Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Unacceptable Question

Reproduced below are the introductory paragraph and one of the bullet items from Harvard's "Guide to Unacceptable Interview Questions." (See this FAS web page for top level link.)

Why would information that may not be asked of a faculty candidate disqualify a student from team captaincies, Rhodes nominations, and leadership of student organizations?

That's not a rhetorical question. Why is asking about a candidate's club memberships prohibited? Perhaps it is Harvard policy not to discriminate against candidates on the basis of organizations they join--in which case our motion does nothing more than afford students the same protection. Or Harvard is bound by some Massachusetts or federal law which codifies the same principle. If anyone knows the rationale for the prohibition, please do share. In any case, this does seem to bear on the hypothetical I posed to the Faculty Council, about how the faculty might feel if the policy applied to them.
It is essential for all members of a search committee to be aware of these guidelines and follow them in both spirit and letter. Avoid any direct or indirect questions that touch on material that may not be asked. This information about an applicant should never be discussed with regard to his or her candidacy for a position. 
Inquiry into an applicant’s membership in non-professional organizations (e.g., clubs, lodges, etc.)  

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lifecycle of a Moral Panic

The matter of single-gender social organizations has followed a familiar American pattern. At the beginning, a genuine problem is identified; the responses to it are insufficiently effective; a moral panic erupts, inflamed by larger societal forces; the authorities make a muscular response, which infringes personal freedom; those concerned about the loss of freedom protest cautiously if at all, out of fear of seeming to give comfort to the enemy; and the matter ends with a course correction, perhaps under judicial order in cases where civil rights are at stake, and perhaps only years after the precipitating events.

The immigration and terrorism panics from the current presidential campaign—walls to solve the problem of Mexican rapists, immigration bans to solve the problem of terrorist bombings—fit the old pattern. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Tipper Gore’s campaign to label dirty song lyrics show that the same pattern can stretch over issues grave and trivial.  The Internet has spawned a whole series of moral panics—we tell the story of the rise and fall of the Display Provision of the Communications Decency Act in chapter 7 of Blown to Bits.

Typically, the infringement of personal freedom is at first not acknowledged by the authorities, and is dismissed when raised by others. “It’s only a small dent in anybody’s rights, if it has anything to do with rights at all,” goes the argument. “These circumstances are absolutely unique and so this action could never set a precedent for anything else. And the small price is worth paying, given the magnitude of the problem and the importance of addressing it.” This logic leads to exaggeration in both directions, minimizing the threat to personal freedom and overstating the effectiveness of the reaction. The muscular response generally looks overblown once the moral panic subsides—until it is cited as a precedent during a later moral panic. Even the appalling Japanese-American internment has recently been cited favorably.

From a distance—and sometimes from close up, in the eyes of calmer souls—the response to a panic may look very different. As President Pusey said at the time McCarthy was going after Harvard professors for being communists, “Someday I am sure that we shall all look back on the hateful irrationality of the present with incredulity.”

The lifecycle pattern is understandable in political environments; people are often ready to sacrifice freedoms in times of fear, when rational discourse is most difficult. But academic institutions are devoted to the rule of reason and to teaching students how to solve problems rationally, with an eye to historical moments when panic trumped reason. For the pattern to play out at a great university sets a poor model for those we are educating.

The single-gender policy started with a genuine problem: Some of the final clubs are sketchy places, and bad things that happen at Harvard too often have final clubs in the narrative. My memory of Ad Board cases from twenty years ago is that the names of the same two or three clubs kept appearing in case reports—we started drinking at the X club and then went to his room, he got drunk at X club and punched me, somebody threw rocks from the roof of X club, and so on. I have no trouble believing that the reports continue and may be more frequent, reliable, and serious, as reporting of sexual assaults has increased. This is what I meant in my original letter to Dean Khurana when I referred to some of the clubs as “toxic.”

Various attempts to combat the problem have failed, or were effective only briefly. One tactic I tried that was surprisingly ineffective was to scare the grad board members, who might well be personally liable for damages if crimes or injuries occurred at their clubs. My successor went the other way—he tried to make nice with the final clubs. They reciprocated by inviting him to breakfast and serving a dish that was a word-play on his name. That approach did not work very well either.

Then a moral panic set in as college sexual assault, quite properly, gained national visibility. Whatever one thinks of the relevance of Title IX or of the preponderance-of-evidence standard, there is little doubt that the University has gotten much more aggressive about sexual assault prevention since the feds took an interest in Harvard’s response to complaints—and since litigation has been threatened against the university.

And so Harvard has offered a muscular response, of which the new policy is a part. Oddly, in the interest of inclusivity, the policy would divide the student body into two classes. The virtuous, who are not members of single-gender social organizations, would be eligible to be team captains, Rhodes nominees, and so on. The deplorables, who do join such organizations, would not be eligible for such honors. The response brings cheers because finally someone is being tough. The fact that the response may do little to solve the original problem, and would infringe rights of free association that Harvard has long honored, gets lost in the self-congratulations.

The Sexual Assault Task Force report is a good document, and, in my opinion, correctly (if rather too sweepingly) identifies the final clubs as problematic. Neither the report nor the statistical evidence it cites supports forcing them to go co-ed, or discouraging men from joining, as effective responses to the problem of sexual assault. Indeed, if a club has a reputation for being an unsafe place for women, one might question Harvard’s wisdom in encouraging women to join.

What to do, if the new policy isn’t the right approach? Harvard could start by aggressively educating students about any unsafe places it has identified—clubs, parks, or dark alleys near Harvard Yard. Training on how to party safely, not just at the final clubs but anywhere, would be another targeted response—drink in moderation if at all, and never from a punch bowl; take a buddy with you and never leave without her, etc. Improved social spaces are often cited as a necessary response, and who could argue against that on this crowded campus? But Harvard social spaces, which will inevitably be regulated, will never compete against spaces off campus where the drinking age is ignored. Calling in the police when the final club parties disturb the peace might level the playing field of social attractiveness between Harvard and non-Harvard spaces.

In responding to this moral panic, the very definition of the problem morphed into one of broad social “exclusivity” and even “privilege.” Those may be problems, but they are not problems for which any evidence has been presented, so it is hard to judge the response. How odd to hear the Harvard leadership brandishing a stereotype in the interest of promoting diversity and inclusivity! Nor would any problem of privileged exclusivity of the final clubs be fixed by forcing them to go co-ed. If in fact Harvard knows that the membership of the clubs is largely drawn from some hereditary elite, then having the daughters of those families join their sons in the clubs is a laughable blow against privilege. To suggest that simply being single-gender makes the clubs dens of “exclusivity” and “privilege” is to play a word game. By that standard, the Anglican monastery on Memorial Drive is “exclusive.”

And I have never heard anyone refer to the fraternities and sororities as socially exclusive. In fact, my guess is that the members of those organizations, which never used to exist at Harvard, are disproportionally the students who might have attended their state universities had they not come to Harvard. I would speculate that the rise of fraternities and sororities is a side effect of the democratization of Harvard College—its evolution from a largely bicoastal, high-income, urban institution into one much more representative of America.

Students tend to bring to Harvard the clubs and hobbies that they had in high school or that their high school friends are enjoying at universities near home. I have joked, but it may well be true, that fraternities and sororities grew in popularity among Harvard students around the same time that we began seeing a baton twirler at halftime of Harvard football games. These were not part of old Harvard because old Harvard was not representative of America. The reason these allegedly exclusive organizations exist is because Harvard is more inclusive than it has ever been. I don’t love the baton twirling or the sororities either, but that doesn’t matter. Harvard is large, and contains multitudes.

So when President Faust said in her video about the final clubs, “The whole situation could be resolved in a minute if these clubs admitted women,” I wonder which “situation” she was referring to. Not the problem of sexual assault. Not the problem, whatever it is, of off-campus sororities and fraternities. Not the problem of “privilege” or “exclusivity.” Only the problem, perhaps, of widespread unhappiness with the policy itself.


President Faust had an op-ed in the Crimson on September 21, Claiming Full Citizenship. It’s a good account of the history, and I’m glad she points the finger at Radcliffe College as an institution which in its latter days did more to hold back than to advance the equality of women undergraduates. However, the article transitions in an abrupt and puzzling way to justifying the new policy on single-gender social organizations. Just when did the Kappa Kappa Gamma, or the Porcellian Club for that matter, become one of the “opportunities central to Harvard undergraduate life,” and thereby fall under Harvard control?

Much less under presidential control. The op-ed has three “I want”s in the last two paragraphs. These seem to be intended to justify the “We created a policy” that is used in the Atlantic video. This is constitutionally simply wrong—the Statutes are clear that the College is in the “immediate charge of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,” not of the President. That is why the Faculty annually votes all the rules and regulations for the College, and specifically approves any changes.

But quite aside from the statutory questions are the deeper questions about the role of the institution in the private lives of its students. There may be many things that the president, or indeed the Faculty, “wants” of Harvard students. We have historically exercised humility in deciding which of those institutional “wants” were appropriate to demand. How did it come to pass that what the president wants can become the law of the land for students who wish to be first-class Harvard citizens?

In particular, I wonder: If, as the president states, the correct response to Harvard students joining single-gender social organizations is to make them second-class Harvard citizens, was the Verba committee wrong? At the time when President Faust, with great dignity, upheld the FAS policy against discriminatory organizations and barred ROTC from Harvard, should Harvard have imposed on ROTC students some loss of privilege in the interest of greater inclusivity? Does the president think that what the Verba committee considered too patronizing on Harvard’s part is today no longer patronizing at all? Or is it now OK for Harvard to be patronize—some might say infantilize—its students, by limiting their freedom to choose which off-campus activities they may honorably join?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Nazis, communists, and sororities

We have passed the Godwin’s law threshold in the discussion of the motion prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of organizations they join. I have now heard more than one argument along these lines: “OK, maybe the College’s new policy is overkill. Harvard should leave the sororities alone and go after the sketchy final clubs in some other way. But your motion is worse overkill in the opposite direction. It would protect the rights of Nazis to be nominated for Rhodes Scholarships!”

The motion would provide no such protection. In fact, the motion would have no impact at all on the standards Harvard presently uses to honor students; it would simply stop Harvard from changing those standards. Students are responsible for their words and deeds. A student who spouts white supremacist garbage should expect to be culled out of any competition in which good character is a criterion—whether or not he is officially a member of the Nazi Party.

What about someone who is exposed as a member of the Nazi Party but doesn’t talk about it or anything else related to race or politics? That unlikely scenario would be decided in the usual way—by getting more information, discussing, and exercising human judgment, not by applying a rule. If certain organizations were automatically prohibited, what would be the protocols for keeping the list up to date? No such list would be needed to exclude students who belong to hate groups. The problem with being in such a group is not the membership card.

If tempted by the Nazi example to conclude that there are some groups just too horrible for honorable Harvard students to join, faculty should remember how recently the shoe was on the other foot. In 1953, several members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences were disparaged by Senator Joseph McCarthy for being members of the Communist Party. Wendell Furry, a genial and eminent professor of theoretical physics, was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was indicted for contempt of Congress when he refused to name others who had been party members. McCarthy demanded that Harvard fire him, and President Pusey courageously refused.

We, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, were then happy then to have Harvard stand behind our freedom to join organizations. Should we now withdraw the same privilege from our students?

Ah, you may say, but today’s Harvard has better judgment about good and bad organizations than Congress did then. We would go after only obviously terrible organizations, like the Nazi party. So the motion is a bad idea because it would tie Harvard’s hands to go after Harvard students who join obviously horrible organizations.

Can we really have confidence that Harvard, given the opportunity to demonize students for their organizational memberships, would not succumb to pressure—internal or social—to move the horribleness line? Our record on students’ rights is far from unblemished. Things that were once unthinkable have now become unquestionable. The equal treatment of black students, who were barred from the Houses when they were opened. The rights of gay students, who were persecuted mercilessly by President Lowell. The equal status of women undergraduates, who were originally relegated to the “Annex,” and who as recently as 1999 could be Harvard students only by having “special” status as Radcliffe students, with their own dean, president, and distinctive diploma. In every case, students and social movements have been ahead of Harvard’s wisdom about what is best for students.

It is the height of arrogance for Harvard to declare that in 2016, it knows better about the private choices of its students. Yet Harvard’s confidence in the judgment of its students is at a modern low—they were not even consulted about the policy. No vetting through the constituted Committee on Student Life, no Town Halls or discussions in the Houses—just the announcement, complete with a presidential imprimatur, at the very moment students were leaving for the summer.

We take pride in being a diverse community, and also in our transformative impact on our students. But the transformative impact Harvard has on its students is itself diverse and unpredictable. We do not aspire to transform all members of our student body into believers in Harvard’s values, as we choose to define those values at the moment we and they are here. There is no single Harvard culture and it is not the job of the faculty to create one.

Our students include intentional nonconformists, out of step with our institutional thinking and that of society at large. We have students whose needs we are not meeting, and who do not wish to be told that they may not seek off-campus what is missing from their Harvard lives. If these students choose to form or to join organizations, then we can decide to keep those groups off campus if their policies don’t comply with Harvard standards. But we shouldn’t, ever, discriminate against students because of those private choices that they make. They are free adults as well as Harvard students, coming from diverse backgrounds and headed, in just a few years, back into the full complexity of American society. To punish them for joining clubs, political parties, or other off-campus organizations would be patronizing, to use the very accurate language of the Verba report.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A rough consensus

When I tried to begin my CS121 lecture Thursday, the projection system was not working. As the lectures are live streamed to a distance audience taking a parallel course through the Harvard Extension School, I couldn't proceed. Stuck with nothing to do until the tech arrived to diagnose the problem, and a captive audience of about 150 undergrads, I decided to learn something and teach something.

I was curious what they thought of the new College policy on single-gender social organizations. Now this is not an unbiased group--I had told them on Tuesday to read my op-ed, but I didn't suggest any reading to give the arguments in favor of the policy. (What would I have suggested?) And of course they know me, and I had just fed them donut holes. And they are computer science students, majority male, freshmen under-represented because of the level of the course, not a random sample of the student body.

Even acknowledging all the biases likely present in the group, I didn't want to ask them for yeas and nays in a way that would make them reluctant to acknowledge publicly what they thought. So I used the protocol of the Internet Engineering Task Force: Rough consensus, determined by humming.  No one can tell whether you are humming or not; and if there is a rough consensus, it's apparent. Of course you can't decide a closely contested question this way, but the genius of the IETF is to avoid votes entirely. All engineering design decisions, after the very first ones, were made by rough consensus--without a consensus, you don't change anything. (The memorable expression is "rough consensus and running code," but the "running code" part is not in the by-laws. It's just a signal that you get a leg up if you can show that your dandy idea can be developed quickly to a state where it sort of almost works.)

So we tested, by humming, whether CS121 students were in favor of the new policy or not. The consensus was there and it was overwhelmingly negative.

Now maybe if you ran the same test in a Gov course you'd get an entirely different result. (Hey, Prof. Porter, how about trying it in The American Presidency?) But still. It was astonishing. I am sure I read somewhere (the Crimson?) that students are in favor of the policy. It never went through the student government or any of the official student-faculty committees, so there is no evidence there.

If anything, I would have expected CS students to be less sympathetic to off-campus social clubs. I think, and the class seemed to agree, that they are underrepresented in those organizations, probably because they are working too hard. And yet the favorable hums were barely audible in a large lecture hall.

By the way, doesn't that suggest a solution to the Final Club problem? Just ramp up the workload in Ec and Gov to be more like it is in CS.

Bonus link: a story about my senior year. Recommended reading for students who think their senior year is stressful! Professors' Professors

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Values Tests

The blog has been silent for awhile, in part because I was dean again for six months, in part because I was trying to get a book finished, and in part because I am Director of Undergraduate Studies in what has become one of Harvard's largest concentrations. My theory of computation course has 240 students this term, which creates problems, even if they are exactly the problems I want my field to have!
I and several of my colleagues penned an op-ed for the Crimson yesterday: No Values Tests, relating to the the policy on single-gender social organizations announced last spring. You can follow the Crimson links if this is all new to you and you care (I don't blame you if it's too much inside-Harvard-baseball for your tastes). I will just post it here without comment, except to say that I rather liked the graphic this blog attached to its commentary. FIRE also commented on it.