Monday, April 15, 2013

We Operate on Trust

A university operates on trust.

Universities regularly complain about the regulations under which they operate. We attribute the growth of the nonacademic bureaucracy to the cost of compliance with government regulations, and explain our rising costs by saying that we have to pass those costs along to the consumer. For example, in the American Council on Education report "Putting College Costs in Context, the section "Burdensome and costly federal regulations drive college prices higher":
  • Given the range of their activities, colleges and universities are among the most heavily regulated entities in America. With the exception of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, all federal agencies are involved in regulating some aspect of higher education.
  • In recent years, the burden imposed on colleges and universities by federal regulation has become increasingly complex, onerous, and costly. In 1998, the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education highlighted government regulation as one of five major cost-drivers in higher education.
  • Regulations impose a heavy toll on colleges and universities in the form of additional staff, increased staff development and training, additional paperwork, creation of computer systems and software to support record-keeping requirements, and higher legal fees. These regulations, in turn, increase operating costs. For instance, there are more than 7,000 regulations associated with Title IV student aid programs alone. 
This is all true where dollars change hands and in certain other business processes. And yet our core work with students and faculty is little affected by any regulation. When a college professor teaches, no one is watching and there is no audit or quality assessment of the teaching. (Don't even think of suggesting that student evaluations such as Harvard's Q play that role.) When we grade papers, nobody checks that we are doing it fairly, or in fact that we are reading the papers at all. When we assign the grading work to teaching fellows, we do little if any followup to check on them. Even modest measures to improve grading equity (such as the practice, common in Computer Science courses, of having the same grader grade an entire problem rather than a particular set of students) are seen as extraordinarily inventive.

At Harvard, professors are allowed to spend something like a day a week, or 20% of our total effort, on outside activities (typically, remunerative consulting activities). We do a certain amount of self-reporting, but nobody is really watching.

Because we operate on trust, there is little checking on any of these activities. We generally try, in the hiring process, to employ trustworthy people, and then leave them alone. We expect they will ask their peers and seniors if they don't know what to do in an unexpected situation, or can't handle the workload. Academics don't expect to be treated like bank tellers, who expect to have cameras on them all the time and to have their work audited daily. They also like to think that the university administration is trustworthy and will not act in the mistrustful way the managers of bank must necessarily act.

This system has its problems. A student who has been cheated in grading has essentially no recourse. At Harvard, the FAS faculty handbook states,
Both undergraduate and graduate students may request that an instructor review a grade that has been received and may also ask to consult with the Chair of the department or committee offering the course. However, final authority for the assignment of grades rests with the course head.
So a student dissatisfied with a grade cannot even hope that a department chair will overrule the professor. The buck stops with the professor, period. Similarly with decisions of Harvard's Administrative Board. There is a way to request reconsideration by the Board itself, but the appeal process asks an outside body only to review the fidelity to procedure, not the considered judgment of the Board.

The immunity of many of our academic processes to outside review and reversal places a moral burden on members of the academy very different from the work conditions of, say, workers in the financial industries. It is why I tend to react so strongly to abuses of professorial autonomy, especially when they are costly to the undergraduates, who are at the bottom of the power structure. It is why the reports of professional malfeasance in Gov 1310 are so stinging---without any institutional response, the public has the right to assume that this is the way all Harvard professors abuse their autonomy and the trust that has been placed in them. That was the thesis of my first comment on the so-called cheating scandal, Harvard, Know Thyself. It is why I am not convinced that the proposed "cultural interventions" on cheating should start with the students, or that the right structural interventions are to rip academic honesty cases out of the Ad Board and put them in the hands of a student-faculty judiciary.

Trust has to exist between the faculty and the administration. If a department recommends a junior faculty member for promotion and the president turns it down, there is no way to be sure whether that happened because of considered academic judgment or some political animus. If departments A and B both ask for a hiring slot for next year and only the search in department B is authorized, there is no way to be sure whether that was because of greater needs in B or an unspoken agenda to let department A wither and die along with the field of learning it represents. The university, with its elaborate protocols of consultation and consensus-building, simply cannot function in an atmosphere where the faculty fear they are being lied to.

Today's Crimson has two piece that touch on this question of trust. One article reports that the Docket Committee of the Faculty Council has written directly to the president asking for transparency on the findings of the outside lawyer she has hired to report to a committee of the Corporation on the conduct of the recent email searches. That is a lot of inside baseball procedurally, but basically it is asking that the investigation be handled the way a set of academic colleagues would expect, not the way the board of directors of an ordinary corporation would behave.

Professors want reassurance that it can trust the administration to trust them. The faculty voices quoted in the story are using words like "deflated" and "haven't gotten to the bottom." If such feelings are widespread---and some of the names mentioned in the story are not people with any political history at Harvard---it will be hard to conduct some of the daily business of the institution. Academics won't put much effort into projects when they do not trust that their efforts will be reciprocated in good faith.

So I am glad that the Docket Committee is asking for more information. Were I a betting man, I would bet they won't get it, because we are at one of those uneasy junctures where the corporate culture of Harvard's governing board clashes with academic conventions. I hope I would lose that bet. I hope that the academics on the Corporation can speak to the importance of trust in our core activities, and pull the institution back from the adversarial trajectory on which it has launched itself.

Student writer Tessa Wiegand gets it better than most. Her piece is entitled "In Veritas We Trust?" She traces the problems back to their root, and I will give her the last word.
There is no doubt that the magnitude of cheating in Gov 1310 posed a significant challenge to the system, which made it all the more important that the Ad Board and administrators acted in an efficient, truthful, and fair manner. Instead, the opposite occurred. The Ad Board process for students involved in the scandal was lengthy, obscure and unduly stressful. Even after the Ad Board's hearings came to a messy conclusion, the administration's lack of respect for the truth grew clear .…
Last year, had I received an email saying that Harvard may have searched emails to find out about river run activities, I would laughed and shaken my head at the conspiracy theories of my fellow students. This year, I wondered seriously if that rumor—thoroughly denied by the administration—could be true. I, a fairly average student by my own evaluation, seriously questioned whether the administration was checking my emails to find out about illegal parties. Where does this end? The events of the last year have proceeded to shatter the trust, which was once shared by the students, faculty, and administrators that make up the Harvard community, and it needs to stop.


  1. Prof. Lewis,

    I'd be very curious to hear your take on the University's PR operation, how it is structured, who decides the university's public message, and how this has changed since your time in the administration.

    From the perspective of a student, it has appeared during my time here that Harvard has a deep-seated aversion to admitting any sort of institutional failings in any arena (e.g. the cheating scandal, sexual assault policies, mental health resources, and now the complete lack of communication after the marathon bombings).

    I assume that most public statements from administrators are carefully vetted by PR folks, and that Harvard's message is formed via some sort of collaboration between administrators with substantive decision-making power and PR people who nominally do not. But public statements tie people's hands--people are less inclined to change their minds about something they have committed to publicly, and insistent denials that a problem exists put up rather large barriers to solving the problem if it does exist. This gives PR people quite a bit of de facto power over Harvard policy. And of course, a great deal of communication with students occurs through public channels such as the crimson, so these PR decisions greatly impact the administration's relationship with the student body.

    From the little information I have gleaned from public sources, Christine Heenan and Jeff Neal both come from the world of politics. Heenan is charge of HPAC (Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, which also encompasses Harvard's lobbying and community outreach operations) and reports directly to President Faust. Jeff Neal is in charge of the FAS Communications Office, which is at least physically located in the HPAC office. The other schools' communications departments seem to have their own physical offices, though I'm not sure how that affects the power dynamics over the various schools' public images. The political background of the communications people makes a lot of sense to me--for all the talk of the corporatization of Harvard, the unwillingness to appear "weak" or admit any sort of mistake echoes political-speak even more than corporate-speak.

    It is clear that not all universities have the same sort of PR mentality. MIT, for instance, after the Aaron Swartz tragedy, did a whole lot of public soul-searching that I found very effective at doing what Harvard has in my time here consistently failed to do: making MIT seem to actually care about what its critics care about.

    Anyway, I'd love to hear more details of how messaging decisions were made when you were privy to them, how beholden policy decisions were to the public image that had been presented, how the primary audience of a given statement was decided (e.g. do you direct comments in a crimson interview at students or the "general public"?), how that affected what was said, who made all of these decisions, and how has this changed since you were involved (from what you can tell).

    Your blog has provided an extremely valuable perspective that has offered an enormous amount of insight on the Harvard administration and its actions, particularly during the cheating scandal. Thank you for that.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Benjy. I don't think I can do it justice quickly, but here are a few thoughts.

      There is no doubt that the role (as well as the number) of communications professionals is much greater than it was. I think that the change in the way the student press relates to the deans happened about the time I left the administration (which was in 2003). Before then, deans would sit and talk to the Crimson directly, and use the press office only for dealing with outside reporters. The philosophy now seems to be that in the modern world if you tell anyone you are telling the whole world, so everything said to students has to be in a form that is OK for the whole world to see. I have never heard anybody put it that way, I am just trying to infer a policy from the data. So the person quoted in the student newspaper on the purely student issue of disinviting Tyga is the press officer, I suppose because, after all, this could (and did) become something big in the national press.

      Surely this cannot always be healthy for the community -- an academic community can't really feel like a community if we are always thinking about how some outside observer will interpret what is being said, and if it hears from the academic authorities only through the filter of the press officers. So there is a cost, no matter what the gain may be.

      I have a different view on the bombing notifications from what has played out in the Crimson. This was an incident of concern to everyone at Harvard. The dining hall workers had as much right to know whether they should be worried as the undergraduates did. So it seems to me the announcement should have come not from the college, but centrally (as it eventually did, I think.

      It is always a judgment call in a crisis like this when to say what. You don't want to put out a message that says too much, say based on speculations that will later prove to be false. You don't want to put out a message that says too little, e.g. "We want you to know that something awful has happened but we don't know any more than that, stay tuned." Presumably the police and the communications offices put their heads together with the academic authorities and try to be neither too quick nor too slow, and every time they have to do it they learn something about what is best.

      I think you are correct about the org chart -- the FAS spokesman is part of the central communications office. Not sure what to say about that -- for most of my career here that was the only communication office in the university, and it just, well, communicated with the relevant authorities in each of the Schools when coordination was needed.

      More later, perhaps, but the bigger issue is not any of these micro questions, but the general issue of corporatization on the academy. The changes in the roles of the communications and legal and intellectual property officers are part of a cultural mingling that is not always without turmoil. Probably driven from the very top, the governing boards.

    2. Benjy,

      I can tell you from a personal experience that not everything that comes from Harvard's top administration is generated through a PR department.

      A couple of years ago there was a communication from Drew Faust -- I no longer remember the subject. These are not that frequent. And it was the sort of communication that consisted of a mass e-mailed push combined with the same content in a web page pull.

      It contained a grammatical error, and not one that could be argued as a difference of taste. I replied to the e-mail, not knowing where the reply would go, to say that I hoped the web version could be quickly corrected. Within minutes, I received a reply thanking me for the observation, and I found that the web page had indeed been fixed. The e-mail dialogue continued another round and a half.

      The point of my story is that the reply came from a person who works directly for Drew, and not in a "communications" or "PR" job -- somebody who has many better things to do each day than engage in e-mail exchanges with a random alumnus.

      In a well-oiled, large corporation (with which I have some experience), this whole episode would not have happened. The original communication would have come from professional communicators (plural intended), and the CEO would not have spent much time (if any) reviewing it.

      Fred Ris, AB'68