Monday, December 22, 2014

Was It Really the North Koreans?

Writing in The AtlanticBruce Schneier is skeptical, not that he has a better idea, though he does lay out some other possibilities. But he reminds us that the government has not always gotten stuff like this right in the past.
I worry that this case echoes the “we have evidence—trust us” story that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Identifying the origin of a cyberattack is very difficult, and when it is possible the process of attributing responsibility can take months. While I am confident that there will be no U.S. military retribution because of this, I think the best response is tocalm down and be skeptical of tidy explanations until more is known.
 Also, on the general question of whether this means that anybody can break into anything, Bruce writes in the WSJ, the answer is no, but anybody can break into something, and it's possible for an entity with enough resources to break into almost anything.

And in a third piece Bruce offers another piece of advice that is as good here as it is generally: the first thing to do is not panic.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Phase Transition

I have been named Interim Dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. What I say in the official announcement is all true -- it's an honor and a privilege. How many people get to take the leadership role of a place to which their first connection happened almost exactly fifty years earlier? In the fall of 1964 my freshman advisor was a professor in the old Division of Engineering and Applied Physics. I remember feeling mildly insulted. An ENGINEER? I was going to be a pure mathematician! I was disabused of that fantasy by Math 55, and a couple of years later wound up in Applied Math where I belonged, and I have had some sort of SEAS affiliation ever since. Boy, the Freshman Dean's Office was good at assigning advisors (it's still done well, but no longer by the FDO).

I hope the blog won't go completely dark, but this job is going to consume all my time, and more, for the (I hope) brief period while I hold it. And yes, the subjects may change -- for certain things I might once have blogged I will now just pick up the phone to start an inside-Harvard conversation!

And NO I AM NOT A CANDIDATE FOR A PERMANENT POSITION AS DEAN. Harvard and I may both be crazy, but we are not stupid.

That said, two good op-eds in the NYT today:
Blowing Off Class? We Know (on big data and academic affairs, which it's interesting to see how other places are thinking about)
A Pox on Campus Life, in which Frank Bruni talks as though he read the 1994 Report on the Structure of Harvard College in which the committee I chaired recommended randomization of the Houses.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Our Anti-Business Pro-Business Conservatives

Josh Barro had a great column in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about how schizophrenic the Republican party can seem about whether it is really the pro-business party or not. He cites the examples of Uber, and the attempt to prevent it from operating in Philadelphia, and of Tesla, which is opposed by the cartel of car dealers, since Tesla wants to sell directly to consumers. Here is the bottom line.
Anticompetitive business regulations are mostly imposed at the state and local level, and they usually have a strong built-in lobby: the owners of the businesses that are being shielded from competition.
The R.N.C. chairman, Reince Priebus, probably doesn’t get a lot of phone calls from taxi medallion owners, or car dealers, or other businesspeople who want to be insulated from competition.
But local politicians do; Republicans may be especially likely to hear from them because small business owners are a constituency that skews Republican.
As a result, in practice, it’s not clear Republicans are any more pro-market than Democrats when it comes to business regulation.
Now this is maybe not the best moment to to be touting Uber as a model unregulated small business, what with an executive seemingly power-mad over his ability to track his customers. But the bottom line stands. You either believe that competition lowers costs and improves services or you don't. If you do, you don't bring the government in every time an existing monopoly cries foul over a new entrant.

In the same vein, the Republican pro-business mantra doesn't seem to extend to the businesses that won't be able to sell their information services abroad if the rest of the world thinks they will just turn everything over to the US Government. In spite of the business arguments for the anti-surveillance USA Freedom Act, Republicans voted overwhelmingly against it. (Including Rand Paul, who, to give him credit, says he opposed the bill because it did not go far enough toward reining in the NSA.)

And the final example of the day is provided by George Leef in Forbes: Copyright Law Is Creating An Information Oligarchy, Not An Information Democracy. As Leef says,
Today, copyright does far more to create an information oligarchy than the robust information democracy the drafters of the Constitution and the first act had in mind.
I probably wouldn't go as far as Leef proposes in dismantling copyright completely, but it is so abused today that it's hard to argue we wouldn't be better off without it than with it under present law. Leef is at the John Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, where I have spoken in the past, a right-leaning education think-tank. I probably agree with what he writes no more than half the time, but he is onto something important here: it's insane how heavily copyright is wielded by the information monopolies to swat down the little guys, whose energies are supposed to be protected and encouraged by the party that allegedly so hates big government. Please explain to me how the progress of science and the useful arts is encouraged by a copyright term so long that Disney's original Steamboat Willie (aka Mickey Mouse) is still protected. (And it wasn't really original in the first place. It was based on an earlier cartoon, but that is a story for another day.)

"Codebreaker" and "Ivory Tower"

I've seen two good documentaries lately, Codebreaker and Ivory Tower. Neither gets a straight A from me, but they're both worth watching.

Codebreaker is the story of Alan Turing, the founding father and patron saint of computer science. Turing died of suicide at age 41 in 1954.

The documentary does a good job contextualizing Turing's achievements and impressing on the viewer his intellectual daring and the massive significance of his work, without getting bogged down in the whole history of mathematical logic (for a light version of which, see Logicomix). It also sets in Cold War context the brutal treatment the unworldly Turing received at the hands of the authorities once his homosexuality was discovered (he was chemically castrated). The filmmaker was able to interview some people who knew Turing -- that number is of course rapidly declining. It's very well done.

The problems with the film are almost inevitable, given that it's a documentary and therefore tries to stick to the truth! (Unlike The Imitation Game, the Hollywood version of Turing's life that is in theaters next week.) There is just not a lot of material to work with -- no films or audio recordings of Turing, few still images, and virtually all of Turing's friends dead now. So a lot of the story is told through Turing's conversations with his psychiatrist. Of course the dialog is reconstructed, but the reconstruction is grounded in solid source material, letters and so on. (The film's creator, Patrick Sammon, answered questions after the showing at Harvard last night. Sammon, I was interested to learn, is past President of the Log Cabin Republicans.) And of course the budget was limited, so there are no fancy animations, though there are quite a few clips of contemporary video to set the general themes in their historical setting.

Codebreaker is showing at Tufts tonight and is available through Netflix and iTunes. If the movie gets you interested, read Andrew Hodges's biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma. (Turing's life certainly provided material for plenty of good titles!)

Also I want to again plug Ivory Tower (see my earlier blog post), the documentary about student debt that portrays Harvard so positively. CNN will air Ivory Tower Thursday night at 9pm, so you can watch it from the comfort of home!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Can We Find a Better Way to Rank Students?

I have been complaining about GPA for years. I don't care that it's an inconstant measure -- it has been drifting upwards pretty much since the day it was invented, and there is very little reason ever to compare GPAs of today's students against GPAs of students a decade ago since they are almost never running against each other for anything GPA is used to calibrate. I don't even care much that it is compressed; in fact, that has some benefits, is it makes it easier to justify ignoring it to focus on other criteria instead. The problem I have with GPA is that even if it were constant over time, it would be almost meaningless as a measure of academic excellence, much less any of the more important kinds of excellence. 

Giving GPA the official status it has disincentives ambition. It discourages the pursuit of excellence by encouraging the pursuit of grades in a curriculum that is largely elective. When faced with a choice between two courses, the decision strategy that tends to maximize GPA, which we say we value, is clear: take the course from which you will learn less because you already know more of the material it teaches. 

I am in a very fortunate position as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Computer Science. I can tell students with complete honesty that they are better off ignoring GPA and not worry about getting Bs and Cs. Unless you apply to graduate school, I say, no one will ever see your transcript. In interviews, tech employers may just give you a problem to work on and see if you can solve it. Whether you can solve the problem is less correlated with your GPA than with whether you took challenging courses. You shouldn't let the pursuit of credentials get in the way of getting an education. And by the way, even if you DO apply to graduate school, a faculty letter praising your senior thesis is going to be more useful than a straight-A record.

I can't do anything about the way law school and medical school admissions committees screen applicants and I am not about to try. But maybe we can do something about the honors the university itself gives to high-GPA students. Just including the GPA on the official student record signals our institutional reverence for it. I can't object to supplying students with that information since we keep using it in the various ways we use it -- for example, in the award of graduation honors (cum laude, etc.). But the stupidity of the metric really hit me this fall as I sorted students for two prizes, one for freshmen and one for seniors, both aimed at rewarding true academic excellence.

These prizes are not given just for high GPA (we do have one of those too, the Sophia Freund Prize, given to the highest GPA summa -- in recent years it has been snared among multiple 4.0s). For the prizes I am talking about, GPA is used to create a pool several times larger than the number of prizes to be awarded, and then the committee reads transcripts, letters, and other supporting material to pick out the real intellectuals. The process works pretty well because the faculty on the committees take the job seriously. But several things have become evident to me.
  • Very high GPA is highly correlated with good pre-college preparation. That is, the vast majority of the pool seems to consist of students who had the good fortune to go to excellent high schools, public or private. The best public schools are either in high-income zip codes, or they are exam schools. Some of the independent school are graduating well-prepared low-income graduates, but you don't see many students in these pools from public schools in low-income zip codes.
  • Because of the compression, any one B will knock you out of contention, so freshman-year grades are among the major criteria on which, de facto, these honors are awarded. Freshman year grades tend to be lower not just because students are adjusting, but because freshmen take more large courses and grades in large courses tend to be lower.
  • Most of the transcripts were pretty easily classifiable as "hard core" or "elementary," with only a few that required more serious scrutiny. By "elementary," I mean some perfectly good course programs -- let's say, Math 1, Ec 10, Spanish A, Expository Writing, and a Freshman Seminar. Nothing wrong with that program if you landed here from one of the many American high schools that does not teach AP math and from a part of the country where they don't think foreign languages are important. But not the sort of program that should win you any prizes for superior intellectual achievement, even if you got a 4.0. The increasing variance in socioeconomic background of the Harvard student body may be making those transcripts more common, I'm not sure.
What do I mean by "hard core"? I got that phrase from Ballmer's CS50 talk. One of several pieces of good advice he offered students was to be hard-driving, intense, focused, hardworking, passionate about things. He talked about Taking Physics 55 (then, as I recall, a physics analog of the legendary super-honors Math 55 course that still exists) and getting a 33/100 on the first exam.

Fact is, the committees looking over student records can judge, reasonably well, which are hard core and which are not. Faculty at least can make that judgment for the courses in their own area. But those judgments are not easily automated. Some courses with graduate numbers are not hard core and some courses numbered less than 100 are hard core. "Everybody" knows that Math 55 is hard core but CS 20 is not. (CS 20 is a great and important and highly educational course. But it's not the course to take if you want to convince me that you are going to win the Turing Award some day.) "Everybody" knows that CS 161 is hard core (that is so well known in the tech industry that even interviewers who didn't go to Harvard listen up when interviewees say they took it) and CS 171 isn't (it's just a hugely educational course that EVERYBODY should take!).

Not every course a hard-core student takes is going to be hard core. In fact one of the blessings of guts at Harvard is that they make it possible for normal students to be hard-core some of the time, and   taking just one hard-core course can be life-changing. So when I see a transcript, I sniff at courses taken pass-fail, but I don't mind seeing well-known guts if the student took something hard core at the same time. 

So my question is, rather than fruitlessly trying to normalize grading (as Princeton just gave up doing) or trying to compute GPAs in a way that takes into account the grading curve in a course or the grades in other courses of the students taking the course, can we come up with something better, that incentivizes ambition as demonstrated by a hard-core transcript -- or even a "beautiful transcript," as Professor Elaine Scarry put it to me once? I don't want to automate the whole process of rewarding students; letters, essays, and so on are important. But I don't like the idea that students with only basic coursework are crowding out of the pool other students who have wound up with blemished records because they really stretched themselves to the max. Can we socially engineer a "hard coreness" rating for courses? What would be the incentive for students to rate courses honestly, for the Lampoon not to troll the rating system, and so on? Would faculty refuse to go along with this because they would find it too stigmatizing to have their courses classified as not-so-hard-core?

Of course the other way to handle this would be to stop giving those prizes. That ain't going to happen, but I'll leave all that for another day.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Great Day for Harvard

Not just for Computer Science at Harvard, but that too. Steve Ballmer has just challenged us to become the #1 place for computer science research and education. We have lots of loyal alums, but not many are so determined to move us forward and so ready to put their money where their mouth is. Ballmer is funding twelve faculty slots, so we will grow from 24 to 36 full time professors. That is an amazing commitment, and I am deeply grateful and deeply humbled, because it's now over to us on the faculty to make it happen. No more complaining that we need more faculty; now we just have to hire them. Speaking of which, we are running a junior search right now. Want to be in on the ground floor? We'd love to hear from you!

This is the 51st year I have been associated with Harvard. I entered as a freshman in the fall of 1964. I fell into computer science before that was the name of anything official here. The bottom of the SEAS web site that was put up following today's announcement has a picture of me fall of my senior year, demonstrating my senior thesis to Applied Math 201 -- I was showing conformal mappings in the complex plane. (I am pretty sure this photo was taken by Bob Sproull, my Harvard classmate and another acolyte of Ivan Sutherland, who went on to be a Sun Fellow.)

By the time I joined the faculty, 40 years ago, Sutherland was gone. Computer Science existed at Harvard, but was not a priority. It was as though the Sutherland experiment had not paid off, and Harvard was going back into its more natural, more cautious mode. The first time I raised in a faculty meeting the idea that we should have a CS major was in about 1978, when I was a nontenured associate professor. Bernie Budiansky, a brilliant applied mathematician and mechanical engineer, snorted, "We've never had a major in automotive science, why would we have one in computer science?" I didn't raise the question again until my personal situation became a bit more secure a few years later. The major must have started in 1983, and I know the first degrees were awarded in 1984. Oren Etzioni, professor of CS at the University of Washington, swears he was the first CS major, which may well be true -- he may have been the first person to walk into my office and declare himself as a CS major in 1983.

Over the years we've produced an incredible series of graduates -- and non-graduates, such as Gates and Zuckerberg. The talent pool is the best in the world, but the "department," though it has improved steadily and has had a few people at the top, hasn't as a whole been at the top. (We have no departments in SEAS, just informal caucuses we call "areas." That is a huge plus for us -- it greatly reduces the amount of internecine warfare, and encourages collaboration in a discipline that is increasingly "outward-looking.")

What a change is happening! We already have a superb group of 24 faculty, brilliant and collegial, devoted to education, spanning the field, and branching into the life sciences, law, economics, and other disciplines. We now set about to change the landscape by hiring twelve more. I feel like the "next wave" just washed over me, because over the past three days I have signed more than 100 sophomores up to be CS majors (the deadline was yesterday). I am engaged in the process of planning our new building in Allston, which will be the center of an innovation hub and the promised land, not just for CS and engineering, but for other (as yet undetermined) Harvard departments that will be moving also, and for an enterprise zone that will grow up around us. CS will be at the heart of it, as it will be in so much else that lies ahead.

We are going to be #1. And the competition is going to make every other department better while we're getting there. And that will be good for Boston, for the US, and for the world.

Look at the slide show at the bottom of the "Catch the Wave" page about the future of CS -- there are a couple more that relate to me, as well as a couple featuring Henry Leitner, and one of Al Spector as an undergrad too. Bonus links: Steve Ballmer hilariously advertising CS50, the way he once advertised Windows  1.0; and Ballmer's CS50 lecture yesterday, with a whole set of good life lessons. Anyone who complains that Harvard students spend too much time on extracurriculars and not enough time in the classroom should watch that class, and then, if they dare, call Steve and tell him that he wasted his time here! And watch the video of the dedicatory program at the i-Lab -- to see Ballmer's inspirational fight-song about Harvard CS, and also to hear the spectacular speech by Harvard CS undergrad Ana-Maria Constantin, who reminds us how important it is to have a program worthy of our students.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Vice Provost Bol's Prepared Response to My Question

In my previous blog post, I noted that I was not authorized to comment on the Vice Provost's response to my question. I did not mean to suggest that I had been denied permission to comment, only that the protocol of faculty meetings does not allow quotation or paraphrase without permission of the speaker, and I had not sought it. It has been my practice, when something in a faculty meeting seems worthy of comment, to wait for the professionals to obtain permission and to report on it, and then to base my blog on the public reporting rather than on what I observed from being there.

I am grateful to the Vice Provost for supplying the text below. In judging this response to be unsatisfactory, I meant that it did not answer my simple yes-no question: Will students be informed that they were under surveillance? After the meeting, the Vice Provost told the Crimson that students would be informed, which settles the immediate question in a satisfactory way, for which I am grateful. I am sure there will be plenty of "next time" and "coulda-shoulda" discussions in various fora, but the question I asked has now been satisfactorily answered and I don't expect to comment further on this matter.

See also: Writeups in Harvard Magazine, the Boston Globe, and the Chronicle of Higher Ed.


To answer Prof. Lewis’s questions I want to give a bit of background.

A year ago, on taking the position as Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, part of my brief was to support the growing interest in improving teaching and learning across the campus. I began to wonder if there was a growing disconnect between how students were choosing to spend time and the expectations teachers had of their students.

Over the years I had heard colleagues assert that students in increasing numbers were skipping class, that the amount of work done outside of class (with some very notable exceptions) was decreasing, and that there was less rigorous note taking. Such anecdotes raised questions about the effectiveness of lectures as a way of helping students learn and suggested that there might be some value in exploring how new media and pedagogical techniques might be used by faculty to turn the lecture into something that was more interactive and engaging rather than simply an exercise in listening.

However it turned out that we did not have any data to support the anecdotes. I thus looked for a way of getting data on attendance, because that seemed to be the only thing that could be measured in a straightforward way that did not rely on self-reporting. I am told that there are no published multiple-course results on objectively-measured attendance to rely on.

But in designing such a study there were some very important considerations. We did not want to bias the sample. We did not want individual students to be tracked or in any way identified. And we did not want the results to be used for the purpose of evaluating the teachers. We wanted to know if we could get valid evidence on attendance, and we wanted to see if there were any patterns in the data that might support conclusions about whether or not we should care.

The protocol was sent to the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research – this is the Institutional Review Board, the group responsible for deciding if research uses human subjects and reviewing that use to make sure that they are line with regulations -- which concluded that the study did not constitute human subjects research. It thus did not go to the full committee for review. The protocol was to install a camera that snapped images of the audience in a lecture hall. The images were processed through a program that counted whether seats were empty of filled. The quantities were calculated for each lecture. Once the data was in hand I made appointments, beginning in August, with course heads (two are still outstanding) to tell them what had been done and to show them generalized numerical data on their respective classes. At that time I ordered that images of students be destroyed. The course heads were asked to decide what should happen next. The course head could choose to have the numerical data removed from the study and deleted permanently. The data could be maintained without identifying the course. The data could be maintained with the identity of the course. There could be discussions with the researcher to better understand the data and consider ways of improving outcomes if so desired.

I can report that every single person I met with thought the data was interesting and potentially useful, agreed to the use of the data keeping the identity of the course, and was interested in learning more about the research. Faculty do care about their classes and their students.

The analysis did reveal patterns in the data (patterns that made sense once they were found). The results of the analysis are being shared with course heads. The aggregated data, without identifying courses, has been presented at Harvard to people interested in teaching and learning issues. Here I will only note that there was great variability in attendance.

I do understand the concern with faculty control, but ultimately course heads did have control over the data on students in their classes. Yet this has certainly raised questions about studies involving students that might not be set up to avoid identifying students. For that reason the Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research will automatically contact the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education in regard to studies that involve undergraduate students.

Discussion of Health Benefits (Part 3)

Here are the remarks that Professor Richard Thomas of the Classics Department, who seconded the motion, was prepared to deliver had he been recognized.

Madam President, Provost Garber, Dean Smith, Members of the Faculty
In urging that we vote resoundingly in favor of this motion I limit myself to asking whether or not the proposed plan is regressive, that is whether it takes a proportionally greater amount from those on lower incomes. I strongly believe Harvard should not opt to introduce regressive plans.

The President and Provost have challenged the view that the plan is regressive, and the op-ed from members of the UBC in today's Crimson sounds a similar note: "we were very concerned about the burden on low-income employees and therefore recommended an expanded reimbursement program that will provide them with additional protections from high out-of-pocket costs."

With due respect I would submit that the words "expanded" an "additional" are specious and deceptive in the extreme, and would seem to suggest the new plan is an improvement, even progressive, a benefit to low-income employees. In reality the new policy is of course a potential pay cut. It institutes a pay cut for all those unlucky enough to need more than routine health care for themselves or their families, and for those choosing to have children.

It institutes a pay cut for all administrators, faculty and non-union staff, from president down through provost, vice-provosts and vice-presidents, tenured, non-tenured, non-ladder faculty, and post-docs, all the way to a Grade 55 staff member with a 2014 starting salary of $51,182, or a post-doc in the sciences getting around $40,000.

The essence of its regressive nature is that the pay cut is minimally proportioned to income. If the Grade 55 staff member incurs medical deductible and co-insurance costs of $900, she suffers an income loss of $900, a more than 2%  take-home pay cut, no pay for more than one week. For the starting post-doc, no pay for close to 9 days.

If the President or Provost incurs medical deductible and co-insurance costs of $900, she or he suffers an income loss of $900, a pay cut of between one and two tenths of 1% of take-home pay, no pay for a couple of hours. If we are going effectively to install a pay cut to realize savings for the University, this hardly seems a fair way to cut pay. This indeed seems regressive, and it remains regressive even if the costs incurred go up to $1500, so triggering reimbursement for those under $70,000 or $95,000.

Now we can all plug ourselves in and think about what percentage our $900 cost —or $1500 or $4500 would be. Those of us in good health and confident in our continued good health, and those of us without children or with grown children, may be thinking, “well I guess I’ll be OK, and I even save a couple of bucks on my premium, and I can actually afford the $1500 for my own health care.” That is, we may choose to make an individual, and not a universal, response.

That is not, I would urge, how we should be thinking as members of a great university where we all value the contributions of each other and all work together for the common mission. That is not how we should be responding to this plan. I hope this motion will pass and will persuade the President and Fellows to reverse the plan and revisit the process so as to reinstate a plan where our universal university group, and not unlucky individuals, or those with children or planning to have children, are treated equally.

Discussion of Health Benefits (Part 2)

Here are the remarks of Professor Jerry Green of the Department of Economics and HBS, at the November 4, 2014 FAS meeting:

President Faust, Provost Garber, Dean Smith, Colleagues

Jerry Green, Economics Department

My work is in microeconomic theory. Among other things, I study risk, insurance, and incentives. I study behavior, rational and irrational, and its implications for policy.

I will confine my remarks to explanatory note #2, which addresses the new co-insurance payments – 10% of the cost of many tests and procedures, up to an out-of-pocket maximum.

Co-insurance imposes a significant new financial risk. It is all the more harmful because the people bearing the expense are those who require a significant medical service.

I believe that a much better idea would be to eliminate co-insurance entirely, raising premiums instead, so as to keep constant the average employee’s contribution toward medical insurance.  By design, in expectation, Harvard’s expenses would not change as a result.

Co-insurance has been studied extensively by health economists. Each implementation of co-insurance is different and much depends on the details in a plan’s designs. Because Harvard’s new co-insurance provision applies only to hospitalization, surgery and advanced diagnostic testing, its effect on the utilization of medical services is hard to predict. I will argue, however, that whatever one believes about utilization in the future, the results of the new Harvard plans will be both financially and medically undesirable.

If there is no change in utilization, then co-insurance will not reduce Harvard’s aggregate health benefits expenditure.  Yet the uncertain magnitude of the co-insurance requirement puts patients and their families under financial pressure at exactly the wrong time.

If co-insurance does decrease utilization, which seems to be one goal of this policy, I believe that matters will be even worse.  By deferring or avoiding medical care or diagnostic tests some employees, or their family members, will later experience serious illnesses or complications.  Viewed from any perspective longer than the single year in which the initial decision to forego care was made, medical expenses will be higher, not lower. Thus, if utilization does decrease, we will have both inferior outcomes and higher costs.  Co-insurance is a lose-lose proposition.

My colleague, David Cutler, in his masterful book “Your Money or Your Life” has documented that the keys to improving health outcomes in any population are: regular follow ups, adhering to “doctor’s orders”, timely diagnostic tests, early interventions, and active management of chronic conditions.  These are precisely the actions that might be postponed or avoided by an employee facing the prospect of co-insurance payments.

Everything that we have learned in recent years, in economics and the other social sciences, tells us that people do not choose wisely, even in very important matters.  Start with wishful thinking, add an ounce of procrastination, stir in the anxieties due to illness, and you have a recipe for poor medical decision making by the patient. Add a dash of co-insurance, pour over financial stringency, and this potent cocktail will become dangerous, perhaps lethal.

A few years ago, as everyone will recall, our retirement plans were simplified and investment choices were restricted. The rationale for these changes was beautifully explained on the floor of this meeting by my colleague David Laibson. Citing the same body of academic research I have mentioned above, Professor Laibson confirmed that people – even highly educated and intelligent people -- are not good judges of their own situations. We all are subject to irrationality: over-valuing the present relative to the future, inertia, cognitive biases, and especially over-optimism.

If that is true in the financial realm it is doubly true in medicine. Medical decisions are more complicated, more uncertain, and more emotional. They are frequently made in times of stress, making us even more likely to err.

Harvard acted wisely when it recognized the adverse effects of human psychology on retirement planning. It should now act wisely again. The administration should recognize that co-insurance creates unfair, unnecessary, random transfers of wealth, falling on exactly the wrong subset of our population.  It will not reduce the long term cost of medical care, and will result in some avoidable, perhaps tragic, outcomes.

November 4, 2014
FAS Faculty Meeting

A Good Night for Young Harvard Alums Running for Congress

All four young alums I highlighted in a previous blog post got elected! Power of my blog. (And a tip of the hat to Harvard alum Charlie Baker too, -- he will be replacing Harvard alum Deval Patrick as Governor of Massachusetts ….)

The Discussions at the Harvard Faculty Meeting

At the faculty meeting yesterday, November 4, a major item of discussion was the changes in Harvard's health benefits. The Crimson reports on it here, with a significant sidebar here. I have offered this blog as a place where the faculty speakers, all of them eloquent, can post their comments for others to read. Reproduced below are the remarks of Professor Mary Lewis, who introduced the resolution, asking Harvard to reconsider the changes.

Also, the Crimson reports here on the question I asked, reproduced above, about the nonconsensual study of class attendance.

Thank you, Madam President.

I move that:  “that for 2015 the President and Fellows be asked to replace the currently proposed health care benefit plan with an appropriately adjusted version of the 2014 health benefit package, maintaining the 2014 plan design.”

Richard Thomas seconded the motion.

President Faust, Provost Garber, Deans Smith, Khurana, and Meng, Members of the Faculty

It is wonderful to see so many people here and so many colleagues who have taken time from their sabbaticals to return for a discussion as important as this one.  Your presence here is a reminder that Harvard University is, as President Faust just said a few minutes ago, a community of ideas and ideals;  we are not just a business; we come together when it is ethically vital to do so; we don’t just clock-in hours.  Indeed, the conferral of honorary degrees upon new faculty and newly tenured faculty is a time-honored ritual of coming together as a community of scholars. It was in recognition of the communitarian spirit of Harvard University,  that I submitted the motion that is before you.

At the October FAS meeting, I asked President Faust how and when the recently announced health benefits policy could be reversed.  In the wake of posing that question, I have been contacted by scores of faculty and staff from several different schools thanking me and sharing their anxieties about the impact this policy may have on them.  It is this outpouring of concern that prompted me, in consultation with a number of colleagues from whom you will hear in a moment, to submit the motion that is before you.  The hour is late, and we have a long list of faculty who wish to speak including Jerry Green, from economics and HBS; Marc Kirschner, from Systems biology at HMS, joining us today in his capacity as University Professor; Alison Johnson and Lisa McGirr, from History; Mark Kisin, from Mathematics; Charles Langmuir from Geochemistry; Richard Thomas from Classics and Christopher Winship from Sociology.  I am sure many of you also want a chance to speak. So I will try to be as brief as possible.

Tomorrow is the first day of open enrollment and if you have not yet examined your benefits enrollment guide in detail, I suggest that you do so.  When you do, you will notice that your premiums are going down, in my case by exactly $10/month.  More critically, your out-of-pocket expenses – the newly instituted deductibles and coinsurance – are going up, by as much as $1500 per individual and $4500 per family per year.  If you make less than $95K per year, these caps are adjusted somewhat.  But either way, in all but the healthiest years, you are likely to experience a pay cut of some sort, and one that is determined solely by your medical luck.

Why did the university make this change?  Many reasons have been offered, none of which is very compelling.  We’ve been told that the university’s health benefit costs are rising relative to salaries; in fact, the University’s health benefit costs as a proportion of total expenditure over the last six years have been quite flat.  Indeed, nationwide, the medical rate of inflation has gone down for the past five years and only recently has it shown a very slight uptick.  The administration warns us that health care costs might rise more in the future, so we should plan ahead.   Of course, they might also fall; does the University plan to refund us some of our out of pocket expenses in that eventuality?  In all seriousness, though, it is quite possible that costs will not rise dramatically; and yet the university is locking in this change now.

We’ve also been given a lot of misleading information about the impact of the Affordable Care Act.  Given the hour, this is too complicated to go into in at this moment but I’m happy to discuss this with any of you later.  Finally, the provost has suggested that if this reform had not been enacted, we would have experienced an increase of 3.6% in our premiums.  3.6% of my premium would have been $15 more per month for me; and about $37 more per month for Harvard, if the same contribution ratios had been maintained.  Since insurance is about managing risk, I would have willingly spent more per month in premiums in exchange for some peace of mind.

We don’t actually know if increasing premiums without adding deductibles or coinsurance was considered by the University benefits committee because the entire process has been shrouded in mystery.  My purpose in mentioning this is not to discount the hard work the UBC members put in, but to ask why the committee did not build in consultation with the people who would be most affected, why it is so hard to discover anything about what the committee was asked to do, how much money will be saved, and what the alternatives were.  In short, we still don’t really know how we got to this plan.  It is also clear that it has been implemented in a most precipitous way. When I checked earlier this afternoon, the detailed plan guides available on the University benefits website were for last year’s plans, not the proposed plan.  We’re frequently told that reforms such as Harvard’s are designed to allow us to become better health-care consumers.  I don’t know about you, but when I make momentous decisions about my healthcare, I like to be an informed consumer.
Harvard can and should do better.

Harvard could do better by ensuring that caring for one’s health is less stressful and uncertain, so we can focus on what we’re here to do: produce new knowledge and teach the brightest minds in the world.  The beauty of the old system was that you knew what to expect so you could focus on healing or having a baby.  You knew that whatever tests, procedures or surgeries your doctor ordered would be covered.  In 2015, by contrast, all but the most routine tests will trigger deductible and co-insurance payments, the cost of which you sometimes will not know until the test or procedure is complete.

If the university had announced that it was instituting a pay cut for all faculty and exempt staff with chronic illness in their families, plus those who contracted illness, got pregnant or sustained an accident, it would have sounded absurd, but it would have been more honest.  Moreover, this pay cut will be timed to come at precisely the moment when you are sick, stressed, or facing the challenges of being a new parent.   To be fair, the university cites various protections for “lower income” employees that will be put into place.  Yet, if you are in the two “lower” income brackets, you will have to pay up to the same caps as the best paid employees at Harvard, save your receipts, and then have the difference reimbursed after you’ve already paid the hospital.  Why should people as vital to Harvard’s mission as post-docs or non-union staff front the university money while potentially defaulting on their own bills as a result?

Is Harvard a business that transfers costs to its employees, reducing its expenses by shifting the burden to people coping with serious illness?  Or is Harvard a community where we equitably share the risks that we all face as human beings and where health care is a human right?
If Harvard were just a business, it would not offer such generous financial aid to middle class students and their families.  Indeed, Harvard always has been more than a business.  Let us keep it that way.
It is too late to offer rationalizations for this plan; that could have happened months ago through a process that included a broader spectrum of faculty and staff in the decision-making process; since that did not happen, we ask for a moratorium.

President Faust, you have a list of faculty members who have indicated in advance a desire to speak in favor of this motion.  With your consent, we would like to hear directly from them now, beginning, if you please, with Jerry Green from economics.

- Mary Lewis, Professor of History
- November 4, 2014 Faculty Meeting

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Harvard Still Doesn't Get Electronic Privacy

I asked the following question at today's FAS meeting. Hopefully the news media present will report the reply, as I cannot comment on it until the person who gave it authorizes some reporting on it. I will just say that I found the response unsatisfactory. The incident is just as bizarre as it sounds, and I don't know much more about it that I can disclose.
Madam President, I learned recently from two of my faculty colleagues that students in their courses had been surreptitiously photographed throughout the past spring term using cameras trained on the seats in the lecture hall. This was done under the cloak of research on class attendance. A senior university official called in these professors and explained that by means of this electronic monitoring, images of all the students in attendance had been captured at each class. These faculty colleagues, neither of them tenured, first learned that their classes had been under surveillance when this senior Central Administration official called them in, without informing the Computer Science area dean, and asked them to comment on the attendance data. And contrary to a basic principle of research involving human subjects, the students who were subjects of this study still, I believe, have not been informed that their images were captured and analyzed.  
This study raises many important and troubling questions. Questions about the oversight relations between faculty, deans, and department heads in the FAS, and the plethora of provosts we now have. Questions about who controls the classrooms in which we teach—this study seems to me at odds with a vote of this Faculty that describes the classroom as “a special forum” where the teacher determines the agenda. But I will focus on just the most obvious and urgent action item.  
This university took great efforts under your leadership and Professor Barron’s to get a grip on issues of electronic privacy. Yet some basic principles seem not to have sunk in everywhere. Just because technology can be used to answer a question doesn’t mean that it should be. And if you watch people electronically and don’t tell them ahead of time, you should tell them afterwards. 
We would all benefit, I think, from more peer feedback on our teaching. But none of us, students or faculty, want to be treated like inmates of some academic Panopticon, never knowing for sure whether we are being or have been under scrutiny while we were going about our daily business of teaching and learning.  Can we have your assurance that all the students and faculty who were subjects of this nonconsensual study will be informed that they were under photographic surveillance? 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Detail on the Law Professors' Objections to Harvard's Sexual Harassment Policy

Janet Halley, Royall Professor at Harvard Law School and one of the 28 who signed the letter cited in my previous blog post, has written a detailed memo on the issues. Here is the preface:
Today colleges and universities around the country enjoy a moment of special opportunity: a chance to change slipshod, dismissive and actively malign handling of sexual harassment claims, and to offer genuine remedies for victims. But it is also a moment of danger: because one such remedy involves discipline for wrongdoers, the rules must define misconduct to include the conduct we want to sanction and deter (and not socially valuable or unharmful behavior), and to process complaints in a way that is fair to all parties. The new University Policy and Procedures realize these dangers: they provide an overly broad definition of sexual harassment, far beyond anything that federal courts recognize; they trench directly on academic freedom and freedom of speech; they threaten stigmatized minorities with unjustifiable findings of responsibility; they will rush low-income students who cannot afford counsel to unfair judgment; and they are defective on every known scale of equal procedural treatment of the parties and due process.
This memo is written in the spirit of improving Harvard‘s approach to sexual harassment discipline. It is premised on my firm belief that we can provide a full and robust response to complaints while also guarding vigilantly against ratifying frivolous claims, damaging academic freedom, harming stigmatized minorities, depriving accused students of the support they need, and violating the due process and equality rights of the parties to these disputes.
A crucial meta-argument is not about the policy per se but about the process by which it came into being and the presumption that "we had to do it, the feds were holding a gun to our head." Professor Halley writes,
This memo is thus addressed to an unclear situation. University officials have acceded to mandates from federal regulators that, in my view and the view of many others, were adopted without proper procedures and lack any grounding in the statutes that the regulators are charged with enforcing. As I attempt to show in Parts I and II of this memorandum, many of these mandates, and hence many of the resulting provisions of the University Policy and Procedures, offend basic principles of fairness – what you could call constitutional values. But it is often said that the University and its sub-entities are without choice in installing and implementing these policies. This claim presents our community choices of a different kind, ones that may have Big C Constitutional implications.
In responding to government pressure in the current crisis, institutions of higher education – Harvard included – bear responsibility for far more than sheer compliance with federal regulators inventing ever-new requirements in the name of sexual harassment enforcement. They bear responsibility for victim protection and redress, justice for all parties, due process for the accused as well as complainants. They must protect not only women but also other vulnerable minorities. They must advance, not undermine, the cause of free speech and academic freedom; must preserve respect for the autonomy and privacy of adults in their relationships; and must think not only in punitive but also in public health terms about harmful cultural practices among our students. All of this can be done without giving up the current opportunity to make protection and redress for victims of sexual harassment far better than it has been in the past.
Thanks to Professor Halley for inviting me to link to her memo.

So here is a crucial question. To resist, must a university wait until the feds have charged it with some specific malfeasance as a result of a Title IX complaint -- which if true, would be a very unattractive proposition, risking huge amounts of federal funding under circumstances when there would be enormous public sympathy for the complaint against it? Or could it pro-actively protest on principle, and, without any presenting complaint against it, seek to have statutes, regulations, and executive dicta overturned because it thought it was being unlawfully or even unconstitutionally required to comply with them?

I am trying to get a clear answer to that question.

In the meantime, it is interesting to note that much of the meta-argument of certain FAS faculty about the adoption of the new health benefit policies is exactly the same: The policy was adopted too quickly and without adequate consultation, not merely with the rank and file of faculty and students but with members of the faculty who would bring nationally recognized expertise to the deliberations. (NB: Professor Mary Lewis, who will on Tuesday formally move that the FAS ask that the new policies be suspended, is not related to me.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Title IX Mess

I have refrained from commenting on Harvard's Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy because I figured the University was just doing what it had to do. If the federal government announces that universities have to do X or risk loss of their federal funding, they should, almost always, do X. The rare cases of resistance have had mixed results. Years ago, Brown University resisted a Title IX complaint having to do with what exactly it meant to offer equal athletic opportunities to men and women -- and lost. On the other hand, MIT resisted the antitrust consent degree the other members of the "Overlap Group" signed -- and won. In this case it seemed to me likely to be very risky to resist. At some point prudent fiduciaries have to instruct the executive to settle up with the feds and save their litigation to resist incursions that are closer to the core of the institutional mission.

That said, I have thought, since the policy was announced, that it was a disaster to any sense of justice in the American tradition. What has happened here (I wrote about this in EWAS) is that frustration has mounted over the low conviction rate in charges of sexual assault, typically peer sexual assault between drunken undergraduates with no witnesses other than the principals. Rape being a serious felony, Harvard and most other institutions have long observed something like the standard in the criminal justice system, that a pretty high level of certainty should be required before someone is declared a rapist. Universities have never been required to do that, since they are not sending anyone to prison, but it has always seemed the right thing to do given the social consequences of labeling someone a rapist.

Of course that resulted in low conviction rates, which have long been a source of frustration for victims and their advocates--in universities just as it is in the "real world." What has happened is that, for fundamentally political reasons (with Joe Biden hugging sexual assault victims and all), the executive branch of the federal government has re-cast rape as a civil rights violation, and insisted that "equity" here means that the two parties have equal standing in colleges and universities receiving federal funds. Findings must be on a "preponderance of evidence" standard -- essentially a 51-49 standard, rather than a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. If one party can appeal the finding of the college judiciary, the other side can too. And so on. More of the guilty will most certainly be convicted in this way -- and more of the innocent too. This isn't what we used to think "fairness" meant -- it used to mean giving an individual defendant a fair shake against the overwhelming power of the prosecutorial entity. If anyone needs a refresher, go look at what is happening in Hong Kong, where the city is fighting about which of the "two systems," democratic or authoritarian, will ultimately govern it.

A diverse group of Harvard Law School faculty protested Harvard's Title IX policy, arguing in essence that Harvard caved too easily to the feds. The new policy involves measures, they say, that "are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation." That last phrase is important. What exactly Title IX, the law, requires is very murky -- see Why Colleges Are on the Hook for Sexual Assault - Students … for a good explanation of how scope of the law has expanded over the years far beyond anything the enacting legislators anticipated. What surprises me is the statement that the policy goes beyond anything that regulations require, and that Harvard "decided simply to defer to the demands of certain federal administrative officials." Is that right? We know that managing risk is among the highest priorities of Harvard's governing boards. Did they really instruct the university administration to placate a handful of federal bureaucrats?

The Law School letter is worth reading. But I want to point out an inherent contradiction in Harvard's policy that has not been highlighted to my knowledge: The contradiction between the obligation not to allow a "hostile environment," and the obligation to protect the right to free speech. Here are the relevant passages from Harvard's policy. On what's a "hostile environment":
Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, graphic, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when: (1) … [quid pro quo]; or (2) such conduct is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it interferes with or limits a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s education or work programs or activities (hostile environment).
… verbal, nonverbal, graphic, or physical conduct may create a hostile environment if the conduct is sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe so as to deny a person equal access to the University’s programs or activities. Whether the conduct creates a hostile environment may depend on a variety of factors, including: the degree to which the conduct affected one or more person’s education or employment; the type, frequency, and duration of the conduct; the relationship between the parties; the number of people involved; and the context in which the conduct occurred.
Clear as mud. On free speech:
 Nothing in this Policy shall be construed to abridge academic freedom and inquiry, principles of free speech, or the University’s educational mission.

I have no idea how to reconcile those two passages. In America, under the First Amendment, we tolerate all kinds of offensive and odious speech, because we fear that the inhibition of obnoxious speech by empowering the government to regulate it would not be worth the price in restricting free expression. Just as we require a high standard of proof for crimes because we judge that it is better for the government to have to act with one hand tied behind its back, and let some bad guys walk free, than to risk over-reach by a more unconstrained federal prosecution.

It may be that we have to do as Harvard's policy states, outlaw "hostile environments" even with the exquisitely vague definition of what they are. It may even be exactly the right thing for us to do. But how can we, with a straight face, state that outlawing hostile environments in no way entails a restriction on what people can say? The First Amendment allows all kinds of hostile speech, as long as it falls short of actual threat. The Harvard policy outlaws hostile environments, including hostile verbal environments. Let's be honest, or risk having the whole policy dismissed as a political statement. We're outlawing the whole band of speech between hostile and threatening, aren't we?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Meanwhile, from another decade and in another country, …

Brooks Newmark, AB'80, Conservative Member of Parliament for Braintree in the UK, has resigned his position as Minister for Civil Society, after sexting allegations emerged. Newmark was slated to be the president of the Harvard Alumni Association next year, but has resigned from the board. He has announced that he will not seek re-election as MP.

The journalism itself has complications in the UK, which has weaker protections for the press than the US does, because the journalist seems to have deceived Newmark into sexting after picking up a rumor; only later did a woman report that he had sexted her. So the journalist is under investigation by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).


Updated 9:15pm October 20 to reflect new information that Newmark has resigned his position on the HAA board.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Young Harvard Goes to Washington?

At least three young alums are running for Congress, and one for Senate:

Ruben Gallego, AB'04, is running for a Congressional seat in Arizona as a Democrat.

Elise Stefanik, AB'06, is running for a Congressional seat in New York as a Republican.

Seth Moulton, AB'01, is running for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts as a Democrat.

Tom Cotton, AB'99, already a Congressman from Arkansas, is running for Senate as a Republican.

Pretty unusual group. Gallego and Moulton both served in the Marines, Cotton in the Army. Moulton was decorated for bravery, something he never mentioned and the Globe, apparently, turned up only while routinely checking his military records.

Are there others?

"Public service" is a term that tends to be used at Harvard to mean community service, Teach for America, and so on. With all the "Excellent Sheep" blather about the myopia and narcissism of Ivy League graduates, it's nice to see alums in their 20s and 30s serving in the armed forces and running for public office.

It's one of the stated purposes of our General Education program to "prepare students for civic engagement." It would be nice to the university signal to its students that it takes that seriously. How about an "I voted!" sticker on the lapel in some November 5 Gazette photo of Faust, Smith, or Khurana?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Professor Mary Lewis's Question at the Faculty Meeting about Health Benefits

As the Crimson reported, Professor Mary Lewis of the History Department asked a question at the October 6 FAS faculty meeting about the recently announced changes in health benefits for nonunion Harvard employees, including faculty and "exempt" staff. (Any changes for unionized employees would, of course, be subject to collective bargaining.) The question was quite succinct and quite powerful. I reprint it below with Professor Lewis's permission. (We are not related.)
My question regards the administration’s recent announcement of changes to the health benefits package for Harvard Faculty, Professional and Administrative Staff not in a Bargaining Unit, effective with the coming “open season.”  Although depicted in the e-mail sent on September 3 as a cost-sharing plan with lower monthly premiums, what the plan actually does is substantially increase the annual expenses of those members of the Harvard community who are most vulnerable to illness or likely to need hospitalization.  By introducing deductibles, much higher co-pays for the emergency room, and very substantial out-of-pocket expenses for hospitalizations, the Harvard administration moves in the opposite direction of nationwide trends to amortize risk across large groups of individuals.  Instead, it places the burden of expenses on those of us with family members who have pre-existing chronic illnesses making them more likely to need hospitalization, to say nothing of individuals who suddenly and unexpectedly face serious illness or a catastrophic accident.  Instead of sharing risk, as the Affordable Care Act reminds us is the best way to lower healthcare costs in the long run, Harvard is asking those most at-risk to pay more.  For these individuals, the change in policy is in essence a pay cut.  I would like to know how and when this policy can be reversed.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Phony Law Enforcement Panic over Apple's Encryption

When Apple announced end-to-end encryption, meaning that it had no way to decrypt user data in at least some communications, I did not react strongly. I was not surprised with Eric Holder and others from law enforcement started hollering. They are reaping what they have sown, I figured. Post-Snowden, Apple and other technology companies are no longer trusted abroad. Foreign governments and foreign companies have good reason to think that US companies will turn over to the US government whatever our government demands. Whatever damage the Snowden revelations did to our relations with Anglea Merkel are not nearly as significant as what they cost the business interests of US technology companies. Apple's response is exactly right and exactly what is to be expected.

And Holder's reaction should have been expected too, except that I figured law enforcement had learned its lesson the first time around, during the first time the US threatened to require special backdoors so the government could get access to encrypted communications. Those were the Crypto Wars of the 1990s, and we told the story in Blown to Bits.
The ensuing, often heated negotiations, sometimes referred to as the “crypto wars,” played out over the remainder of the 1990s. Law enforcement and national security argued the need for encryption controls. On the other side of the debate were the technology companies, who did not want govern- ment regulation, and civil liberties groups, who warned against the potential for growing communication surveillance. In essence, policymakers could not come to grips with the transformation of a major military technology into an everyday personal tool.
On January 24, 1991, Senator Joseph Biden, a co-sponsor of antiterrorist legislation Senate Bill 266, inserted some new language into the bill:
It is the sense of Congress that providers of electronic communica- tions services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment shall ensure that communications systems permit the gov- ernment to obtain the plaintext contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriate authorized by law.
This language received a furious reaction from civil liberties groups and wound up not surviving … 
…very little email is encrypted today. Human rights groups use encrypted email. People with something to hide probably encrypt their email. But most of us don’t bother encrypting our email. In fact, millions of people use Gmail, willingly trading their privacy for the benefits of free, reliable ser- vice. Google’s computers scan every email, and supply advertisements related to the subject matter. Google might turn over email to the government in response to a court order, without challenging the demand. Why are we so unconcerned about email privacy?
… although outright prohibitions on encryption are now impossible, the social and systems aspects of encryption remain in an unstable equilibrium. Will some information privacy catastrophe spark a massive re-education of the Internet-using public, or massive regulatory changes to corporate prac- tice? Will some major supplier of email services and software, responding to consumers wary of information theft and government surveillance, make encrypted email the default option?
The bottom-line question is this: As encryption becomes as ordinary a tool for personal messages as it already is for commercial transactions, will the benefits to personal privacy, free expression, and human liberty outweigh the costs to law enforcement and national intelligence, whose capacity to eavesdrop and wiretap will be at an end?
 So it was with astonishment that I read today's editorial in the Washington Post, calling for "compromise":
A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.
Huh? The editors seem to have no idea what they are talking about. They are basically parroting what FBI Director Louis Freeh said about encryption back in 1997:
The looming spectre of the widespread use of robust, virtually uncrackable encryption is one of the most difficult problems confronting law enforcement as the next century approaches. At stake are some of our most valuable and reliable investigative techniques, and the public safety of our citizens. We believe that unless a balanced approach to encryption is adopted that includes a viable key management infrastructure, the ability of law enforcement to investigate and sometimes prevent the most serious crimes and terrorism will be severely impaired. Our national security will also be jeopardized. 
Have we learned nothing? Moreover, the usefulness of these warrants to get at encrypted data is being vastly exaggerated, as Bruce Schneier explains in a devastating analysis:
FBI Director James Comey claimed that Apple's move allows people to place themselves beyond the law" and also invoked that now overworked "child kidnapper." John J. Escalante, chief of detectives for the Chicago police department now holds the title of most hysterical: "Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile."
It's all bluster. Of the 3,576 major offenses for which warrants were granted for communications interception in 2013, exactly one involved kidnapping. And, more importantly, there's no evidence that encryption hampers criminal investigations in any serious way. In 2013, encryption foiled the police nine times, up from four in 2012 -- and the investigations proceeded in some other way.
Susan Landau also does a good job explaining the situation. My goodness, I did not think the Crypto Wars would get fought again so soon, and certainly not with the Washington Post lining up on the wrong side of the ball.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Against Concentrations

I have been puzzling about how Harvard could get resolve the big problems in undergraduate education. I have a modest proposal.

Of course, the first step is to define what problem, or problems, you are trying to solve. Here are a few.

1) Students are too grade-conscious. This drives them to make anti-educational decisions, taking courses that are graded softly or don't teach them much they don't already know, rather than taking courses they might learn from.

2) Honors, being based largely on grades, reward conservative course choices and punish risk taking. They are also enormously socioeconomically biased, since the people who get good grades on average over four years are the people who were already very well educated before they arrived at Harvard. (I have never seen data on that, but I would love to see a scatterplot of high and highest honors, or GPA, against family income. I'd guess that most of the outliers, the students with low incomes and high GPAs, came from independent schools with aggressive financial aid policies.)

3) Declaring a concentration is seen as a moment of truth, a crisis in identity formation, no matter how much we preach that it's what you know rather than what credential you bear that will determine your future success.

4) The Humanities are terrified that they are not attracting enough enrollments or enough concentrators.

5) The General Education program, a source of pride in theory, is treated with some derision by more talented students, and as game of hopscotch, with some excellent courses and a lot of strange ones, by the bulk of students.

6) We are losing our identity as a liberal arts institution because so many students are concentrating in Engineering and Computer Science.

Pardon a somewhat lengthy digression here. I think #6, though widely bruited, is nonsense, because as far as I am concerned applied science is perfectly consistent with liberal education. The notion that a liberal education is one divorced from utility -- learning for learning's sake, as we like to say -- is a crock. It is just an etymological confusion, where "art" is construed as something other than "science" and "liberal" is taken to mean free from utility.

The liberal arts are neither useless nor artistic. They are called "liberal" because they were the arts taught to the free people of the Roman republic, the citizens as opposed to slaves. They were the arts of citizenship. And of course they included mathematics, since that was among the skills, the useful arts, that Roman citizens were expected to have to take responsibility for their nation. And while I am at it, and while we are still buzzing about the naming of the School of Public Health in honor of the Chans, I have always wondered why the School of Engineering is not already named for Gordon McKay and described properly as a "School of Art." After all, McKay's will is quite explicit:

I am sure there is a good reason; I haven't fought my way through all the codicils. The point is, the campaigning for the Liberal Arts is not just about the Humanities. It is equally about techne.

But back to educational reform. Here is a proposal to deal with all these issues.

I hate "secondaries," what Harvard calls minors. As presently constituted, hey seem to bring out the worst inclinations of Harvard students, their tendency to seek credentials rather than learning. I think students would do less of that if left to their own devices -- but we actually incentivize them to seek secondaries and guts that will raise their GPAs rather than studying the things they would most like to learn. We do this by giving them gold stars for secondaries and giving them honors for GPA, at the same time as we disdain the inevitable consequences of rewarding these things and not others -- students too busy and too competitive to stop and think about who they are and where they are going.

But what if there were ONLY secondaries? Get rid of concentrations. Have departments, and interdepartmental committees, offer "secondaries," and require students to earn at least two, but allow students to earn several. (Of course "secondary" is no longer the right term if there are no concentrations. I'll use it just to convey the idea of a small cluster of courses with some disciplinary coherence and a bit of depth.)

Now that defining moment -- am I going to be an English major or a Computer Science major? -- disappears. You have to be more than one thing, or you don't get a degree.

Well, of course there are damned good reasons why we wouldn't simply do this. We think you are not well educated if you don't know something in depth. We want to produce top scholars too, and that required incentivizing, if not requiring, undergraduates to work at an advanced scholarly level.

Though frankly, we are pretty unclear about the purpose of concentrations. We react with mock horror when students overspecialize, even if they have satisfied all their Gen Ed requirements. We actually reduced the maximum size of concentrations a few years ago; they are not supposed to be mini-PhDs, was the battle cry. But of course the top students are always the ones who do the most advanced disciplinary work. Those are the ones who graduate summa.

So how do we incentivize a deeper education, and the engagement of students in advanced scholarship and research, while not requiring every graduate to have a concentration?

Well, first of all, having two or three secondaries, say in CS and biochemistry, might be more of an intellectual investment in the future than having a concentration in one or the other. Lots of fields are evolving out of the friction between existing disciplines. A few courses in each of CS and sociology might have been perfect for Zuckerberg.

And secondly, we could incentivize depth by basing honors mostly on senior theses. A department might well decide that the "secondary," which would require only a few courses, was not nearly preparation enough to write a thesis; to be eligible for that you would need several more courses, with some specificity about which courses. When it came time to award honors a department or committee could look at the entire program and give some weight to GPA, but the idea would be to judge people on the depth of their knowledge, as evidenced in part by the quality of the thesis they were able to write. Honors would become more subjective, but also less consequential.

I'll bet we'd get more humanities enrollments if people felt that they did not have to assume the identity of a humanist. Of course, the humanities courses would still have to win in the marketplace of ideas. But there would be less eye-rolling, by parents and peers, when a student announced that one of her secondaries was in English if another were in something more "useful." We could credibly argue, as we cannot today, that the ideal graduate really is broadly educated. (The CS concentrator who does as instructed, and takes one Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding course, one Culture and Belief Course, and one Ethical Reasoning course, may well not wind up with a credibly liberal education, but if she had a secondary in Philosophy or the Classics, I bet she would.)

And by limiting the size of secondaries, we would make more credible that what makes you liberally educated is not what the scholars in your department think of your academic expertise, it is your facility with thinking and reasoning and analysis and argumentation and presenting well considered solutions to actual problems of the world in all their complexity. Of course those would be rooted in the academic traditions of the disciplines. Educated people are expected to bring the full arsenal of their learning to bear on their problems they confront. Our education would get linked back to our civic purposes, without some childish required civics curriculum.

Now I'd love to know what's wrong with this idea. One thing that is possibly "wrong" with it is that it would end some of the risible cries of "turf warfare." In the politics of higher education, turf warfare is advantageous to those losing the battles, as it is a way to call for the battleground to be leveled artificially, for a shift in resources to make it a fair fight. If we simply acknowledged that the curriculum is largely elective and let students take the subjects in which they were interested -- within the parameters of the regulated marketplace I have argued for -- we would all have a greater incentive to meet students' needs rather than complain about the unfairness of the fight in which we are engaged.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Is this what they mean by "running a university like a business"?

When a university is "run like a business," the implication is that wasteful redundancy and costly inefficiency should be eliminated. But of course determining whether you are being efficient about the way you are running your business, or cutting the soul out of the enterprise, requires defining what business the university is in. My previous post about the marketplace of ideas notwithstanding, I don't want a system that eliminates Egyptology so Computer Science can grow. In fact, Egyptology is holding its own in the marketplace of ideas at Harvard; Peter der Manuelian teaches a cool Gen Ed course to captivated students, including some I have directed to the course. (Interesting fact: der Manuelian took an intro CS course from me while he was an undergraduate here. You can do a lot of things with a little CS, as I keep saying.)

The question of the day is, given that executive compensation in the private sector has grown out of proportion to the wages of the labor force, and (as Paul Krugman details today) the disproportion at the upper end of the executive hierarchy has grown to a degree few of us can imagine, should the same hold for non-profits? After all, the same forces that justify paying big salaries to the op executives of for-profit companies -- competitive pressures, the value returned by top talent, etc. -- justify paying them in charitable non-profits. Don't they?

There is something that doesn't feel right about that, given the commitment these non-profits make to serve the public good -- and to have taxpayers underwrite their operations, if in no other way, by exempting them from taxation.

Which brings me to the article I received today that got me thinking about all this -- about not Harvard, but the University of Chicago. It's written by David Mihalyfy of the Harvard class of 2002, now a graduate student at Chicago. It documents the amazing run up in compensation for several top administrators at that university.
New analysis of tax data from publicly available IRS 990 forms shows that eight high-level UChicago administrators have received more than $7.6 million in compensation increases since 2007-2008, even as the school moved toward and suffered a credit downgrade.
Over five years, administrators enjoyed pay increases of between 40 percent and 135 percent, and as a result each received $450,000 to $3.3 million from cumulative increases by the end of 2012-2013, the most recent year for which tax data is available.
UChicago thus ended up paying $2.5 million more annually for the combined services of these eight people — an increase from $3.4 to almost $6 million per year.
And we wonder why the public is skeptical that we have done everything we can to hold down the cost of our product.

Bonus links:

A fascinating Bloomberg piece on the history of fundraising for endowment, an art first developed into a science by none other than Harvard's greatest president, Charles William Eliot.

A lovely Bryan Marquard obituary for one of the all-time great marketers of ideas, Irven DeVore. And a terrific David Warsh column giving a nod to the marketing skills of David Malan, and pitching an important idea about computer science education.

I will have to return to say more about Homi Bhabha's citation of Deresiewicz's epistemological dogma ("a subjective perspective," -- "subjectivism should not always be confused with solipsism"):
“We ask of a scientific proposition, ‘Is it true?,’ but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, ‘Is it true for me?’ ”
(Deresiewicz actually attributes this formulation to Lionel Trilling.) It does not take the "willful ignorance" that Bhabha attributes to me to wonder what this means or where it will take us.

Here, by the way, is the full video of Deresiewicz's appearance at Harvard, complete with Bhabha's introduction.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

You're kidding, right? Carlyle tracked its LPs at their annual meeting?

The huge global asset management firm The Carlyle Group, at its annual meeting, issued ID badges to its limited partners--its investors in other words, the people who make the business happen--so it could track their comings and goings at the meeting. These are not employees who imaginably signed away all their privacy rights when they agreed to work for the firm. As the story explains,
Carlyle Group has more than 1,650 investors from 78 countries, according to its website. And hundreds of those investors show up at Carlyle’s annual meeting, which according to one LP is something like the Burning Man festival of the private equity industry.
The LPs who learned about it -- there was apparently no advance notice given -- were furious. One guy thought about giving his badge to a woman LP for the night so whoever was sleuthing their movements would have some fun analyzing the data.

After the infamous email privacy scandal at Harvard a couple of years ago I should not be surprised by anything. How could anyone at Carlyle have thought this was a bright idea? I get it at one level -- some wizard realizes something is possible, nobody ever told him anything about not doing stuff like this, and he might learn something, so why not?

But it's bizarre. It demonstrates a shocking myopia about the big picture. What information did they hope to get that would be more important than the outrage and mistrust a disclosure would precipitate? If your LPs don't trust you in this business, you are cooked. Why would anyone trust Carlyle with anything now?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The (Regulated) Marketplace of Ideas

CS50, Harvard's introductory computer science course, is now the largest undergraduate course at Harvard. That is, it's the largest course in undergraduate enrollments, not even counting its enrollment from the professional schools, nor its Extension School and HarvardX cousins. That news was picked up by Fortune and by Business Insider. When I comment, I try to fight back against the lazy angle that Harvard students are just seeing CS as a way to make a quick buck--because for most students, I don't think that's the rationale at all. It's a very well-taught, fun, and empowering course. And as I said, "[Harvard students] have figured out that in pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future." As I told Business Insider,  the "course enrolls students from other disciplines who realize that computational thinking and skills are valuable in their own discipline, whether that’s economics or biochemistry or music or even the Classics." (I went on to plug the release of the Loeb Classical Library in an online edition, but somehow Business Insider didn't print that part.)

As I told Business Insider for a different story, "most of the people who are majors are converts from other fields, people who are switching over from all disciplines. This course is really kind of a conversion experience for a lot of people." I used the same metaphor in the long piece the Crimson published about CS50: “We are evangelical about our subject. … We want to compete for students. We want to take all the students who thought they couldn’t do computer science. We want them to understand that it’s going to going to be hard and fun. .... We’ve been doing the shenanigans for years.” (See this earlier blog post for the Confi Guide description of an ur-CS50 course I taught in the 1970s, if you think that David Malan invented clowning in CS at Harvard. And I didn't invent it either, I just picked up where Bill Bossert and Chuck Prenner left off.)

Departmental cultures run very deep, I have learned over the years. The idea that professors are supposed to be evangelical about their subjects is not universal. In some departments the attitude seems to be "We will teach, however reluctantly, whoever shows up, and complain about it if they are not intellectual enough"; in others it is, "I want to teach the students I want to teach; why should I teach students who don't want to be in my classes?" I wish I knew how many of the course "lotteries" (in scare quotes because they are often not based on random selection) are secondary admissions processes driven by faculty desires to select among the select. It is as though the limited concentrations, which were officially banned pursuant to Paul Martin's report on concentrations around the time the Core Curriculum came into being, are being recreated piecemeal as a nexus of limited-enrollment courses. Enrollment limits may be inevitable in some cases, but they are far too prevalent now, with no rules of which I am aware about when they are appropriate. Surely the most bizarre lottery story I have heard is that for Humanities 10, a brand new gateway course designed to draw students to Humanities concentrations and reverse the gradual decline in Humanities enrollments. It sounds like an absolutely wonderful course, vaguely resonant with the first term of the old Hum 5 course I took in the mid-1960s. Humanities 10 drew several hundred students--but was capped at 75. I wonder how many of those turned away took Ec 10 or CS50 instead, and will never return to the humanities except to satisfy their unattractively named "Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding" requirement?

I think departmental cultures are actually not Harvard cultures so much as cultures of the various academic guilds. That would make sense--economists draw their norms from economists elsewhere, for example, not from the norms in the English department. One of the consequences of the unwinding of the faculty community at Harvard--I am old enough to remember when lots of us went to the Faculty Club to drink before heading home, something unthinkable today--is that we learn less from each other about how to behave. We learn from our departmental colleagues, and that's it. Given the self-perpetuating nature of departments, and the way junior faculty are groomed within the department before the department awards them tenure, these norms become very ingrown.

The variation in norms really hit home when I attended the Mahindra Humanities Center's event surrounding the publication of William Deresiewicz's book Excellent Sheep. I had published a dialog with Deresiewicz in the Chronicle of Higher Education in August. I was startled when Homi Bhabha, head of the Center, opened his introduction of Deresiewicz by quoting from that dialog. He first claimed that the unnamed author had drawn a cordon sanitaire around his own discipline and cast the social sciences to the wind (or words to that effect). He then began to quote me, identifying me only as an "amiable colleague":
It seems to me that the process of promotion and tenure has had a particularly noxious effect on the humanities. We used to count on the humanities faculty to open students’ eyes to what it means to be human. Now that is not why humanities professors are hired, incentivized, or promoted. Their social conscience, when they feel called to exercise it, is manifested mostly in normative political posturing that is divisive and chilling to discourse on campus, and of no great civic, educational, or maturational value to students. Isn’t the so-called humanities crisis, the declining numbers of students choosing to study the humanities even at the top institutions, really part of the picture you paint in your book—of institutions that provide lots of freedom, and lots of busyness, but little support for self-understanding? 
"With friends like these," Bhabha sonorously rumbled, "who needs enemies?"

Except that Bhabha quoted only the italicized sentence, not the surround, the argument that the tenure process, desiccating everywhere, has bled the soul out of the part of the institution where we should most hope to find it.

I made a similar argument in Excellence Without a Soul, but it seems to have stung more here, perhaps because the humanities faculty feel so much more beleaguered now. In that book I wrote "We have forgotten that we teach the humanities to help students understand what it means to be human," and I quoted a humanities editor as saying "The demands of productivity are leading to the production of much more nonsense." The reference to politics as a proxy for the more traditionally humanistic values was written at a moment when a leading question among humanities scholars was whether their conferences should follow the lead of the American Studies Association in boycotting Israel. Is that really an instructive issue for those ruing the decline in interest in the humanities among undergraduates? 

By contrast, when my colleague Fawwaz Habbal, tried to explain that engineers deal with questions of value all the time--he gave the example of a course in which students have to "solve" the problem of Fukushima, including deciding on a triage protocol when only a limited number of people can be evacuated--Bhabha seemed to draw his own cordon sanitaire, suggesting that the engineers would build the tools but only the humanists dealt with questions of value.

What was amusing about the projectile Bhabha launched in my direction (I am sure he did not realize I was there) was that a few minutes later Deresiewicz accurately quoted me as arguing that not all subjects were equally important to college education, adding, correctly, that I thought that the humanities were more important than Computer Science. The humanities, as he and I understand them, not necessarily the weird humanities courses constructed for the Gen Ed curriculum.

Though I appreciated Deresiewicz quoting me accurately there, I found the whole event pretty disappointing, as a showcase for the humanities or even for the kind of "critical thinking" the humanists keep telling us their teaching trains students to do. When challenged about his habit of sweeping overgeneralization, Deresiewicz had three kinds of responses.

  • Yes, there are exceptions, the students are not all excellent sheep. But it's true generally.
  • Other people have said the same thing, so it must be true.
  • After I said it, a lot of people wrote me to say I was right, or gave me other examples to support my argument.
There is a name for the fallacy behind the last one: Confirmation bias. You say something, a lot of people agree with you, some people disagree with you, you hear more of what the first group has to say, and you conclude that you were right.

Overall, I just don't think Deresiewicz is a nuanced thinker. He seems not to recognize that he has serious Oedipal issues--his book's way-too-much-information confessional about breaking away from his father was embarrassing to read. His Freudian conflicts have now turned patricidal. He is striking a dagger into the heart of the hated academy that gave him breath. The news one learns from the book that his father was a professor just makes the the transference more obvious.

To loop back to where we started. The Harvard curriculum is largely elective. It is not quite elective enough, in my opinion, because the lines between Gen Ed categories were drawn too finely, as a compromise in a complex turf war among disciplines. So some good courses that are "general education" by any normal person's standard get rejected as Gen Ed courses, and some Gen Ed courses are on topics of dubious general value even though they fit the Gen Ed guidelines. Still, students generally have a lot of choice of what courses to take, and they are not eager to make those choices. So they wind up looking for metrics--easiness, grading softness, time of day--that make choices possible with little thought about the underlying educational values.

One of the marvels of CS50 is that nobody would choose it by easiness. Most students choose it because it is fun and it is empowering and it is useful (not as a way to get a job, but to make a better Loeb Library, etc.). But what information do we generally offer students about exercising their freedom of choice? The Q (student evaluation) guide, which is all but worthless as a course selection tool.

So I ask myself: Why shouldn't we have an actual free market competition for enrollments, with some rewards to departments for building their enrollments? Well, one good reason is that faculty would be incentivized to use dishonorable means to build enrollments -- grade inflation, light workload, etc. Well, guess what -- that happens already. A certain ethical reasoning course has gotten extraordinarily popular lately, with everyone from  overstressed seniors writing theses to members of our athletic teams. 

So I don't believe in a totally free market -- the controls on how we teach and how we grade should actually be stronger than they are. But a regulated, competitive market, with rewards for gaining market share, would improve teaching across the board. If the workload and grading were regulated, why shouldn't there be market incentives to teach courses that inspire students, and to lift the enrollment caps on courses like Humanities 10? It would be a way to break through the logjam that my amiable colleague Professor Bhabha blasted me for pointing out, that the nature of humanistic scholarship these days makes teaching such courses very difficult and unrewarding, even when they the faculty would love to carry their enlightenment to a broad swath of undergraduates. The folks who do it, and they certainly exist, are heroes. Helen Vendler. Greg Nagy. Michael Sandel. There are others, too. There is a reason why students adore them, and it's not because their courses are guts. It's because they speak to students' souls.