Monday, November 27, 2017

The Price

Professor Ben Friedman gave the best speech during the debate on November 7. He observed, among other things, that if we have learned anything over the past year and a half, it is that
the life of the Houses, those jewels of the Harvard structure, is nowhere near as engaging to our students as it should be, and in consequence it is losing out to life in other venues. What have we done in response? An all-too-familiar feature of American business behavior…is that when a firm’s product is losing out in competition, the firm’s response is not to improve its product but to seek to get the regulators to take its competitor’s product off the market. In effect, that’s what we have been doing here. Think of what we might have accomplished—think of what we still might accomplish—if we redirect the time and talent and energy that this faculty has put into this two-year-long discussion…to thinking about how best to re-invigorate life in Houses, rather than simply looking to shut down the alternative that too many of our students now prefer instead.
(The entire Harvard Magazine editorial opinion from which this passage is quoted is very much worth reading.)

Harvard can't seriously think that problems with House life are due to the clubs. Harvard cannot on the one hand credibly claim that off-campus clubs so damage the Houses that students who join them should be disgraced or even expelled, and at the same time build a "campus center" to draw students out of the Houses, and encourage students to take faculty out to lunch at local restaurants under the "Classroom to Table" program. There is something bigger going on with House life than could be cured by shutting down the clubs.

Let's stipulate—even though I don't believe it—that it is Harvard's job to more fully manage students' social lives. (After all, one reason students come to Harvard rather than, say, Bowdoin is because of the greater opportunities to have fun and to do interesting things off campus. I hope the next administration will be less socially oriented and will refocus us instead on academic matters.)

Viewed from a very high altitude, the problem of social life in the Houses has some unacknowledged origins. It is a familiar complaint that social life is bad because the Houses are more crowded than they used to be, and more crowded they surely are. That's unfortunate, but all things considered, I think Harvard has made the right tradeoff in educating a few more students rather than housing a smaller number in more spacious quarters.

The problems of social life in the Houses are more the result of other changes over the years. One is that a college with a 1:1 sex ratio generates more socializing—and thus the need for more social space—than the all-male college for which the Houses (and the old clubs) were designed. The pressure on social space became more intense as roughly the same number of students became 50-50 men and women, and as significant changes occurred over the same decades in the way young American men and women socialize with each other.

Also, while Harvard was assuming from Radcliffe complete social and residential responsibility for women students, it absorbed and renovated the Radcliffe dormitories (in the Quad), but allocated Radcliffe Yard, once the center of academic, social, and administrative life for women undergraduates, almost entirely to graduate education and research. (Only Agassiz Theatre remains an undergraduate building.) Inevitably, that put pressure on other social and administrative spaces for undergraduates. (As has the increasing number of College administrators.)

So Professor Friedman is right. We might have spent the last year talking about the life of the Houses rather than the evils of single-sex clubs. But the waste of time and energy that might have been devoted instead to improving House life is only one, and not the most serious, of the costs of this misadventure. I can think of several others.

The financial costs of the assault on the clubs are likewise not the most serious, but the resulting antipathy of alumni and parents (such as Heather Furnas) can't be welcome. Yet it may not matter. Fundraising numbers are robust. Two nine-figure gifts in the past decade have come from alumni of the professional schools (Gerald Chan and John Paulson), not the College. It may be that, like everything else in American society, alumni influence is tipping toward the top hundredth-of-a-percent of an increasingly financially stratified population. Has Harvard's fundraising model so shifted that the institution can afford to be indifferent to alumni loyalty?

The cost that bothers me most is the personal cost to students, especially women. Women will be the big losers if harsh sanctions are imposed on members of single-sex clubs. When the sanctions were announced under cover of exam-period darkness back in May 2016, did the President or the deans even know how many women belong to such organizations? Nothing was said about women's clubs in the initial announcements. Indeed, by citing sexual assault, those announcements suggested that the moves were meant to help women. In September 2016, the President sounded this half-hearted acknowledgment of the existence of women's clubs:
We need to be sure that we provide women with networking opportunities, with the support they need. We need to figure out the ways to do this. The women’s clubs have grown up because we, as a community, have not done that adequately. And so I don’t think that being this kind of organization — one that was created because something was withheld from you — is the best way to address these women’s needs.
This is the sort of logic that the Letter from 23 Undergraduate Women characterized as "astonishingly patronizing." Women are not joining sororities because the doors of the Porcellian are barred to them. None of the reports and pronouncements over the past year make any attempt to understand the sociology of the sororities and women's final clubs. No evidence has been presented that any of the ugly labels attached during the debates to the male final clubs applies to any of the women's clubs.

The attack on all clubs demonstrates exactly the indiscriminate stereotyping we hope students will avoid in other contexts. The women's clubs operate quietly, and women have their good reasons to join them. They provide something (actually, different things to different students) that those students find useful, supportive, or empowering. There will be a cost if what the clubs provide is taken away, and it is shameful that Harvard trivializes that cost. God save us if our graduates use such uninformed, ideological methods when they go to Washington to craft social policies for the nation.

The governance question, detailed several times by Professor James Engell, was skirted but not settled by the outcome of the November 7 vote. Is the Faculty in charge of the discipline of undergraduates, as the Statutes plainly state? The president refused to say. She recently said that anything that has to be put in the Handbook will be voted by the Faculty, but claims uncertainty about what matters those might be.  At the same time, attempts have been made to confuse "the Faculty" with "faculty," for example by referring to the Clark-Khurana committee as a "faculty committee," even though barely half of its members held even the lowest of faculty ranks.  The Faculty is an allegedly self-governing corporate body, with statutory responsibilities, committees of elected members, and binding formal votes, while "faculty" could refer to anyone with a faculty title whom the administration chooses include in its deliberations. The wording of the Howell motion ("it is the responsibility of the faculty and administration of Harvard College") deceptively blurs this distinction—there is no faculty of Harvard College, and conjoining "the administration" as an equal partner cedes to the administration the statutory authority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Finally, and related to all these concerns, the handling of the sanctions has created mistrust that will not easily be repaired. The source of the mistrust is that a badly conceived plan was promoted on the basis of a preposterous dogma: That single-sex organizations are inherently odious, that the very idea of a single-sex organization should excite the same revulsion as does the Ku Klux Klan. (Somehow while all this was going on, President Faust found time to speak at the inauguration of the new president of Wellesley College.) That lie (which has also corrupted the "inclusivity" initiative) created many inconsistencies and absurdities—for example, that the Women's Center is morally superior to a women's club because men can use it, or that the Black Men's Forum is OK because it isn't a forum for black men. This explains why the rationale kept shifting, though never enough to explain why some harmless organizations had to be killed off along with the dangerous ones.

The assertion of authority by Senior Fellow Bill Lee in a recent Crimson interview tends to confirm what I suspected. This attack on single-gender social organizations started at the Corporation level, as a risk mitigation endeavor. After one Title IX lawsuit, and a long history of bad behavior at certain male final clubs, Harvard's legal governors were worried about the extent of its financial exposure, and so the president and deans took the most aggressive actions against the clubs of any administration since the late 1990s. But their plan of action was couched in moral language rather than the language of safety and risk, and resonated with certain lines of progressive thought.

So even though this all started because some of the clubs posed risks, students were never told to stay away from them, only that students should hate them. Since the lawyers (I am sure) shot down any idea of treating women's clubs differently from men's, or some men's clubs differently from others, the category of offensive organizations kept morphing by expansion, not contraction.

And the administration, having crawled out onto a precarious moral limb to much applause, could not admit that the original motivation was a perfectly reasonable worry about student safety and Harvard's financial exposure. To be sure, the worst behaviors of the worst clubs kept getting cited—in fact, one speaker on November 7 cited a recent hazing death of fraternity pledge at a state university in arguing against my motion. One faculty colleague described this as "emotional blackmail," but I bet it swung a few votes. Sadly, the death of a Harvard undergraduate barely two weeks earlier suggests that loneliness may be a more serious death risk for Harvard students—and as the letter from the 23 women observes, that risk factor seems likely to be increased, not decreased, by shutting down the off-campus clubs.

The night before they were released, a member of the College administration showed me the letters from Dean Khurana and President Faust announcing the sanctions regime. My immediate reaction was, "No one will believe you." That is, no one would believe that the stated reasons for the crackdown were the real ones. Now the Senior Fellow has expanded his unprecedented involvement in the structure of undergraduate life by declaring that the as yet unnamed next president of Harvard will not change the policy that was announced so abruptly and unwisely on May 6, 2016.

This has been a nightmare for Veritas.

Friday, November 10, 2017

"Let me get this straight"

So began the email I received from an alum a couple of days ago. It went on, "Harvard bans final clubs, and puts on this workshop?" He linked to some stories about the workshop on anal sex being offered during Harvard Sex Week. (Check the Tuesday evening schedule.)

Stop laughing. I want to make a serious point here.

I am not against Sex Week. In fact, I like Sex Week. It is sad and strange that many 18 to 22 year olds are no more knowledgeable about sex than their parents or grandparents were. That said, it is a reasonable question whether this particular form of educational programming should be a high priority. I would rank Sex Week above some other things we do but below many more things that we should be doing but aren't. But that is just me. Others will have other views—chacun à son goût. Of course, donors also have their own tastes, and I know some who are redirecting their annual donations accordingly.

What I hate is our pretense of moral superiority. The weaponization of "inclusion" is the most sanctimonious exercise I can remember at Harvard, and that is saying something in a place never known for its humility. 

On how many occasions over the past two years have deans, presidents, and faculty members lectured opponents of the single-gender ban on the basis that being a member of a single-gender club was inconsistent with Harvard's deepest values? Or, as one faculty member put it, that of course we don't tolerate intolerant people—where the category of intolerant people includes women who hang out off campus for a few hours a week with other women for reasons they know best? (Read the letter written by 23 undergraduate women.)

The arc of history, we are told (seriously, we have heard that phrase twice), points toward the day when every single member of this community feels completely comfortable in Harvard's social environment, where everyone is welcome in every organization that any student might join. I am tired of being told that students who want to live their private lives as they wish are bad people.

Guess what? Some students have cultural, moral, or religious objections to anal sex, and a number of other practices Sex Week is teaching. Some students are made uncomfortable by advertisements about sexual activities of any kind.

I know the answer. Nobody has to go to the anal sex workshop. It is "inclusive," because anyone can go to it. "Exclusive" means that you are not allowed to go, like a sorority. No matter that no Harvard man has ever wanted to join any sorority. They are exclusive! They are at odds with our deepest values! They are all these terrible things that the anal sex workshop is not. The anal sex workshop is inclusive! The Women's Center is inclusive, because all genders are welcome! Kappa is bad because it excludes men! Don't you get it?

(But, I might object, Humanities 10 and lots of other courses aren't inclusive—students have to apply and many are rejected. Oh, I hear our moral arbiters cry, it's fine for Harvard faculty to pick and choose whom they wish to teach. Anyway, these courses are inclusive—anyone can apply to take them. Why is it so hard for you to understand the plain meaning of the word inclusivity?)

Do we really think that conservative Christians, Muslims, and Jews feel fully included in the Harvard of Sex Week?

Again, I do not object to Sex Week. I consider the offense some students take at Sex Week the price they pay for attending a diverse, complicated, culturally rich institution. But I object strongly to the shameless hypocrisy of using exclusivity as a rationale for banning students from single gender organizations, on the basis that what those organizations stand for is offensive and makes some students feel they don't belong here. Those organizations are important to other students, and those who don't like them should learn to ignore them. 

The point in working through this example is that not everyone—in fact, no one—can feel fully comfortable all the time in any institution where different people have different ideas, wants, and needs. It is impossible to achieve ubiquitous belonging in an institution that values learning, that expects students to grow and change. 

It is argued that intellectual discomfort is good, but students should never feel out of place because of their identity. Sex Week exposes the lie in that argument. The discomfort allegedly felt by women who can't get into men's clubs, or the nonexistent men who are turned away from women's clubs—these parallel the discomfort of religiously conservative students who have to live with the Sex Week hoopla. Choosing to make some students feel more comfortable makes others feel less comfortable. It becomes a question of whether to make everyone equally uncomfortable, and if not, which group we choose to offend more. Inclusivity is an abstraction given meaning only by practice. It means whatever we say it means, and the alum's contrasting examples suggest Harvard's definition. 

This discussion should always have been about the bad behavior that sometimes happens at some of the final clubs. To use as an excuse, without any data, a concocted social agenda is (as Steve Pinker so eloquently described) the reason why many Americans don't believe anything we say.

President Faust began the November 7 FAS meeting by describing the dangers to Harvard and to higher education in some of the provisions in the Republican tax plan. She then detailed how many members of Congress she had talked to and how disappointed she was that the plan they were now discussing was unfriendly to universities. 

It is actually not that hard to get out of the bubble even if you spend most of your time in the 02138 zip code. If President Faust really wants to understand why the Republican congress is not sympathetic to us, she should wander around Harvard Yard and talk to students from red states, and ask them what folks back home think of all this. They could explain to her why Harvard looks both sanctimonious and morally bankrupt in the eyes of many ordinary Americans, as much as they aspire to what we stand for at our best.

Postscript. Before the FAS meeting at which my motion was voted down, the president of the student government asked President Faust to inform the Faculty that 61% of Harvard students responding to a survey opposed the sanctions regime. She did not do so. 

Note added November 10: I have corrected the previous sentence by adding the words "responding to a survey." There are things to be said on both sides of the question of whether this was worth reporting. On the con side, the survey was unscientific and may not have represented student sentiment. The question on the survey was about the sanctions, which are a moving target, and not the same as my motion. And this matter, like House randomization, should not be decided by a plebiscite anyway. 

On the pro side of reporting the results to the Faculty is the fact that the president of the student body spoke at the October meeting and told the Faculty that a survey would be conducted and that the results would be available at the November meeting. Also significant is the basic fact that regular order has been completely ignored, from the day the sanctions were announced in a carefully staged pair of letters by the dean and the president during exam period in May 2016. Under FAS legislation, specifically the Dowling legislation, there is a well established set of committees consisting of elected faculty members and elected students, through which business is supposed to flow. This structure has the advantage of being legitimate because it is representative, and it helps the leadership debug their policy ideas before they get implemented or brought to a vote. It is less and less fashionable to use this "regular order," and instead for the dean to appoint faculty and students to a committee crafted to produce a certain  result. The events of the past year show why this is not a time-saver. So even if the survey was unscientific, it was better than nothing, and had it been reported, the Faculty might have had a reason to ask for an explanation.