateful to Buddy Fletcher for his wonderful generosity to Harvard and for his powerful statement of confidence in the University and its programs," Rudenstine said. "His support is magnificent testimony from an alumnus who only recently celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and who is still a year away from his tenth reunion. Buddy has a deep dedication to Harvard and a strong commitment to the importance of education.  
"Those qualities are reflected in the intention and spirit of the new professorship that will bear his name," Rudenstine added. "He has expressed his preference that the chair be held, whenever possible, by a faculty member from one of the professional schools who is devoted to teaching and research about contemporary moral, religious, and social values, and whose interests include undergraduate education. The intention is to give special attention to our nation's tradition of pluralism, including the ways that differences in cultural, ethnic, and regional values may be reconciled and drawn upon to strengthen our democracy." 
That chair was held first by Cornel West and now by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

Buddy has had a strange history. After years of reporting dizzying hedge fund profits, he now seems to be broke. A story published yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reports his latest woes.
In a prospectus to investors, hedge-fund manager Alphonse Fletcher Jr. said he planned to achieve returns by doing deals "immediately, quantifiably worth more to the buyer than the seller." 
But a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee said in a report this week that the values Mr. Fletcher placed on investments were inflated through fraud, and that his firm's funds were likely insolvent as far back as December 2008. 
In the report, the trustee, Richard J. Davis, said that a network of related Fletcher hedge funds had not made a profitable investment after August 2007. Instead, working with a consultant, Mr. Fletcher, chairman and owner ofFletcher Asset Management, created "wildly inflated valuations" to generate more than $30 million in fraudulent fees and attract new investors, the report said. 
Mr. Davis's report said that the Fletcher firm also generated "cashless notes" between its own funds that led to extra fees and improperly increased calculations of assets under management, just before funds were evaluated by a key hedge-fund industry index.
"In many ways, the fraud here has many of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme where, absent new investor money coming in, the overall structure would collapse," Mr. Davis said in a nearly 300 page report.
What investors fell for this? The Firefighters' Retirement System of Louisiana. The Municipal Employees' Retirement System. The New Orleans Firefighters' Pension and Relief Fund. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Fund.

Pensioners are bearing the costs of Buddy's alleged schemes, and his $8 million investment in a movie project of his brother.

I wonder what sort of due diligence they did. Not due enough, obviously. I hope they did not think that Buddy has a University Professorship named after him at Harvard, so he must be on the level. 

I don't mind having my salary paid by the gift to Harvard of a generous cad. I like to think that universities cleanse the money they take from such folks and society comes out better the exchange, as long as the donors don't buy too much influence and the university doesn't honor the donors too publicly or too fulsomely. Harvard accepted the Fletcher Professorship long before the beginning of the period covered by the current fraud allegations. People change, and it's hard to question a gift accepted early in the lives of someone who engages in sketchy activities years after the gift was made.

But it's a bit awkward to be sure, and may explain why in all the current celebration surrounding Professor Gates and his "Many Rivers to Cross" project, we are seeing more of the Hutchins name than the Fletcher name. (Or the DuBois name for that matter, but that would be a subject for another time: How it is that it a university that needs money but has limited growth potential more or less retires names like Mather and Holyoke and Dubois in favor of Stone and Smith and Hutchins.)

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.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Afterthoughts on the "Campus Center"

A friend who apparently does not want to be identified or to post anonymously passed along the following thought about the Campus Center. Perhaps the plan is to have a sort of sterilized version of the Harvard community, safe from infection by the neighbors, with Harvard restaurants and caf├ęs open only to Harvard ID holders.

Let's look at the announcement again.
University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances. The first floor of the renovated structure is expected to remain open to the public, offering a mix of retail and food service options.
So it seems that the existing walkthrough will remain open to the public and will continue to have some food options, but you will need a Harvard ID to get into the elevators that will take you up to the Center proper. Study and event spaces I get; Harvard has not enough of either. The critical question is what kind of food service, and for whom. To what problem would Harvard-only food service in the Smith Campus Center be the solution?

It doesn't seem like a good idea to draw undergraduates away from the Houses and Annenberg (the freshman dining area), especially at lunch. It might be a good idea to move the Faculty Club; I don't really know, and mention it only because the Faculty Club seems to be in trouble. Professors I know don't eat there unless the meal is being charged to a Harvard account, and yet it's not classy enough for very high end purposes either. When we have a heavy date with a prospective faculty candidate, we tend to go to Rialto or Harvest instead.

I was musing about this, and thinking about mixed retail-residential dining services I have seen at other universities (Penn, for example), and then I thought of what is happening in Silicon Valley, as described in the New Yorker by George Packer a few months back. Google and other companies are creating bubbles, like human biospheres, catering to all the needs of their communities and isolating them from the rest of the world. These utopian companies even support employees who wish to maintain the illusion that they are living in San Francisco without interacting with it–you can take your private Google bus from your San Francisco pad to the Valley, and thus have a San Francisco zip code but never see anyone except family members and Google employees. San Francisco real estate prices, I am told, now vary inversely with distance from the private bus stops.

Is part of the idea of drawing the Harvard community together to make it possible to withdraw from the daily life of Harvard Square? Or if that is not the intention, have the "Harvard planners" who have been thinking about this planned how to prevent that from happening? Even as Elsie's and Tommy's and the Wursthaus and One Potato, Two Potato have gone to restaurant heaven, the Square is full of places where Harvard eats alongside tourists and locals. All of the blooming, buzzing, non-Harvard confusion that you have to navigate to walk around Harvard is what makes Harvard Harvard. Why would we want to encourage members of the Harvard community (a word that, strikingly, occurs six times in the short Gazette story) to avoid it?

I am sure some of this has been thought through. I don't think an architect would agree to be featured in the lede of the story if no concept sketches, no planning, no estimates had been done. Nor, I imagine, would this particular donor have given a substantial gift without evidence that some planning had been done–his wealth springs from the business of movie theaters, which today is substantially a food business.

I really do hate to think about the worst case, but as with many things at Harvard these days, one suspects that a great deal more thinking by non-educators has been gone into this than has been disclosed by the time the educators in the Harvard community first hear the news.

To what problem is the Campus Center the solution? Is the problem just that Harvard does not have a Campus Center, and you can't any more, in the judgment of the non-educational professionals, be a real university without one? Heavens, until the past few years we did not even have a "campus"--that neologism was brought in by experts in best practices of the industry. How will the Campus Center change Harvard, other than to make it more like everyplace else?

I'd really like to know what John Stilgoe thinks.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

But What Is the Educational Philosophy?

Harvard has announced the creation of a new "Campus Center" in what used to be known as Holyoke Center and will now be the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center.

The Smith family are true Harvard loyalists. They have been generous to Harvard in the past. My brilliant colleague Joanna Aizenberg is the Amy Smith Berylson Professor, for example. Richard Smith has served as Overseer and Fellow. The video that accompanies the announcement I find moving. The Smiths are proud of their association with Harvard, proud of passing the habit of philanthropy on to their children, and grateful for their long association with the university; and yet their choice of verb tenses and of phrases like "legacy gift" suggest an awareness of their mortality intersecting with Harvard's eternity.

What is not so clear is what this "Campus Center" will actually be. More important than the details of what it will contain (though one immediately wonders whether the misconceived SOCH will be relocated to it) is the prior question: What educational role will it play? If it is not being thought of as an educational entity, what social problem is it meant to solve? Philosophically, what will the creation of a Campus Center mean for what Harvard is?

Hints are hard to find in the announcement. We do know this:
The Smith Campus Center will be open to faculty, staff, and students across the University, and is intended to draw the community together and complement facilities already available in Harvard’s undergraduate residential Houses.…
The planning process for the center is just beginning. Faust’s intention is for a comprehensive outreach effort to engage the Harvard community in the pro­cess of planning and programming the center. University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances.  
So it is not to be a "student center," and certainly not an "undergraduate student center." But it surely can't be a faculty-student-staff center on an equal basis, nor a med-student-law-student-undergradatue center on an equal basis either. Who will feel they "own" it? Fellows from the Kennedy School, a couple of blocks away? The office workers in the upper floors of the building (the Campus Center will occupy only a few floors, apparently)? Freshmen, who mostly lack proper common rooms and are also only steps away? The custodial staff, taking a break from plowing the snow in Harvard Yard? HUPD? These questions can't be settled by any "outreach effort."

Though it is nowhere stated, I'm going to assume that this Center is meant to be an educational unit, not a purely social space. The statement that it is complementary to the Houses is consistent with that interpretation–the Houses surely are educational spaces. But what does it mean to say that the Center will "complement" the Houses? We are to imagine, I think, things happening in the Center that can't happen in the Houses. And to be sure the Houses are overcrowded and can't accommodate large College-wide activities. But do we want the Center to be the default location for small gatherings that now happen in the Houses? Isn't there a risk that the Center will enervate rather than complement the Houses?

It would have been nice to have a Master cheering the creation of a Campus Center, saying how this new unit would help House life, which is already challenged due to a variety of developments in society, developments Harvard can't control and has to live with. But no Master is quoted, and I am not sure the Masters know any more about the plans than is stated in the Gazette story.

It is all so ahistorical, so unrooted in Harvard educational philosophy. At one level it sounds like the Union, which was created in 1900 as a club for the boys who had no club, but was the solution to an identified problem: as the elective curriculum took hold under Eliot, starting in 1869, the College lost its coherence. When you sat next to the same fellow in class every hour of the day for four years, you didn't need a separate social space to get to know him. Under the elective system, your fellow students kept changing, and the Union was Henry Lee Higginson's way of recreating a sense that Harvard students had something in common.

Then the Houses came into existence under Lowell, and the Union fell away, eventually becoming the Freshman Union and then the Barker Center. (The freshmen have never fully recovered the loss of that common social space.) The Houses were backed by a very strong statement of educational philosophy:

.. [T]he increase in numbers of the larger American colleges brings with it disadvantages. The personal contact of teacher and student becomes more difficult. Large communities tend to cliques based upon similarity of origin and upon wealth.... Great masses of unorganized young men ... are prone to superficial currents of thought and interest, to the detriment of the personal intellectual progress that ought to dominate mature men seeking higher education. This drift ... is the cause of the exaggerated importance of the secondary interests as compared with the primary object of education; of what Woodrow Wilson, when President of Princeton, called the overshadowing of the main tent by the side-shows. (President's report, 1927-28)
The problem of the college is a moral one, deepening the desire to develop one's own mind, body and character; and this is much promoted by living in surroundings and an atmosphere congenial to that object. ... The Houses are a social device for a moral purpose. (President's report, 1928-29)
 Do we still believe this philosophy? How does the Campus Center "complement" it?

And how does the Campus Center relate to the development of Allston? If the Campus Center is going to be the new center of the campus, the place where Harvard is drawn together, doesn't that mean it will more difficult for Allston to be a coequal Harvard campus, effectively bridged to and unified with Cambridge?

What is the big picture of what Harvard will be? The Gazette story says that the Campus Center is being launched "after years of discussion," but by whom? Which faculty have been talking about it? Which deans? What did they say? What do they think? Can we get any bigger picture of the significance of this development than a Gazette story and a beautifully produced 3-minute video of the donors?

I am not sure which I would prefer to think: that no one has actually thought about the big picture, including the relation to the Houses, or that there really have been years of discussions behind closed doors and the crucial philosophical decisions have already been made, but will only come out during the "consultation" process.

Can we no longer write and speak thoughtfully about who and what we think we are?


On Tuesday there will be a discussion of Harvard's proposed honor code. I have read it, and have some thoughts about it, but I suppose I am not supposed to blog them because the draft code is confidential. The code was drafted by students; I wonder if students can see it. I hope faculty will turn out for the discussion, because there are again philosophical questions of institutional identity at stake.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Crisis Crisis

The humanities are in crisis. (From the New York Times.)

No, they aren't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Ben Schmidt. His original blog post is here.)

The US has a critical shortage of STEM workers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). (From the National Science and Math Initiative.)

No it doesn't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Michael Anft.)

In the twitterverse, the world of simple punch lines and thumbs-up-thumbs-down binary choices, you can no longer have a problem that isn't a crisis. We have a crisis of nuance in our rhetoric about our problems. A meta-crisis. A crisis crisis.

But when everything is a crisis, we don't recognize a real crisis when we see one.

Describing something as a crisis serves a purpose in academia. If you are an academic and tell your dean or president you have a problem, the response is likely to be, "Yeah, well I have lots of problems to solve. I'll put yours on my list." Same with Congress. But if you can draw a graph showing you have a crisis, you stand a better chance of catching the eye of the media and getting some leverage.

Except that if your graph turns out to be a distortion or a manipulation, your crisis is deflated. You are discredited. You no longer have even a problem, much less a crisis.

So it was when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released this image of the "Decline and fall" of interest in the humanities.


Off a cliff! Looks like my class of 1968 was the end of the golden era.

Not exactly. Put the zero point of the x-axis back a few years and the graph looks very different:

That is numbers of humanities degrees as a percentage of total degrees. But some of those non-humanities degrees in recent years might be going to people who wouldn't even have gone to college fifty or sixty years ago. If you plot the humanities degrees as a percentage of the college age population, you find that the density of humanities degree holders is actually higher now than it was in the 1950s. It was the 1970s that were anomalous, not the past couple of decades. (All graphs from the second source linked to above, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but you can read pretty much the same argument on Schmidt's blog, also linked above.)

Now it's an interesting argument which is the right basis for comparison. Should the number of humanists represent a fixed proportion of the population or of college students? Either way, the data make the humanities crisis look a lot more like an identity crisis of my fellow students of the late '60s and early '70s than a crisis of student careerism in the early 21st century.

In Excellence Without a Soul, I offered a couple of comments on the humanities. In the preface, commenting on the then-nascent new General Education curriculum, I wrote:
From the beginning, science and globalization drove the review. These would be the engines of human progress in the coming decades, and Harvard College needed to make these themes central to undergraduate education. The new curriculum would marginalize the humanities. At the same time, the academic disciplines themselves provided the raw materials from which an undergraduate curriculum should be composed, as though students going to college en route to careers in business, law, or medicine were doing something slightly out of place at Harvard. This superimposition of economic motivations on ivory-tower themes has exposed a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection to its principal constituents. We have forgotten that we teach the humanities to help students understand what it means to be human. We have forgotten that students from families with little money may not share the assumptions that well-to-do families have about the purpose of education. And we have forgotten that universities could not teach students about our interconnectedness in a global society were it not for the freedoms that American society provides to citizens. 
And in the chapter on grading, I thought about why grades tend to be higher in the humanities.
The humanities are, I think, in a bit of a mess. What is considered legitimate academic work has expanded greatly over the past thirty years, and judgments of the quality of scholarly articles have not reached a stable consensus. It should come as no surprise that consistent judgments of students’ work are also hard to come by, especially when those judgments are made by graduate students who are learning the subjective academic standards of their disciplines. 
That lack of a stable consensus continues. I was in a meeting recently with some humanities faculty and came out of it thinking about what I used to say about the difference between computer scientists and mathematicians: When the mathematicians circle the wagons, they point the guns outwards. The computer scientists have learned to be less self-destructive while defining and defending their discipline. The humanists have not. At Harvard the humanists can't even define their Gen Ed areas in less than thirteen syllables ("Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding"), the sort of pretentious diction that is a dead giveaway for muddy thinking. History got tacked onto the curriculum as an afterthought, in a requirement invisibly laced across all the other requirements. There may not be a crisis but there are definitely problems of identity and outreach.

One anecdote, a sad one. I had dinner recently with a bright student who expected to study literature at Harvard. She was rethinking it because the pitch she heard as a freshman for studying humanities here emphasized media, and she was more interested in books. Good grief.

Is there a national STEM crisis? I tend to think so, but it's awfully hard to tell from where I sit. Even the contrarian article cited above, which is behind a paywall in the Carbuncle of Higher Education (as a friend calls it), acknowledges the shortfall in computer and information science. I just signed at least 110 forms for sophomores to be Computer Science concentrators, and I am talking to seniors who are getting fabulous job offers. And some of the seniors getting those fabulous job offers do not have fabulous academic records. But Harvard students always do well in the job market. I am convinced that some employers just use the Harvard College admissions office as a filter and don't care that much about what we teach and what students learn. They just want 21 year old versions of the people Harvard thought had the most promise at 17, because hiring those people has paid off in the past. So it's always risky to judge what the world needs on the basis of what is happening to Harvard students!

On a national level, is there really a critical undersupply of STEM professionals or just a problem of retraining one kind of engineer to work in another area? I tend to think there really is an undersupply and the mythologizing rhetoric about the shortfall may be being fed by anti-immigration money. But I can't claim to be sure, and the crisis rhetoric makes me less sure, not more.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

CS 50 Students Have the Most Interesting Careers

Luke Chung took the course as a freshman in 1981, the first year it was taught. Wasn't even called CS 50 then, because there weren't any "Computer Science" courses as such–the original name was Applied Sciences 11. It didn't turn him into a CS concentrator (actually, there was no CS concentration then, but he didn't concentrate in Applied Math either). He has gone on to a three-decade-long career as president of his own software development firm, FMS Inc.

He is now widely quoted on the technology failures of the Affordable Care Act web site and will be testifying on Wednesday before the House Homeland Security committee about possible security issues with the site. Big deal! Break a leg, Luke.

Gore Vidal Left Everything to Harvard?

Apparently he did. Though whether he was in his right mind when he did it is being contested.

It is rather nice to think that Vidal thought the Harvard libraries would be a safe repository for his papers and that the University would use his riches wisely. It is not so nice to think of Harvard profiting from a self-centered fellow who was too mean-spirited and nasty to take care of the relatives and helpers who made his life tolerable during his decline. Some of them are hoping that even if Harvard gets the bulk of the money, it will make some provision to support them for the rest of their lives.

It is a nice set of dilemmas. Would Harvard have a moral obligation to second-guess Vidal's feelings toward his kin? Would it dishonor Vidal to provide for people Vidal quite intentionally disinherited? Would doing so tend to support the position of those who think Vidal was not thinking straight when he brought Harvard into the will in the first place, only in the last year of his life?

It would not be the first time Harvard has received a large bequest and relatives left penniless were distressed about it. Thank you, Gordon McKay! McKay at least provided for some of his dear friends, even if he changed his mind several times about who those were.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will Colleges Self-Censor?

There is an important article in the New York Times today about the awful compromises facing news organizations reporting out of China. My guess is that similar questions are going to face universities doing business in China, Singapore, and other countries where the regimes are authoritarian and the universities stand to gain vast influence and money through their engagement with those regimes.

Bloomberg pulled some of its investigative reporting out of fear that it would be expelled from China if it exposed the lavish lifestyles of the families of senior Chinese officials. Bloomberg reports world financial news; it can't be a credible authority if it can't report from inside China. What a terrible dilemma. I feel sorry for any news organization today. There are only a few news organizations that have enough money even to try to operate multiple foreign bureaus. But China can credibly reason that Bloomberg needs China more than China needs Bloomberg. And no decision of this kind is ever black and white. In not publishing something that its investigative reporters uncovered, it is not withholding from its readers some essential news, some story of a major typhoon or a default on the US debt. Who would ever know the difference if it failed to publish a story that no other news organization even knew about?

I am afraid that American colleges are going to face similar choices. Plenty has been written about Yale in Singapore and NYU in Shanghai, and whether there can really be academic freedom without political freedom. So one set of risks is that the compromises needed to operate a pseudo-liberal arts campus in an authoritarian state will seem unproblematic, and could be imported seamlessly to the American side.

But there is another risk, that teaching controversial subjects will seem to the authorities in American colleges more trouble than it is worth if it seems likely to incite wrath from Chinese educational partners. For example, Harvard offers a freshman seminar on the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. I could imagine that this could come up as Harvard engages China in any of the various research and educational collaborations it is establishing with the mainland (which, happily, do not include any liberal arts campus). If the seminar quietly disappeared from the books, who could know why that happened? No one has a right to teach a freshman seminar. I'll bet it would actually have a large audience if it were offered as a General Education course. Would Harvard dare do that? No way to know, since there are plenty of reasons for a course not to be offered, other than reluctance to offend an important business partner. The screening for Gen Ed courses is vigorous, and Rowena He, who teaches the Tiananmen seminar, is not a ladder faculty member.

In recent years I have started to travel regularly to Hong Kong. I happened to fly from the mainland to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the massacre--there was no notice on the mainland that June 4 was an unusual day, but I joined a rally in Victoria Park with tens of thousands of others remembering what had happened. Here is a photo I took.

The people of Hong Kong are much more acutely aware of the fragility of their liberties than Americans are of theirs. Could you imagine thousands rallying anywhere in the US to protest curricular changes? It happened a year ago in Hong Kong. Heck, in Hong Kong they even protest the paucity of television stations.

I don't know that any educational compromises are happening in American universities in order to facilitate international partnerships. We may be seeing in the skittishness of Wellesley College about its links to China an indication of what is to come. But that case involves a well known individual professor. What we teach--that is in any case subject to so many pressures and compromises and decisions taken for vaguely judgmental reasons of one kind or another, we might never know the difference between deference to authoritarian power and ordinary academic horse trading, unless the faculty remains vigilant and asks hard questions.

Snowplow parents

That is the term for parents who are so over-involved int he lives of their college student children that they want to clear the snow ahead of time so their kids won't slip and fall on it. Bella English has a terrific, and terrifying, story about the phenomenon in the Boston Globe today.

Some of the examples cited are hilarious, but none unbelievable. I am surprised how often I have to explain to students that the way to do something is just to go ahead and do it; there is no special form to fill out or rule to check, no permissions needed, before asking a question or seeking out an opportunity. We really do have some students (only a few, but they exist at Harvard) who seem never to have had to cope for themselves.

One of the most unfortunate developments is the phenomenon of students feeling so programmed to go to college that they don't realize they don't have to stay in college, when they really have no internally generated justification for being there. Harvard is very lenient about taking leave for a year or two or even longer, and coming back later without endangering one's financial aid or requiring any complicated readmission protocol. If you aren't making progress, if you are lost and aimless, just leave for awhile, I regularly advise. (It was not an option in my day, because men would get drafted, and I saw friends get very screwed up as a result--college became simultaneously a sanctuary and a prison.) If you can't think of anything you'd rather do than be in college, consider whether changing the direction of the flow of dollars might be a tie-breaker as to whether to stay or go. Heaven knows there are a lot of other people eager for your place, and you can always reclaim it later!

But sometimes students can't have an honest conversation with their parents about leaving, in fact don't even know how to begin the conversation. So they trudge joylessly on, following instructions. The fortunate ones wake up their senior year while they still have a few years to reclaim their lives.

I am glad I went to college before the days of cell phones and social media, and while there were still all-night bookstores. The day I landed at Harvard was the day I started to become an adult, and that is the way the world should work. Human childhood is so long, it needs something like going off to college to mark the ending.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Too much time and too much money spent on sports, students schedule classes around extracurriculars, etc.

Some of my colleagues were grumbling about such issues in a meeting I attended recently. It all sounded familiar somehow, and then I ran across this old report.

… it is reasonable to suppose that at least two thousand students out of the thirty-five hundred in Cambridge take some active part in one or more of the thirteen sports in which an enumeration of the number of participants was made. A second table in this report demonstrates that the receipts of gatemoney have nearly doubled in eight years, while the expenditures have increased only about 50 per cent. There are also tables which exhibit the expenditures for six years in each one of the following sports-foot-ball, base-ball, rowing, and track athletics. The Chairman calls attention to the fact that the expenditures for foot-ball are steadily increasing. A quarter part of all who take part in this sport are injured enough to lay them up for ten days on the average, and a much larger proportion of those who really play the game for the season are thus injured. The changes in the rules during the past ten years have tended to increase the number of injuries, rather than to diminish it. The temporary injuries are so numerous, that it is impossible to count on putting any particular eleven men into an important game on a given day. In order to provide the necessary number of substitutes for each place, the foot-ball squad often numbers sixty men. Hence large expenditures. The outfit for candidates grows more expensive, because they wear about fourteen pounds' weight of padding and armor. On the whole the game, under the existing rules, tends to become slower and less visible in its details, and therefore less interesting. Moreover, the ethics of the game, which are the imperfect ethics of war, do not improve. The martial axiom --attack the enemy's weakest point-inevitably leads to the deliberate onslaught on the cripple or the convalescent in the opposing line; and the habitual violation of rules, if penalties be escaped, is regarded by many as merely amusing. The Chairman's discussion of eligibility rules will be found interesting, if also somewhat discouraging. It is a cheerful feature of the report that a larger proportion of the gate-money than formerly has lately been used for the permanent imnprovement of the playgrounds. To drain and grade the large surface of the Longfellow marsh will be a work of time, andti will call every year for the expenditure of a considerable sum of money. 

Of all the competitive games in which the students are interested, foot-ball is the only one against which any serious objections can be raised; but there is increasing objection to the great exaggeration of all athletic sports. There is now a series of competitive games which covers the entire academic year; and the distraction of large bodies of students from the proper work of a university grows more intense and continuous year after year. …In the College and the Scientific School the afternoons of many students during far the greater part of the year are devoted to play, or to looking at the games which the most expert athletes are playing. The range of elective selection among the studies of the College is seriously limited, because of the desire of students, and therefore of teachers, to avoid appointments in the afternoons. Such are some of the evils which attend the prevailing exaggeration of athletic sports; but whenever the 
evils consequent upon this exaggeration are mentioned, it should also be mentioned that the outdoor sports on the average and in the mass do more good than harm; for they promote vigorous physical development, and provide invaluable safeguards against effeminacy and vice. 

Annual Report of President Eliot for the year 1901-02, pp. 39-41.

Kind of amazing, isn't it, that such a sports-crazed, anti-intellectual place could have survived into the 21st century as an iconic American college, a place that regularly wins the Putnam competition as well as the Ivy football championship. It seems like nothing has changed, including even the consternation of the faculty. Even the landscaping problems are the same -- Harvard is still trying to drain the "Longfellow marsh" enclosed by the bend of the Charles River!

This is still us. The way this all works together is not simple and requires constant vigilance. But it also requires a considerable degree of humility and sophistication on the part of the faculty about what makes us great, what has made us succeed.

"Change the World"

That is the title of a piece in the New Yorker last spring by George Packer. I read it only recently, just before my recent trip to California. I recommend it to everyone engaged with the Silicon Valley utopia, and in particular all my students and alums who are pulled into that alluring vortex. It so energizing and exciting; new ideas spark flames that suddenly burst into bonfires. The conditions of work and life are being optimized for maximum productivity and convenience of the brilliant and talented tech workers. More and more of the workers now live in San Francisco and take the corporate buses to the Valley. Google, Facebook, Apple are building closed campuses, with all the comforts of home, so workers can now live in San Francisco, work in the Valley, and yet never make eye contact with anyone except family members and employees of their firm. The first time I experience free food was decades ago, out on Route 128 at Kendall Square Research; the theory was that it would reduce espionage if the engineers were talking to each other in the lunchroom rather than in Burger King. That line of thinking seems to have been carried to its logical conclusion. Real estate values, a friend told me, are inversely proportional to the distance from the corporate bus stops.

These nouveaux riches and those aiming to be so are young enough to be idealistic about the liberating power of the Internet and the information flows it enables. Trouble is, as the article movingly relates, coveys of idealists living in their bubbles tend to narcissism and disconnection from the grimmer reality of the world around them. Engagement with government is definitely uncool. This is from a puff for the article:
In “Change the World” (p. 44), George Packer travels to the San Francisco Bay Area to talk to members of the tech industry about Silicon Valley’s increasing interest in politics. “Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s history, its executives have displayed a libertarian instinct to stay as far from politics and government as possible,” Packer writes. “The technology industry, by sequestering itself from the community it inhabits, has transformed the Bay Area without being changed by it—in a sense, without getting its hands dirty.” Today, “Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America,” Packer writes. “The technology industry’s newest wealth is swallowing up the San Francisco Peninsula.” But many young Valley residents feel that technology—not government, which “is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies”—can improve the human condition. Sam Lessin, who leads Facebook’s “identity product group,” tells Packer that simply improving communication through social media is “moving the ball forward—making people more efficient with their time and able to effectively live longer lives therefore, you know, and making them happier.” One young entrepreneur says to Packer, of his colleagues, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.” Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, tells Packer that part of the problem is Silicon Valley’s underdeveloped intellectual culture, which comes from the Valley’s competitiveness, an orientation that requires an unyielding focus on one’s company, and from “that libertarian strain—we’re just all out building stuff, and everything else is kind of extraneous.”
It's a good, moving, thought-provoking piece.