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.)