Thursday, January 30, 2014

Honor Code Snippets from Cambridge to Colorado

 “I attest to the honesty of my academic work and affirm that it conforms to the standards of the Harvard College Honor Code.” -- Draft Harvard College honor code, as reported by the Harvard Crimson, January 30, 2014. "Jake N. Matthews ’16 later suggested that faculty members, like students, should be required to sign a statement indicating their commitment to the honor code."
“We really want everyone to be honest,” said Sietse K. Goffard ’15, a member of the Academic Integrity Committee and the Undergraduate Council vice president. “That’s the whole point...of an ‘honor code,’ for everyone to be very open and candid about what they think.” -- Harvard Crimson, January 28, 2014
"As part of his professional work, [psychologist Fred Malmstrom] has surveyed almost 50 years of [Air Force Academy] graduates, asking them, among other things, how often they had broken the academy honor code vow not to 'lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.' The results of his surveys show a steady increase in proportion of cadets admitting to violating the code, from 28 percent in 1962 to 65 percent in 2010." -- Colorado Springs Gazette, January 10, 2014. 
"The worst cheating scandal in nearly 20 years at the Air Force Academy has prompted the Air Force to suspend the cadet-run system of discipline for honor code violations pending a thorough review of the academy's strict honor system. 
"The re-examination of the academy's honor code, in which cadets pledge neither to lie, cheat nor steal nor to tolerate those who do, stemmed from evidence of large-scale cheating on a senior-class physics test last spring. In June, 19 seniors were suspended for a year and the cadet-run Honor Boards, which investigate possible violations of the code, were suspended." -- New York Times,  September 15, 1984.
92 Air Force Officers Suspended for Cheating on their Missile Exam -- New York Times, January 31, 2014.

Should be an enlightening discussion on Tuesday.

Weird Investment Story of the Week

As sometime SAC Capital veteran Noah Freeman lectured Harvard back when he was an undergraduate, a fundamental problem with international business is that it places profit before ethics. Mr. Freeman is awaiting sentencing on insider trading charges. But this story is not about him.

Word began to reach my ears last week about Harvard's forestry investment in Romania. Forests sound like a good, clean business; renewable, green, and all that jazz. But it turns out that if you want to buy low and sell high, you may wind up buying opportunistically. And all opportunities are not what they seem. Bloomberg reports,
An investment agent who represented Harvard University faces charges in Romania that he took more than $1 million in bribes to induce the school to buy forest land at inflated prices. 
Dragos Lipan Secu arranged with unnamed sellers to artificially boost prices that Scolopax, a Harvard-owned company, paid for timberland between 2007 and 2009, anti-corruption prosecutors said in a statement Jan. 21, the day after Lipan Secu was arrested. 
Lipan Secu collected bribes valued at 4.45 million lei ($1.3 million), as well as a 2007 trip to the Canary Islands and a Chrysler Sebring car, prosecutors said. He was also charged with money laundering, and his wife, Mariana, was arrested for complicity. The two are being held in preventive custody in Bihor county and are facing more than 10 years in jail.
Harvard is at two removes from the scandal (a consultant or contractor bought for a company Harvard owns), but, of course, Harvard is in the headline: Harvard Overpaid for Timber as Romanian Agent Held for Bribery. Dealbreaker is not satisfied with that, and rephrases some of the salacious details in its lede: Harvard Investment Agent Didn’t Want To Overstep His Bounds Re: Asking For A Slightly Flashier Bribe Than US News & World Report’s #19 On 2010 Affordable Midsize Cars List. The Bloomberg story points off to the Romanian press. Somehow Dealbreaker reconstructs, I imagine with a degree of literary license, the conversation between Mr. Secu and the folks who were bribing him.
“If I’m gonna do this for you I want a Cadillac. With the seat warmers.” 
“You’ll get a Chrysler Sebring and you’ll like it.” 
“Bull shit! Bull shit!”
If you read Romanian, I'd love to know how much detail is there in the news accounts or court documents.

In other business news,  the dean of the Harvard Business School issued a curious apology for HBS's past treatment of women. The problem with this sort of thing is that there would be no end of apologies for what are recognized in retrospect as past institutional sins. I guess I should seek an apology from the University of Michigan Medical School because someone there, having given my mother the opportunity to be one of the few women in the class, told her that she couldn't be a neurologist and had to settle for being a psychiatrist.

Seems to me Nohria might have done better to announce the changes he was making without trumpeting the apology so much. The changes are doubtless all to the good for today's students, both men and women -- why create the impression that you are doing them largely to make up for something your predecessors did wrong years ago? Anyway, if HBS starts paying reparations for its past mistreatment of women, I hope someone will let me know. Both my daughters went there.

Added January 31, 2014: The Crimson has a story about the Romanian timber investment. It links off to other reporting.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Another Triumph for a Crimson Alum

An alumna of The Harvard Crimson,  that is. "Former Gov. McDonnell and wife charged in gifts case," reads the headline in the Washington Post. The lead writer is Rosalind Helderman, who has been the bulldog pursuing this story for most of a year. The first story in the series, "Va. Gov. McDonnell on two-way street with chief executive of struggling company," is dated March 30, 2013. The Post has carried dozens of Helderman articles about McDonnell, and more about VA Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who had his own ethics issues. It's good old-fashioned investigative reporting, the kind a democracy needs to keep its politicians honest. It's slow, detailed, grinding work of a kind that it's hard to see being done by any form of journalism but newspapers.

Helderman should get a Pulitzer for this series.

Roz was class of 2001 at Harvard and was a Crimson editor. Among the beats on which she cut her teeth was … me. It was fun looking back at our early exchanges. The first story she did for which I was interviewed was on the potentially explosive subject of Harvard's compliance with Title IX in its athletic programs. She emailed me thirteen questions and wanted answers … that night. I did my best, from home and without a copy in hand of the self-study that precipitated the story. I dodged her last question, though: "What is the history of women's sports at Harvard?"

The next story was about the role of Radcliffe. In the no-harm-in-asking vein, Roz asked, "What is your general feeling about what students feel about Radcliffe?" I was too smart to bite on that one. "No useful purpose would be served by turning your story into one about what Dean Lewis *thinks* students think," I responded. That began a series of exchanges about Radcliffe College, from which I tended to learn more than she did. They culminated in Roz breaking the story that Radcliffe would merge into Harvard (April 20, 1999). She beat the official announcement by only a few hours, but she did get the story first.

A resourceful, fair, hardworking, careful journalist from the very beginning. The country needs more of them.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Some Russian Money Flows Back to Harvard

Remember the Harvard-in-Russia scandal? In case you missed it, here is how it went, as I summarized the story in the Huffington Post:
In 1992, Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard professor and a close friend of Summers since Shleifer's college days at Harvard, became head of a Harvard project that directed U.S. government money for the development of the Russian economy. Tens of millions of dollars in noncompetitive U.S. contracts flowed to Harvard for Shleifer's Russian work, and his team directed the distribution of hundreds of millions more. Through the mid-1990s, complaints accumulated in Washington about self-dealing and improper investing by the Harvard team, and by mid-1997, the Harvard contracts had been canceled and the FBI had taken up the case. For two years it was before a federal grand jury. 
In September, 2000, the government sued Harvard, Shleifer, and others, claiming that Shleifer was lining his own pockets and those of his wife, hedge fund manager Nancy Zimmerman--formerly a vice president at Goldman Sachs under Rubin 
Soon after, when Summers became a candidate for the Harvard presidency, Shleifer lobbied hard for him in Cambridge. Rubin assured the Fellows that the abrasiveness Summers had exhibited at Treasury was a thing of the past. They named him president--in spite of what was already known about his enabling role in the malodorous Russian affair, and the implausibility of a personality metamorphosis. 
Summers did not recuse himself from the lawsuit until more than three months after his selection as president, and even then used his influence to protect Shleifer. The Fellows--including Rubin, whom Summers added to the Corporation--fought the case for years, spending upwards of $10M on lawyers. But in 2005 a federal judge found Shleifer to have conspired to defraud the government and held Harvard liable as well. To settle the civil claims, Shleifer paid the government $2M and Harvard paid $26.5M; Zimmerman's company had already paid $1.5M. Shleifer denied all wrongdoing, and Harvard disclosed nothing about any response of its own--a departure from its handling of misconduct by faculty farther from the center of power. 
Summers remained close to Shleifer, yet claimed in a February 2006 faculty meeting to know too little about the scandal to have formed an opinion about it. This prevarication brought a gasp from the assembled faculty and solidified faculty opposition to the Summers presidency.
The definitive tick-tock on this unhappy mess is David McClintick's "How Harvard Lost Russia," which appeared in Institutional Investor. The narrative is full of minor characters, including one Leonard Blavatnik, also a Russian emigre with American citizenship. Here is what McClintick had to say about Blavatnik:

In 1994, Shleifer and Zimmerman, with the help and advice of Leonard Blavatnik, a New York-based Russian emigrant and a member of the Forbes 400, placed $200,000 in a Blavatnik vehicle called Renova-Invest, which invested in a group of Russian corporations that were being privatized under Shleifer's guidance. The companies included telephone operator Rostelecom; oil and natural-gas behemoth Gazprom; aluminum smelters in the cities of Irkutsk, Sayansk and Bratsk; Vladimir Tractor; and oil producer Chernogorneft. The U.S. government alleged in its complaint against Harvard, Shleifer and Hay that these companies benefited financially not only from Shleifer's advice on privatization but also from AID-funded assistance, including free legal services. When Blavatnik was merging several aluminum companies in which Shleifer and Zimmerman had invested, Hay and other AID-funded lawyers worked on the merger documents at no cost to Blavatnik or the companies. According to a U.S. statement of "undisputed material facts" submitted with the lawsuit, Hay was aware of some of the private investments of Shleifer and his wife, which were violations of the bars against private investment in Russia. 
In 1994, Shleifer and Zimmerman, with the help and advice of Leonard Blavatnik, a New York-based Russian emigrant and a member of the Forbes 400, placed $200,000 in a Blavatnik vehicle called Renova-Invest, which invested in a group of Russian corporations that were being privatized under Shleifer's guidance. The companies included telephone operator Rostelecom; oil and natural-gas behemoth Gazprom; aluminum smelters in the cities of Irkutsk, Sayansk and Bratsk; Vladimir Tractor; and oil producer Chernogorneft. The U.S. government alleged in its complaint against Harvard, Shleifer and Hay that these companies benefited financially not only from Shleifer's advice on privatization but also from AID-funded assistance, including free legal services. When Blavatnik was merging several aluminum companies in which Shleifer and Zimmerman had invested, Hay and other AID-funded lawyers worked on the merger documents at no cost to Blavatnik or the companies. According to a U.S. statement of "undisputed material facts" submitted with the lawsuit, Hay was aware of some of the private investments of Shleifer and his wife, which were violations of the bars against private investment in Russia. 
Shleifer is still a Harvard economics professor. I did not think this story was likely to come around again, until I read a piece by Connie Bruck in the January 20 New Yorker called "The Billionaire's Playlist." The billionaire in question is Blavatnik, and the story is about his purchase of Warner Music, and how he got to be so rich (reportedly he is worth $18 billion). In addition to summarizing the same information I quote from McClintick above, Bruck adds some more color. Blavatnik played games with some paperwork -- changing an investment from Shleifer's name to Zimmerman's in an apparent attempt to avoid those pesky conflict of interest rules after the fact -- and then relied on Zimmerman when he needed to raise some big money:
[Blavatnik] had turned his access to Americans into funding for his Russian ventures. In 1997 and 1998, Zimmerman's fund had made bridge loans that helped Blavatnik and his partners invest in Russian companies. According to Chernys's testimony, those loans amounted to at least forty-three million dollars.
Bruck quotes "an expression that is popular among Russian businessmen: 'Never ask about the first million.'" She also quotes American entrepreneur Sam Zell about why it was so difficult to compete against Blavatnik in those days. "Start with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and go from there."

Blavatnik has recently become a major philanthropist. His $117 million dollar gift to Oxford University resulted in the naming of the School of Government after him. He gave Harvard, from which he earned an MBA, $50 million to fund a life science entrepreneurship accelerator. He is part of the host committee welcoming president Faust to London today.

I suppose we could look at it this way: Blavatnik has used the wealth he began to accumulate with his sketchy business dealings with Shleifer to repay the $26.5 million fine Harvard paid, with $23.5 million in interest.

It's a small world. Another Russian who plays a prominent role in Bruck's tale is Viktor Vekselberg, Blavatnik's business partner and the man whose foundation paid for casting a new set of Russian bells so the originals could be returned from Lowell House to their original home in the Danilov Monastery in Russia (a story told several years ago in the New Yorker).

It's more than a little discomfiting. But so is a great deal of fundraising; the tradition of people who have become wealthy in less than honorable ways elevating their reputation through their charitable donations has worked to the benefit of many a church, university, and city over the past couple of millennia. (There are plenty of Harvard case studies -- Buddy Fletcher, for example. For that matter, Gordon McKay, the donor of my chair, was no angel.) I believe that universities are the kidneys of  the nation -- they purify their tainted nutrients.

As long as they don't get corrupted themselves, of course. As long as they don't give the tiller to people unfit to steer the ship. As long as they don't have to lie about their donors' character in exchange for the largesse -- and that is a tricky one, since attaching a donor's name to a school or a fund is a way of honoring them for who they are, not just for what they have given. As long as the money donated is merely malodorous, and not known to be the fruits of criminal activity.

I hope the Blavanik money meets that low standard. Because students are watching, and they learn from everything we do. What is the lesson here? And because the world is watching, and as I blogged last week, it is already skeptical about our motives.

And we should not forget that there is another way. Donors exist who are selfless and give not to enhance their social standing or to make up for past sins. Some people -- Larry Lebowitz, for example -- give in honor of others, and let their identity be known only in the hope that they will inspire others to do likewise. Their own names appear nowhere, and they are satisfied to have helped unknown beneficiaries in the distant future. I wish there were more of that humble spirit in this world, and more ways of showing our appreciation for it.

(penultimate para revised 9:30am 1/20/14)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Information Control: Yale's Power Grab

No, not Singapore. Course evaluations!

Student course evaluations have an interesting history. Until the 1970s they were the province of … students, and in particular, the student press. At Harvard, the Crimson's "Confi Guide," the "Confidential Guide" to Harvard courses, was an institution. The writing was entertaining, and the methodology was, shall we say, unscientific.

Then colleges themselves started to get into the business. It would be interesting to reconstruct why that happened. Perhaps students' prose started to get less funny and more cruel. Perhaps a new generation of faculty started to find the reputation game more serious than it had been when tenure was more routine. Perhaps the faculty became more humorless or the students became more wicked. Nice senior thesis project for somebody.

I was on the Committee on Undergraduate Education as a junior faculty member when the first Harvard "CUE Guide" was conceived and printed. (Eventually the Guide was removed from the control of the Committee and was re-styled as the "Q.") The guide relied on survey data, and printed numbers as well as prose. Predictable things happened. Student editors, now working for the university rather than the Crimson, still tried to write so people would enjoy reading, and that caused faculty complaints. Except now they had to be listened to. The prose became anodyne and formulaic. Students pay attention only to the numbers, since the prose can be generated almost mechanically from the numbers. No direct quotations from those questionnaires -- though faculty still get those.

Faculty used to opt out of being evaluated, arguably making the guide less useful. (The classic paper by Ambady and Rosenthal. "Half a Minute," casts doubt on whether the guide is has much usefulness as an indicator of educational quality anyway.) So a few years ago the Faculty voted to make evaluation mandatory. Reciprocally, students opted out of filling out the questionnaires. So a few years ago an incentive was added -- you can't see your grades as quickly if you didn't fill out your course evaluations. (I always send students their grades in my courses right away, I guess unintentionally undercutting that incentive.)

I think other universities have gone through a similar struggle with the basic tensions: How do you make something that is interesting enough to be useful but still official enough to be dignified (if dignity is important)? So a second round of student guides started to appear once web scraping and electronic publishing became household skills.

Which brings me, finally, to yesterday's Yale news. Some Yale students created a site using Yale's course evaluation data but presenting it in more useful ways. Yale first objected to the use of Yale's name (the students called it "Yale Bluebook+") and then forced the students to shut down the site completely, apparently on the basis that the data were considered Yale intellectual property. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports,
Yale officials raised concerns that the site was making course-evaluation information available to people who were not authorized to view it. The officials also questioned the use of the Yale name and logo. 
The students said they believed that the administration was concerned about how the site averaged course ratings, making them easier to compare. They said they had changed the site’s name but shut it down after being threatened with disciplinary action. 
The university released a statement to the Post from Mary Miller, dean of Yale College, that said its “policy on free expression and free speech entitles no one to appropriate a Yale resource and use it as their own.” 
The statement added that Yale’s priority was to support its own resources and “not others created independently and without the university’s cooperation or permission.” It said that the information on the students’ site was still available on Yale’s own version. 
Now from a legal standpoint I have no doubt Yale's position is 100% correct. And it is doubtless true even from a mathematical standpoint: Every bit of information in the students' site originated from Yale's, so the same information is available there, if in a less useful form. The question is, what problem was Yale really trying to solve, and was this the right way to solve it?

After all, if students use guides to avoid badly taught courses, or to find easy courses, an alternative to throttling the flow of information and forcing students to do more information-processing work on their own to find those courses would be to improve the bad courses and make the easy courses tougher. (Though as I wrote earlier, easy courses do have their place, after all; any good faculty advisor has looked at a student's study card every now and then and said, "You know, you really shouldn't take those 4 courses simultaneously -- this would be a good term to find something a little softer as your fourth.")

Harvard has its own version of the third-generation course guide. It's called CS50 Courses and it emerged from the CS course by the same name. It avoids one flaw of the Yale students' approach -- because it exists within the framework of a Harvard course, it has an authentication layer blocking non-Harvard visitors from using it. It is extremely popular and yes, makes it easy for students to sort and select on all kinds of criteria that can be abused. I know that has caused occasional grumbling here but so far no gestapo tactics. (To use the term suggested by one reader of this blog.)

And like any good tool, it has unanticipated uses. I learned this morning that Harvard staff who have been delegated the unenviable task of arranging a meeting of a dozen faculty use the tool in the following clever way. They populate a mock course "Schedule" with the times those professors teach -- and then propose meeting times in the remaining white spaces! Brilliant.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Losing Trust in Higher Education

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy asked me to write something for its newsletter related to Derek Bok's book Higher Education in America. I wrote a short essay called Losing Trust in Higher Education, which is kind of related to the book. It hits some themes I have written about before--that if universities and their faculty are seen as untrustworthy, if their word cannot be taken at face value because of financial or political conflicts of interest for example, then they risk compromising their fundamental purpose so seriously that society won't take them seriously.

No login required to read the piece so I won't cut and paste it here. I'd be glad to hear your reactions.

Rules and Incentives

I continue to have a variety of conversations with faculty about how to make students more academically ambitious and adventurous and less grade-conscious, and also about how to get faculty more interested in teaching and less grumpy about the choices students make.

I am more and more certain that we are too reliant on rules and not enough on incentives, for both students and faculty. I'll bet we'd get better results at Harvard and similar schools, with strong and motivated students and faculty, if we regulated less and motivated or encouraged desirable behaviors in other ways.

This is a followup on an idea I threw out earlier, that we should change the way we award honors. To review, I suggested that instead of using GPA as the primary metric, we should award honors by faculty vote, on review of transcripts and other relevant academic achievements. Reducing honors to GPAs provides perverse incentives: better to get an easy A than a B in a more challenging course, better to take a course in which you know most of the material than a course in which you will start behind the preparation level of most of the class, etc. A faculty committee could decide honors subjectively, on the basis of breadth and ambition as well as achievement. Now you couldn't get a committee to do that for the entire senior class, so I suggested having the votes taken by the departments, where the faculty, hopefully, know the students. That could lead to variations from discipline to discipline (but those variations exist already, because of different grading practices). It would also create the problem of allocating "slots." If there were 80 summas to be awarded to 1600 seniors, what's the fairest way to dole them out? Again, perfect fairness already does not exist. You need a departmental recommendation to graduate summa, whatever your GPA, and some departments are traditionally stingy. I think these problems would be manageable, if there were any support for the broad purpose: to get rid of rigid rules that create bad incentives and replace them with softer rules providing good incentives.

In a recent discussion of grade inflation, a colleague asked me what the incentive was for faculty to give anything but As. Now I know: we shouldn't need an incentive, our job is to grade our students fairly and with discrimination, etc. But we all have lots of jobs, and time spent talking to unhappy students is not only time spent unpleasantly, it is time taken away from the rest of our jobs. And there are few counterincentives. Faculty here used to be given data comparing their grading practices with those of other faculty, normalizing for the quality of the actual students taking our courses. But it was never clear whether this information provided more incentive to soft graders to get harsher than it did to harsh graders to get softer. It's been years since any dean or president has lectured the faculty about tough grading. Again, I think a faculty peer group discussion (at a departmental meeting, with everyone's grade distributions out in the open) might have a stronger dis-incentivizing effect than the kinds of rules Princeton has tried to impose.

The real trick would be to come up with incentive systems for both students and faculty to replace the baroque General Education requirements, the with eight categories to be checked off and an orthogonal "Study of the Past" requirement. The granularity constrains choice, forces awkward compromises (Ec 10, the biggest course in the college, doesn't fit neatly into any category so it can count for either of two, but not both), and yet limits what faculty can actually teach within the curriculum (interdisciplinary courses, I'm told, can have a hard time getting approved, even though interdisciplinary in scholarship is all the rage).

Rules become a distraction, especially in the absence of any larger discourse about educational purpose. Students come into my office during freshman week with grids showing how the various rules will get satisfied over their eight terms, before they have talked to anyone about what they are trying to accomplish by going to college. The rules become the advising system and reinforce a sort of myopia to which students are anyway subject. Satisfying requirements is the sort of game they are good at. And naturally, while they are at the task of satisfying rules they find meaningless, they will try to optimize other measures, such as workload and GPA.

We need some narrative device, or some different kind of feedback and example-setting, to lift the eyes of students from the ground right in front of their feet as they walk through college. One colleague suggested to me the idea of a "beautiful transcript," which of course would not be an unblemished transcript but a transcript with some character and strength. Or maybe we just need more talking cures, some way to make filling out the study card less an act conducted in the dark and in private and then signed off on, hastily, by an academic "advisor." And we need something for the faculty too, since the incentive and reward system for good, caring, creative, innovative teaching is also not very robust, by comparison with the reward system for other faculty behaviors.

I wonder if there is really any hope of getting rid of the regulatory frame of mind, where we tend to think mostly in terms of "What are the degree requirements?" As I find myself more and more advising students, "You should't let satisfying the requirements interfere too much with getting an education!"

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Free expression news from all over

An American, Shezzan Cassim, has been released from imprisonment in the United Arab Emirates for making and uploading to YouTube a satirical video. The video apparently made fun of Dubai teenagers, who put on gangsta airs while living in luxury.

On the web there are various summaries of Cassim's experience. The descriptions are collectively incomplete but their very fuzziness suggest some of the problems with expression in humorless, conservative autocracies. Cassim was held for five months before he was charged, and it is still unclear just what he was charged with and convicted of. The CNN report states that "The charges were not read in court, but the country's main English-language newspaper reported that Cassim was accused of defaming the UAE's image abroad." The EFF says he was held to have violated a provision of a cybercrimes law that prohibits "using information technology to publish caricatures that are 'liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order." That sounds like a very supple and adaptable statute that criminalizes any criticism of the state.

So, who cares, other than universal human rights extremists? Americans traveling abroad always have to be sensitive to the local customs, don't they?

Well, if I were a student or faculty member at an American university that had a campus in that part of the world, I would care. Such as RIT in Dubai. Or NYU in Abu Dhabi. Oh, but now I remember. The NYU president once said that he had "no trouble distinguishing between the rights of academic freedom and the rights of political expression." What training does NYU give its students about what not to say or do when they spend a term in Abu Dhabi?

These incidents raise the questions I have been raising for awhile. What does it mean to be an American university in an authoritarian state? American higher education is still considered tops, in no small measure because of the freedom and creativity with which the "brand" is associated. That is why a place that is actually run by the government calls itselfs "The American University in Dubai," puts up a web site that looks like an American university's, and even gets itself accredited by an American accreditation agency. (Though the parking lot does not look like an American university's.) It is why the American University in the Emirates, also in Dubai, borrows American values such as "innovation and creativity, respect and dignity for all, openness, trust, and integrity," and so on. That university has some pretty high class American partners: George Mason U, U of Virginia, Stetson U, etc.

I suppose the argument would be that Mr. Cassim was disrespectful, so the university's and the state's values would be perfectly aligned in this case. I almost wish the US had a trademark on the use of the word "American" in such contexts, and could prevent its use in places where the right of free speech, so fundamental to American university life, was so abridged.

But restricting the use of the word "American" would not solve the problem of Yale in Singapore. After some of my previous blogging I received some email from Singapore, making the case that I was talking as though you couldn't have a liberal arts institution without exactly the American notions of free speech, and the Yale-NUS programs were off to a good start with students deeply engaged in the classical texts of Western philosophy. To be clear, I hope they succeed, and I am glad they are off to a good start.

But the dualism with Singaporean state information control seems simply untenable and scary. The rules are becoming more restrictive, not less. Any blog providing "political commentary" must now register with the government and identify the owners. Some are shutting down rather than comply. Oh no, protests the government; this is not censorship--just an extension to cyberspace of the extant principle that foreign governments may not meddle Singaporean politics. You can say anything you want, we just need to be sure you are not a proxy for a foreign influence. Oh yes, and that we know who you are.

The Strait Times gives some more details:
MORE tightening is in the works, with a review of the Broadcasting Act expected to take place this year. 
The Media Development Authority (MDA) has stated its intent to prevent foreign influence over local politics through Singapore's media whether in print, broadcast or online, and it will look into incorporating more comprehensive safeguards this year. 
Last June, the MDA required online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here to register for an individual licence. 
The regulator explained that this move is to place the sites within a regulatory framework that is consistent with that for traditional news platforms, which already have to obtain such a licence. 
Such sites come under the licensing law umbrella if they attract at least 50,000 unique visitors from Singapore in a month. 
They are required to take down content that breaches certain standards, such as those on racial or religious harmony, within 24 hours of being notified, and put up a performance bond of $50,000.
Thanks to the individual who sent me that news story. Here is a link to the Strait Times story. It will ask you to register before reading it. For some reason I didn't feel comfortable doing that.

So I wonder: Are American students attending Yale-NUS advised against blogging anything that might, in the eyes of the authorities, upset racial or religious harmony? (By the way, does Othello or to Kill a Mockingbird upset racial harmony? Would discussing the works of Richard Dawkins upset religious harmony? How does Yale-NUS handle all this?)

The trouble with laws restricting speech is that governments, one equipped with them, will find creative new ways to stretch their compass. This is true even in democracies, as in the case of the child pornography laws in Canada that have been used against a teen who sexted photos of a rival she found on her boyfriend's phone. It is even more true in authoritarian states, where officials are used to making up the laws as they go along anyway. American students are likely to do something impish to challenge the edges. It's a dangerous mixture, and not a natural melding of cultural traditions.

Let's see. Where else is there a problem of free speech in academia? How about Kansas?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 19, 2013,
The Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved new policy language on Wednesday that gives state university leaders the authority “to suspend, dismiss, or terminate from employment any faculty or staff member who makes improper use of social media.” 
Fred Logan, the board’s chairman, told the Lawrence Journal-World that the policy change had been “inspired by” the uproar over a controversial tweet about the National Rifle Association that was posted by David W. Guth, a faculty member at the University of Kansas, in the wake of the September 16 shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. 
The new language is an addition to a section of the Board Policy Manual that deals with suspensions, dismissals, and terminations. It outlines a number of ways in which use of social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook might be considered improper. Among them are any communication made through social media that is pursuant to an employee’s official duties and “contrary to the best interests of the university.” Other improper uses include inciting violence or disclosing protected information like student records, or any communication that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.”
My goodness. Big Brother is Watching. This sounds like the sort of thing you would expect out of Dubai, or Singapore. Firing a professor for saying something "contrary to the best interests of the university"?

The Regents seem to have realized that this rule may be unconstitutional, but the reconsideration is on the grounds of vagueness. Vague it certainly is--how would anyone ever know what was contrary to the best interests of the university? The use of that sweeping language is a dead giveaway for the rule's real intent: the administration wants the authority to fire, at its discretion, anyone who says things that cause trouble. 

But that is what academics do. We say troubling things. We make connections. We challenge the way people think. We make people rethink settled issues. A university where students and faculty can't say things that make others uncomfortable is not a university, not an American university anyway. It might be a very fine training institute. But it wouldn't be a university.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Losing Aaron

Terrific piece in Boston Magazine about the death of Aaron Swartz and what it says about the legal system and also about MIT. I had forgotten that I had been interviewed for this after some of my blogging (e.g. here and here) , but the article includes a pretty good quote from me:
I think the worry is that the institute, which was always freewheeling, fun-loving, and impish-behavior-tolerating, is becoming captive to a set of lawyerly and administrative dictates. Universities are much more beholden to officials in the federal government, state, and local government, to stay on their good side. But there’s something lost when the lawyers and the people who have to make the business of the university run get to influence decisions that have real educational and philosophical and student-life-related consequences.
 The Swartz affair remains unutterably sad, and the article, which is well researched, doesn't make one any more hopeful.

Breaking New Ground in Gut Courses

Probably every college has its "guts"--easy courses. At Harvard they serve a variety of useful purposes. To be sure, the number of varsity athletes who reportedly have developed an interest in classical Chinese philosophy is probably not the result of some search for the moral dimensions of tackling above the waist. And no, it is not an indicator of some return to Harvard's religious roots. The truth is that lots of computer science students take these courses too--because courses like mine take more than the average and CS concentrators are trying to even out their weekly workload. So I don't mean to complain--if everybody made the demands that are pretty much the norm in CS, the system would break down. Happily, Harvard's requirements force students to take a certain number of courses outside their concentration, and they can't be blamed if they respond by seeking out the less demanding courses. So we need courses like the late lamented Gov 1310 of the infamous "cheating scandal"; as the Crimson noted,
The consistently well-enrolled course … gained a reputation for its lack of difficulty and its collaborative atmosphere; the reading assignmentswere usually fewer than 100 pages a week, and participation was not graded. Students’ grades were calculated solely based on their scores on four equally weighted take-home essay exams.
Some professors who teach such courses thrive on their ability to draw huge enrollments, though few have taken the outreach effort as far as the Gov 1310 instructor did. His Twitter feed from two years ago is interesting:
Hardly shocking that some athletes signed up for this course.

For all the recent drama about grade inflation at Harvard, which continues to ripple through the media, it seems to me that the variability in the course unit is a more serious concern. There is probably an order-of-magnitude workload difference between an easy course and a hard course, and in certain concentrations it is not too hard to load up on easy courses. I am less bothered by the fact that the outside world can't know what a B+ or A– means on a Harvard transcript than I am about the fact that Gov 1310 has the same value in Harvard's hard currency as CS 121.

Of course, a high workload is not an educational objective in itself. It is a means to an end. And there are other ends than developing expertise. I have no doubt that many Harvard students have learned something about Congress from Gov 1310 and something about philosophy from Ethical Reasoning 18. As I said, these courses have their place.

Which distinguishes them, very sharply, from AFAM 280 at the University of North Carolina, a course on "Blacks in North Carolina" that never met. The New York Times account ("A's for athletes, but charges of fraud in North Carolina") is gripping. The students got their grades and the professor (a retired department chair at UNC) got his stipend, but it seems that both stretched what Ted Sizer dubbed "Horace's compromise" (the teacher won't push the students and the students won't complain about the teacher) to its logical conclusion. All but one of the 18 students in the course were football players, and the last guy was a former player. And word about the course came not from the student social network but from UNC's official academic advisers. Moreover, this course was only one of dozens that seem to have been partially or wholly fraudulent. The criminal justice system is involving itself.

The money quote from the story is from the UNC provost. "Universities for a very long time have been based on trust. One of the ramifications of this is that now we can no longer operate on trust." We shall see whether UNC can really impose some quality controls. I do think universities have to operate on trust, but I think that at many places, including Harvard, the social fabric of obligation and commitment has become weakened by the incentive structure (the pursuit of money, publications, invited lectureships, enrollments, favorable student evaluations, and so on), and we may be ready for some greater oversight of what actually happens in the classroom.

But I would also renew the suggestion I made about changing the honor system so as to provide a different set of incentives for students. If honors were granted by actual faculty vote after inspecting transcripts, a bunch of A's in well-known guts might come to be seen as a negative, and students would be motivated to take more interesting and challenging alternatives. The system might rebalance itself a bit.

Just a thought, with many unspecified details rife with devils. But the current system has its satanic aspects too, doesn't it?