Friday, March 29, 2013

It is not every week …

… that begins with the news that your men's basketball team has won a game in the NCAA tournament and ends with the news that your team of student mathematicians has won the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition. (That's the premier mathematics competition in the world.)

The secret in both cases? Recruiting. Teaching and coaching helps too, but finding the people who will thrive here and excel in their special talents is more important.

And by the way, the star of the basketball victory over New Mexico, pictured celebrating in the first article I linked to? He's a computer science major.

This is a pretty amazing place. Today the weather is even good! And yesterday the Admissions Office sent out a few fat envelopes along with many thin ones … Nice picture of senior admissions officer David Evans carrying the envelopes out to the mail truck!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Support from unexpected directions

We are known by the company we keep. So I was glad, in the days following the Globe's original reporting on the faculty email issue, when some people I respect were quoted expressing their alarm in terms stronger than I had used. Theda Skocpol, for example, told the Crimson, “Whoever designed this entire cheating scandal in all of its many investigative aspects fits better at the Hoover era FBI than at a modern university." The same Crimson story also quotes Charles Maier, a Harvard venerable. The New York Times quoted economist Oliver Hart, whom I barely know and I don't recall ever being quoted on internal Harvard matters, saying “It’s disturbing because I don’t know what it means about whether they could look at my own e-mail.”

But I am now wondering whether I should continue to be happy to be agreed with. First there was the lead editorial in the St Patrick's day Boston Globe, Harvard was wrong to check email.
The administrators say they were concerned about potential breaches in student confidentiality; but there had been no such breaches in the news leaks. Much more likely, Harvard’s leaders were concerned about their own reputations and that of the university. The search was inappropriate — and out of step with the university’s responsibility to protect free expression.
Well, that goes beyond anything I have said about rationale, but the bottom line is surely right. I agree with the Globe editorials so infrequently, however, that this made me worry a bit. What is happening to me?

And then today there is an op-ed in the Crimson by Sandra Korn, a member of the Occupy movement. In  Harvard’s One Voice, she notes that my "blog posts fall within a field of relative radio silence from Faust and other administrators." In conclusion, she says, "Our administration should learn from this year’s scandals that honesty and internal critique—like that of Harry R. Lewis—is valuable and indeed essential to a healthy university community." Phew! It is not every day that Occupy and I are on the same page. 

I don't actually think the Faculty is done talking about this issue, and I do think it is entirely appropriate for some of the discussion to move off the blogs and news reporting and into the venues where faculty talk directly to each other rather than with the world. And I am hopeful that when the dust settles, those discussions will have restored the climate of trust, about which many History professors in particular have publicly expressed their concern. But Korn is right -- discussions with people you don't usually agree with are productive and enlightening, and far fewer members of the faculty speak up about such things than are worried about them.  One colleague, a tenured professor, sent me a nice supportive note after seeing something I had said, but said s/he would probably not voice that opinion to anyone else out of fear of retribution. Sad but true. So the meta-question Korn raises is perhaps even more important than the issue of email privacy. Next time, what can we all do to encourage open and honest discussion of important issues among members of the Harvard community -- or at least among the faculty?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sharon Howell's Magnificent Letter

A profile in courage is emerging out of the Harvard email mess -- Sharon Howell, Resident Dean in Adams House, who on behalf of her fellow Resident Deans, raised the level of the conversation in a letter she sent President Faust on Monday. The letter has a dignity of tone and an aspirational quality one rarely hears here these days. I reproduce it below with her permission.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Email Snooping Update

Deans Smith and Hammonds put out a very helpful statement yesterday, which has been widely reported. It contains a limited apology ("we apologize if any Resident Deans feel our communication at the conclusion of the investigation was insufficient," which is limited in two ways -- it is restricted to not informing the deans that their email had been searched, and limited only to the deans who had certain feelings and not to the others). Part of it was immediately denied by one of the few people mentioned specifically in the statement, Sharon Howell. The Globe reported

Senior resident dean Sharon Howell disputed a portion of the statement that said administrators had told her about the search shortly after it took place. Howell maintained that she had not been officially ­informed until last week, after the Globe approached Harvard asking about the search, which was sparked by the leak of a confidential ­e-mail about last year’s cheating scandal.
The story goes on to cite a second, anonymous source claiming to know that there was no plan to inform Howell.  This detail is maybe a bit of a distraction, but it does not help the deans' credibility, on a matter that is so much about trust in their good judgment,  to have a specific fact they state denied almost immediately. It also does not give a good impression of Harvard's communications apparatus not to have shown the statement, or at least the part describing her, to someone specifically mentioned in the statement.

But the good news is we probably understand now how the email, meant to be confidential, got to the Crimson. Harvard Magazine connects the dots in the most reasonable way:
From the language of the Smith-Hammonds statement about the resident dean reviewing e-mails and confirming that she or he had forwarded the memo to two students, and the timing (August 16), it seems plausible that at a time when the enormous academic-conduct investigation was taking shape (with more than 100 students involved), resident deans were scrambling for guidance to offer to the students involved; that this memo from the AB appeared, containing some broad outlines of courses of action; and that it seemed natural simply to pass it along, particularly, perhaps, to student-athletes involved in the investigation, who had to worry about their future athletic eligibility. It could simply be the case that whoever forwarded the memo was extraordinarily busy keeping up with the demands of the burgeoning investigation.
I can, perhaps, shed a little light on this because, ironically, I probably played a role in the creation of the "leaked" email. On August 15, I got a concerned email from a friend, who wanted to talk to me. I told him to call me in Montana where I was on vacation. He told me that his child was in Gov 1310 and was being accused of academic dishonesty. He was pretty calm about all that. The problem was that the child and the child's friends in the same situation in different Houses were getting differing and confusing advice about what was going to happen and how they would have to respond. The resident deans were plainly not all on the same page. I offered to call the Ad Board secretary, just to let him know how much confusion was in circulation. I did so, either on August 15 or on the morning of August 16, and sometime on August 16 I called my friend back to say that based on my call with the Secretary of the Board, I hoped a more consistent explanation of next steps would be forthcoming.

The Secretary's email (posted on the Crimson's web site) went out at 5:46pm on August 16. I am sure I was not the only one reporting that students were confused and that the resident deans were giving inconsistent advice. My friend's child had no issue about athletic eligibility, so the need to clarify that certainly came from somewhere else. (By the way, few herrings in the shoals of the "cheating scandal" discussions have been as red as the claim that Harvard should not have been helping its students navigate the complexities of the hundreds of pages in the NCAA and Ivy League rule books, which describe in confusing, legalistic language the contractual relations between the student, the University, and the NCAA and Ivy League.)

The point of relating my personal role here is simply to provide one data point for the suggestion Harvard Magazine makes, that the resident deans were "scrambling for guidance to offer the students involved," and that they were doing so at a moment that even in a normal year is a pressure point--because they are processing readmission petitions and various other start of term business. The deans felt they were flying blind, talking to student after distressed student and with almost nothing concrete to tell them, no exam paper to go over with them, no sense of how scores of cases were going to be processed or on what time table. And suddenly a carefully worded explanation of good general advice arrives, plainly not confidential in the sense that it mentions any student or even any ongoing policy discussion. And probably some dean just figured, hastily and unwisely, "S--t. I could rephrase this in separate emails to my two students, but I am more likely to screw things up if I paraphrase it. Nothing sensitive in here --I'll just forward it."

And then, probably, forgot all about it as the crush of work continued.

If this is correct, then saying "the dean leaked" would be very legalistic. True, the dean shared something the dean should not have shared. But the dean, it would seem, did so in the interest of giving the best possible advice as quickly as possible, having been put, by the College, in the position of counseling perhaps a dozen frightened students, one at a time, with no adequate way of counseling them.

The statement goes on to refer to one or possibly two other incidents that heightened the concerns of the senior deans: One in which "confidential data from an Administrative Board meeting was shared with the Crimson" and one in which "nearly word-for-word disclosure of a confidential board conversation" appeared in the Crimson. There is no explanation of precisely what Crimson story or stories are referred to here, but both the Globe and Harvard Magazine link off to a September 11 story, "Cheating Scandal to be Reviewed Case-by-Case"--a barely newsworthy bit of news, though I suppose worth reporting. The story turns out to be based on an an anonymous IvyGate blog posting, in which a student reports what the student's dean told him or her. Here seems to be the offending paragraph:
Citing his or her resident dean, the tipster identified four ways the Ad Board would proceed in specific circumstances—ranging from possible exoneration for students whose similar answers resulted from notes or study guides shared before the exam came out, to a failing course grade and a requirement to temporarily withdraw from the College for students who discussed the exam while it was out.
There is more, but it is all Ad Board boilerplate, mapped onto the particularities of this open book exam. Especially with the "possible" preserved all the way from mouth to mouth to blog to the Crimson, this just sounds like a dean giving a student good general advice--once again, probably a student desperate for advice and a dean trying his or her hardest not to get it wrong in a moment of great stress and uncertainty.

From this, the statement continues, Deans Smith and Hammonds decided there was a risk of confidential student information becoming public. I fail to see any evidence of such a risk. As far as I know, at no point in this extraordinary year of tens of thousands of pages of individual student-private documentation did one shred of it land in the hands of the Crimson or any other public source. The statement says nothing to suggest that anything like that has happened. At worst I see a couple of deans (no reason to think they are the same person) trying a little too hard to give their students accurate advice.

Not a firing offense.

Nor an offense worth combing through email boxes.

Especially as this second issue, the IvyGate blog posting, is unrelated to any email, and the search was not designed to turn up anything about it. It is hard to see that Crimson story as helping to justify the email search.

So bottom line, the email search was undertaken because of the "leakage" of good advice from the deans to their students.

But, the statement goes on to explain, the resident deans had their chance. They were asked to 'fess up and none of them did. They were warned that an investigation would take place if nobody came forward.

But apparently they were not specifically told that their email accounts would be searched. They were not told to go back and check their sent-mail folders to be sure they hadn't forgotten something.

In retrospect it is perhaps easy to assume that if someone tells you he is going to conduct an investigation of the leakage of an email, that means that everybody's email accounts are going to be checked. But reading other people's email is so far beyond the cultural pale here I have no trouble at all understanding why it might not occur to the RDs that the University was about to read their email. In any case, what was to be lost by being just a bit more specific about explaining what you are about to do before you actually do it, just to be sure? (Individual deans could not have made the ghostly traces of their sent mail vanish.) Reading other people's email is a big deal and every other avenue should have been exhausted before going down that one.

So this seems to me a crucial process slip. Something to remember for next time, as they say.

That brings us to the question of not telling people afterwards. The statement reads,
Operating without any clear precedent for the conflicting privacy concerns and knowing that no human had looked at any emails during or after the investigation, we made a decision that protected the privacy of the Resident Dean who had made an inadvertent error and allowed the student cases being handled by this Resident Dean to move forward expeditiously. 
Several reports have found this explanation puzzling, and so do I. I suppose what is implied here is that if the deans all knew their email boxes had been searched, they would also have to be told that the culprit had been identified, and then the buzz of peer pressure would have outed the guilty party, and then that person would then have to resign, and then that dean's students would have been disadvantaged. Make up your own mind about the risks of all that happening, and the dean's peers being unwilling to give him or her a break for the kind of slip that any of them might have made themselves, vs. the standard assumption embodied, for good reason, in the Faculty policy (which is also consistent with the Golden Rule, I think) that people want to know if someone has gone into their mail box for any reason. So a bad call there, I think. And I am not convinced that the explanation offered is the real reason. Occam's Razor would suggest a simpler explanation: they just knew the RDs would be pissed off, because they knew they wouldn't have realized what an "investigation" actually meant in this case. So the RDs weren't told.

And that actually gives a second argument for telling the RDs, in addition to the ethical one. Universities are actually surprisingly good at keeping confidential information confidential, given the amount of it they have. But universities are better at keeping information secret if it is a kind of information around which there is a community consensus that confidentiality is important. Attempts to keep things secret fail more often when they are things that many members of the community think are wrong. So there was a tactical as well as principled reason to tell the deans. It was too likely to get out eventually, and the costs of mopping up multiplied by the nontrivial risk factor exceeded the benefit of not letting the resident deans know.

Personally I am not too impressed with the argument that this was a mechanical rather than human search, that it was checking subject lines, and so on. It is hard to have confidence that these were really considerations taken into account in advance, since it just so happens that a simple search like this was all that was needed to find the culprit. Which provides another interesting factoid: Apparently the dean who did this did not even bother to change the subject line to say "I have some advice for you!" or something like that--another dot confirming the hastiness of the action and the innocence of the intent.

So the whole business remains a bit puzzling. The statement concludes that forwarding the email was "inadvertent," and I am glad that the conclusion lines up with the facts and that no action has been taken against the dean. According to the statement, however, the investigation was undertaken because of "the need to determine whether a member of the Administrative Board had compromised the confidentiality of case information." But the search did not, and COULD NOT HAVE, settled that question at all. Having cited the limited nature of the search in justifying it, the deans are suggesting that they would not have stooped to do a more invasive search if this one had failed. But then all the search could do is figure out who forwarded the message--and then only if the forwarding had been done innocently, without bothering even to change the subject line. No part of this "investigation" had a prayer of determining anything about inappropriate disclosure of case information, which in any case there is no reason to think ever happened. If they hauled in the dean who forwarded the email and asked, "Did you ever disclose any case information?" and the dean answered "no, what possible reason do you have for thinking I might have?" was that really worth breaking the sacred seal on email boxes?

And to rise back up to the big question again: How serious does a situation have to be before the University will go into an email box, either a staff member's or a faculty member's? While I absolutely believe that there are some situations in which it has to be done, putting everything about this case together as I now understand it, I remain worried that the operative answer at Harvard is, "not very."

Monday, March 11, 2013

At Least I Get That Part Now

In the blog post below, I wondered parenthetically,
(Don't ask me why the fact that you have no email privacy as a Harvard employee is kept secure behind a login wall.)
I got an email from someone I don't know, offering an explanation, and here quote it with permission:
While I am not an attorney, I believe the reason the University policy is only accessible through logon is that this provides the administration with a record of folks who have accessed the policy, thereby potentially limiting the ability of people to claim they were not aware of the policy.
That is to say, they want to make sure you can't privately access the information that your email is not private, because they want to be able to prove later on that you knew it wasn't private.

I don't know that that is accurate, of course; just a conjecture. But it sounds right. If it is true, I wonder if they do page-level tracking (the employee email policy is part of the employment handbook, which has a table of contents breaking it down into about a dozen web pages).

Thanks very much to the gentleman who gave me this suggestion. And welcome to the corporate university.

Added 10pm 3/11: I have now heard from two very experienced lawyers who giggled at this theory but don't believe a word of it. Any competent lawyer, one of them said, would advise that the policy needs to be as visible as possible to reduce the risk that someone will claim not to have known it. So thanks to my informant, but the theory is too cute by half.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Email Privacy at Harvard

The Globe reports that Harvard read email sent via Harvard servers from 16 of its resident deans. I know nothing about what actually happened except what the Globe reporter told me; the story states that she has two independent sources, both of whom wished to remain anonymous to protect themselves. It appears that Harvard has confirmed the basic facts by informing the deans, some six months after the search of their email, that the search had in fact occurred.

Some background first of all.

Years ago I noticed Harvard's employee email policy. Here it is. It's in the employee manual, which for some reason is behind a login screen. I doubt that many Harvard employees have ever seen it or focused on it.
 Privacy/Management's Right to Access Information
Employees must have no expectation or right of privacy in anything they create, store, send, or receive on Harvard's computers, networks or telecommunications systems. Although many employees have individual computers or computer accounts, and while employees may make incidental personal use of University technology information systems, ultimately Harvard University has ownership over, and the right to obtain access to, the systems and contents. Incidental personal use is permitted so long as it does not interfere with job performance, consume significant time or resources, interfere with the activities of other employees or otherwise violate this policy, the rules of an employee’s local unit, or other University policies. Electronic files, e-mail, data files, images, software and voice mail may be accessed at any time by management or by other authorized personnel for any business purpose. Access may be requested and arranged through the system(s) user, however, this is not required.
This plainly gives Harvard complete access to the email of employees--"for any business purpose" cuts a very wide swath around the domain of permissible snooping. I understand that this is very much boilerplate for employee email accounts in corporations.

(Don't ask me why the fact that you have no email privacy as a Harvard employee is kept secure behind a login wall.)

In spite of this language, which permits Harvard to be quite intrusive, I have known only a few cases where Harvard probably read employee email. Every time there is an investigation of scientific fraud or embezzlement of university funds, I suspect the university would archive and inspect email. Be that as it may, this seems to apply to staff and administration, everyone from support staff (who are covered by collective bargaining agreements with the University) up to executive vice presidents.

The Student Handbook suggests that nobody is going to snoop student email, and that any student who reads the email of others is going to be in trouble.

Privacy of Information

Information stored on a computer system or sent electronically over a network is the property of the individual who created it. Examination, collection, or dissemination of that information without authorization from the owner is a violation of the owner’s rights to control his or her own property. Systems administrators, however, may gain access to users’ data or programs when it is necessary to maintain or prevent damage to systems or to ensure compliance with other University rules. 
Computer systems and networks provide mechanisms for the protection of private information from examination. These mechanisms are necessarily imperfect and any attempt to circumvent them or to gain unauthorized access to private information (including both stored computer files and messages transmitted over a network) will be treated as a violation of privacy and will be cause for disciplinary action. 
In general, information that the owner would reasonably regard as private must be treated as private by other users. Examples include the contents of electronic mail boxes, the private file storage areas of individual users, and information stored in other areas that are not public. That measures have not been taken to protect such information does not make it permissible for others to inspect it.
I wrote that. There is a little wiggle room there in the phrase "compliance with other University rules" but I don't remember it ever being used except when the force of law is behind the search. There may have been times when email was subpoenaed by law enforcement and the University complied. Under the PATRIOT act the University may have to turn over email without telling anyone about it, including the person whose email it is. There is absolutely no way to know whether that has ever happened.

When I looked at the employee policy about nine years ago, it seemed to me utterly dissonant with what faculty expected and assumed, and probably with the very spirit of free inquiry and exchange of controversial ideas that lies at the heart of academic culture. (I am sure it is also quite different from what most staff assume about their email, but I leave that aside.) With the help of several other members of the faculty, university attorneys, and administrators, I helped steer the development of a policy for faculty email. It reads as follows:

Harvard University Information Security

FAS Policy Regarding the Privacy of Faculty Electronic Materials

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) provides the members of its faculty with computers, access to a computer network and computing services for business purposes, and it is expected that these resources will be used in an appropriate and professional manner. The FAS considers faculty email messages and other electronic documents stored on Harvard-owned computers to be confidential, and will not access them, except in the following circumstances.

First, IT staff may need access to faculty electronic records in order to ensure proper functioning of our computer infrastructure. In performing these services, IT staff members are required to handle private information in a professional and appropriate manner, in accordance with the Harvard Personnel Manual for Administrative and Professional Staff.  The failure to do so constitutes grounds for disciplinary action.
Second, in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may be accessed and copied by the administration.  Such review requires the approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the General Counsel. The faculty member is entitled to prior written notice that his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.
So that is the background. Basically, email privacy is as sacred as paper mail privacy. You just don't slit or steam open envelopes addressed to other people, with extremely rare exceptions such as search warrants and PATRIOT Act demands. Where I have had a hand in drafting university policies I have tried to incorporate that understanding into the language, while still providing the compliance exceptions the lawyers say are necessary. When you look at faculty email, you have to inform the faculty member, afterwards if not before.

But what about the staff policy? It reads to me like a typical Terms of Service Agreement--written by lawyers on the assumption that almost nobody will read it, and that those who might read it will be too powerless to object. It puts all the authority in the hands of the University so that, if some official of the University does something stupid or invasive out of ignorance or malice, it will be hard for an employee to claim that the official broke any rules. From the standpoint of the university and its legal counsel, it's a nice, safe policy to have on the books, and that is why many businesses have similar policies.

Now come the facts as reported by the Globe. Last August 16, the Secretary of the Ad Board sent an email to (it appears) the resident deans in the Houses, advising them about how to counsel students who had been accused in the infamous Gov 1310 "cheating scandal." This email wound up in the hands of the Crimson, which wrote a story mentioning and quoting from it. It seems like this email was a helpful attempt to clear up any confusion in the minds of the resident deans of the Houses. It certainly does not seem to have been the sort of thing that should have raised FERPA worries, reports to state authorities, and so on.

I haven't seen the email, only the parts of it quoted by the Crimson. But the Crimson's account suggests it wasn't meant to become public, but didn't actually contain any truly confidential information either--no students are named, no secret double probation is discussed. It just describes what good advisors should tell advisees.

For some reason, the College was alarmed enough about this email becoming public that it scanned the emails of the resident deans to find out which one of them was responsible for the leak. As I am quoted as asking, it is hard to know why someone did not simply ask the resident deans which of them did it, if necessary pointing out that the University had the power to find out if no one was willing to come forward voluntarily.

Or does it really have that authority, as claimed? 

This becomes a matter of some dispute. Harvard maintains that the staff policy applies to Resident Deans, in which case Harvard can snoop the deans' email and don't have to tell them that is being done. The fact that the deans hold the academic rank of Lecturer, apparently goes the argument, does not make them faculty from the perspective of the email privacy policy. I am speculating to some degree, but I think the argument must be that their administrative responsibilities trump their faculty privileges. They gave up the protections enjoyed by faculty when they accepted the deanship.

And yet their status as faculty is intrinsic to their role as members of the Ad Board-- that is, the Board to which the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has delegated responsibility for Administering its rules. The Board is a faculty committee--and one whose purpose is educational, as the College itself states,
The Administrative Board is the committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) responsible for the application and enforcement of undergraduate academic regulations and standards of social conduct. Established in 1890, the Administrative Board is among the oldest of the Faculty’s committees and it follows well-established procedures and practices that are designed to further the educational mission of the College.
An ordinary lecturer is certainly a faculty member when she teaches a course--I am sure we include courses taught by Lecturers when we report to US News the number of courses taught by faculty. Could she really lose her faculty status by virtue of representing the faculty on the Board to which it has delegated authority to administer its rules? If so, that would also be true for faculty who become other kinds of deans: Can Harvard read all of Michael Mitzenmacher's email (he is area dean for CS at Harvard)? Or mine, when I resume my role as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science? And presumably the Masters of the Houses, who also assume significant administrative responsibilities when they become Masters. And directors of Centers, etc., etc. If I understand the logic, all these folks lost the protections of the faculty email privacy policy when they agreed to accept their positions.

This was not anticipated in the drafting or adoption of the FAS faculty email privacy policy. And I doubt that very many of those who accepted these roles understood what they were giving up.

Whichever policy is applicable, this way of handling the situation seems to me--well, dishonorable, to mention a concept that has been in the air a lot this year because of allegations that Gov 1310 students (but not their professor) have behaved less than honorably. Why not tell people you are reading their email? Would it not be the honorable thing to do? What is to be gained by not doing that? Other than avoiding, perhaps, the embarrassment of acknowledging that you are doing something to which the targets would reasonably object if they knew it. Perhaps there are considerations I don't know; as I said I don't know any of the facts except those reported in the Globe. But it doesn't feel right to me, and it apparently didn't sit well with the resident dean quoted in the story.

This seems to me a sad incident which raises many questions. If an employee's boss wants to spy on her, who has to sign off on it and how does it get done? How many such searches have been done over the past five years? Is it always done without informing the target? Have the targets generally been people like these resident deans--people with both teaching and administrative appointments?

Probably what we are seeing here is the confluence of two forces. One, the authority of the faculty is in decline. Members of the Ad Board are being treated as staff, not faculty, because staff are more easily controlled than faculty, and the increasingly centralized power structure of the university values control very highly. And two, the thing that most needs to be controlled in the modern university is information itself. Our communications offices have grown while our library staff has shrunk. The faculty finds out about things by reading press releases and Gazette stories. In the information-control university, an email gone astray is grounds for a witch hunt.

Personally, I will probably, after four decades, respond by moving most of my personal and frivolous email to my gmail account,, and use my Harvard address strictly for business, checking it less often and batching my responses. I have long had a statement on my home page to use the address, which only I read. That will go now. I have always taken pride in being able to assure upset students and angry parents that no staff intermediary would process their message--it would go straight from their fingers to my eyes.  I used to favor Harvard email over gmail because I thought it protected me better. I figured, if someone issues a subpoena for my email, I would rather have Harvard's lawyers think about whether to comply than to know for certain that Google would comply. My assumption about the relative risks has now flipped. If something as innocuous as the leakage of the August 16 email justifies reading the email of a dozen faculty members, it is hard to know how low the threshold might be for invasion of our in- and out-boxes.

I am sure I and others will think of more questions in the coming weeks, but here is one that should be answered. We think that students are pretty well protected. But what about alumni? We urge seniors to acquire post.harvard addresses--mine is Does Harvard retain the right to scan incoming email as it passes through the Harvard domain and gets redirected to the address to which the alum has bound the proxy address? Given the University's encompassing view of its rights to scan "employee" email, including faculty email when the faculty have administrative responsibilities, I would not assume that the university would feel constrained. I could not find any reassuring statement about the privacy of post.harvard email on the alumni web site. That is why I am not, yet at least, using as a convenient proxy address.

More generally, it seems to me that we have taken another step away from the old feeling that the university was a family, benevolently disposed towards its members and even lovingly indulgent. It has taken a step toward becoming instead a bristling corporation, with adversaries within who must be spied upon using all available tools, or perhaps an authoritarian government. (I have written about this before: see Campus Culture.) For most of my life Harvard has been both my work life and my personal life, inextricably entwined. But I too must now split them, and perhaps develop the thing a recent Crimson story credited me and Howard Gardner with lacking: a merely "transactional relationship" to the university.

Updated 11pm 3/10.
The NYT had a piece this morning that did not add much to the Globe story. A followup story has just been posted and is more interesting:
Michael Mitzenmacher posted an excellent piece this morning on his blog: Harvard Spies on E-mails
Richard Bradley also blogged: At Harvard, Secrets and Lies

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why Oprah Was a Bad Choice for Commencement Speaker

On Monday I blogged (here and here) about the announcement that Oprah Winfrey would be Harvard's Commencement speaker. After that was picked up and I was quoted in the Globe yesterday on the selection, Kevin Hartnett of the Globe's Ideas page emailed me some questions, which I answered. As I explain below, this was a good opportunity for me to explain that Oprah's status as a rich celebrity wasn't the real problem, though that was the only part of my interview with the reporter that made it into print on Tuesday. Hartnett has posted a good summary of my main points, filling in some editorial background. Here is his blog post: Oprah at Harvard: A bad fit? I might add, in reference to his suggestion that I am a vox clamante in deserto, that there is hardly a professor I have run into who doesn't share my view--and that half a dozen alums I happened to see at a party last night were all rolling their eyes too.

I had hoped a print version of this exchange might appear, but apparently that is not in the cards. Be that as it may, Hartnett's blog post also omitted some things I had hoped would get onto the record, so I am reproducing our entire exchange (modulo a little copy editing) immediately below.

Hi Kevin. Nice to meet you. I am glad to follow up, because I am afraid the way I was quoted makes it sound like I am against wealthy celebrities. I am not;  my sometime student Bill Gates was a wealthy celebrity too when he came, and he certainly deserved the honor! 

And by the way, I assert in my blog post that Winfrey will be receiving an honorary degree, but that is actually not stated in Harvard's story about her. I suspect that this is just because the formality of voting the degree has to be done by the President and Fellows and that has not happened yet. It would be unprecedented, as far as I know, for the commencement address (actually the HAA annual meeting address, of course) to be given by someone who had not received an honorary degree (and somehow I doubt Winfrey would allow herself to be the first!). But we don't really know that (unless the Globe has been able to figure it out?).

Dear Harry-

I write for the Boston Globe's Ideas section….  I've read the two blog posts you've written on the topic and I have some follow-up questions I'd like to ask:

1. Could you elaborate on why you don't think Oprah is an appropriate choice?
I wouldn't disagree with any of the reasons cited in explaining the selection. My main concern is that she is a leading popularizer of pseudo-science and medical quackery. She is a brilliantly skilled entertainer; people love her and respect her opinion. But that is what makes her so dangerous when her guests, with her enthusiastic support, warn parents off childhood immunizations and otherwise encourage practices that are bad for human health. The notion that there is a parallel universe denied by science where wonderful things happen is fundamentally at odds with the university's commitment to the rule of evidence and reason as opposed to superstition and ignorance. More than that, the advice promoted on her show was often bad for people; Winfrey's success is based in part on the fact that there are certain kinds of falsehoods that people want to believe. The honor being given her legitimates the nonsense on which she has so successfully built her career and made her fortune.

Ultimately it's the dissonant message about the values of the university that is so troubling. There has been a lot of talk about academic integrity at Harvard this year, and a lot of students were given a year off to think about academic values and what it means to pursue and report the truth in an honest way. Marc Hauser was forced to give up his professorship over scientific fraud that was a lot less egregious than the things that have made Winfrey famous. Students witnessing all this can only think that the university itself thinks that the worldly standards Winfrey has promoted are a legitimate alternative to the rules of what must be an academic game, when we should be teaching them that the pursuit of the truth inside academia is continuous with what we hope they will promote in the rest of their lives.
2. Why do you think she was selected?
I am sure the philanthropy and inspirational background were important considerations, but it is hard not to suspect that her celebrity and broad appeal were not also significant factors. People love her, and I imagine it was hoped she would excite no protests. Perhaps the committee overvalues inoffensiveness.

3. Imagining one way in which people might disagree with you, I want to ask, is it at least a little snobby to say that arguably America's most successful woman isn't suited to giving a commencement address at the university?
Not snobbish at all. In fact, I personally don't like giving honorary degrees to academics. We get enough prizes from each other already. I wish this were the day when Harvard looked outward, and recognized the contributions of those living outside academia to the values for which the university stands. Some successful businesspeople, even if any one of us might disagree with their opinions about this or that, generally stand for the pursuit of the truth through informed debate, for the use of scientific methods in separating fact from fiction, and so on, in addition to generosity of spirit, kindness, humility, fairness, human equality, and other such important values. But they don't all do so. Same for politicians -- I wouldn't say that being the world's most successful politician automatically means that you merit an honorary degree from Harvard. Interesting, in this regard, to contrast Harvard-Winfrey with Stanford-Bloomberg, where the university has chosen to honor a wealthy businessman AND politician with whom it has publicly crossed swords. That seems to me just right -- I am sure he will have something to say that will excite rational discourse, even if many in the audience disagree with him and want to argue with him.

I wish we would recognize the contributions of the most humble members of society to the values universities hold dear -- Oseola McCarty, for example. They are a reminder to our graduates and to the rest of us about how we should be leading our lives, things that transcend our material success.
4. Do you see Oprah as symptomatic of bigger troubling trends about America?
There is nothing new here. Sinclair Lewis talked about the same sort of American hucksterism and fraud in Arrowsmith almost 90 years ago. But I can't think of a time when Harvard was involved in validating it.
5.  Lastly, you mention the Shah of Iran and J.K. Rowling on your blog.  Are there any other commencement speaker selections you think were incongruent with Harvard's values?
To be clear, I thought Rowling turned out a much better choice than I had expected. I started off annoyed because she had adopted a radically protectionist posture about copyright. But her speech actually validated the incredible learning that had been the foundation for her books, as well as the simple lesson of determination and commitment in the face of extreme poverty. And I am sure there were good reasons for choosing the Shah. I was actually not a big fan of the Zakaria choice; it really isn't clear to me just what contribution he has made that earned him the degree, so part of my worry about Winfrey is the direction of the vector pointing through these two TV celebrities. Humility (cf. David Souter) seems not to be "in" these days!

One more thing. Looking at this video that a colleague passed on to me, I can't help thinking how much better served the audience would have been last year to have heard from John Lewis than from Fareed Zakaria.   Yes, most Commencement speeches are soon forgotten, but it is hard to forget the presence of greatness, even if you don't remember anything else and even if you find the great figure not to your taste ideologically. I wonder what truly great figures will share the stage with Winfrey this year? I doubt anyone who was there will forget being in the presence of Nelson Mandela or Alexandr Solzhenisyn, whatever they said. I really do wonder whether we are now tipping for younger, hipper speakers, and the days of learning from the venerables are over at Harvard. [NB. Mandela spoke when he received his honorary degree, but that was not at Commencement.]

Monday, March 4, 2013

Oprah at Harvard, Part II

A comment on the Crimson story got me poking around (I am not a big Oprah watcher) and now I wonder: Did anyone on the Harvard honorary degrees committee consider the fact that Oprah is a major purveyor of pseudoscience? Four years ago Newsweek did an extensive debunking of pseudo-medicine pandered on her show. She was #1 on Brian Dunning's list of the top 10 purveyors of pseudoscience, citing her as follows: "she promotes the paranormal, psychic powers, new age spiritualism, conspiracy theories, quack celebrity diets, past life regression, angels, ghosts, alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy, anti-vaccination, detoxification, vitamin megadosing, and virtually everything that will distract a human being from making useful progress and informed decisions in life." Or read Martin Gardner's take on Oprah -- and her frequent guest, Harvard's own Dr. Oz.

There is an old formula associated with the Harvard presidency. It has been used in the past by the Senior Fellow as an inaugural incantation: "We ask you to dedicate yourself to the University's paramount purpose - giving a true account of the gift of reason." It goes back to Josiah Quincy, but it is actually a paraphrase of Francis Bacon. I am not sure whether it was used at President Faust's inauguration.

It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can't square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.

What Is the Message Behind the Choice of Commencement Speakers?

For two years in a row now, Harvard has chosen a television celebrity as its Commencement speaker. Last year it was Fareed Zakaria, who, happily, gave his address a few weeks BEFORE it came out that he had plagiarized a magazine article from a Harvard professor. The venerable John Lewis, who was receiving an honorary degree at the same time (and who is in the news again this week, reliving the sixties) sat and listened.

This year, it's Oprah Winfrey.

I am sure she is an inspiration, though I can't quite get out of my mind the image of her with the wheelbarrow full of fat. The car giveaways and so on. She has given away a ton of money for good causes, to be sure.

And I suppose we will again have some noble, courageous, self-sacrificinng folks also receiving honorary degrees as they sit listening in polite silence to the self-promoting, wealthy television celebrity.

Is that what the stage once occupied by Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Ralph Ellison, John F. Kennedy, U Thant, Vaclav Havel, Alan Paton, Benazir Bhutto, Mary Robinson, and David Souter is going to be used for in the future?

Well, to be fair, I have cherry picked the list. Some of the choices have not turned out so well. My year it was the Shah of Iran. And I admit to having been pretty skeptical about J. K. Rowling, who gave one of the best addresses I have ever heard, for Commencement or anything else.

Here's hoping Oprah lives up to that standard. She will fill the house to be sure.