Sunday, July 23, 2017

Social Club Press Roundup

Several articles of interest have appeared in the aftermath of the report of the Clark-Khurana committee, which recommends a total ban on "exclusive" social clubs.

There is no substitute for humor. It's actually too bad that Harvard didn't think of using this weapon against the more ridiculous of the clubs, rather than allowing itself to become the target. Like any good humor piece, this one makes a serious point. The rationales keep changing; the set of affected clubs keeps expanding; but the horror stories in the reports remain the same, because killing off the men's final clubs has always been the real agenda--a conclusion in search of an appropriate premise to imply it, now for more than a year. It cannot be an accident that discussion of sexual assault faded away last year once it became clear that closing down the final clubs could not be justified on that pretext.

By the way, not stated in this piece but certainly implicit is that the slope is indeed slippery. It was asserted repeatedly last fall that sanctioning the single-gender clubs could not possibly be a step down a slippery slope; the original policy had a very narrow and unique target, we were told. We have skidded quite a distance between last May and this July, but there are plenty of arguably obnoxious organizations left for Harvard to bar students from joining. I hope the next time someone asks whether this could be extended to a conservative religious group, we will not again be dismissively told that there is no slippery slope.

This piece, too, is brilliant, in an entirely different way. As it is behind a paywall (it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education), I will quote just one passage to give the drift.

To quote the great philosopher Clint Eastwood, as Dirty Harry, "a man’s got to know his limitations." The same may be said of a university. Its jurisdiction and authority are rightly bounded by the perimeters of its campus. The certitude of its moral and intellectual prowess does not give it infinite license to control the private lives or thoughts of its students, to manage the affairs of society at large, or to deliver its principles as if tablets from on high. The evangelical zeal of any university, its messianic compulsion to promote progress (as it and it alone would define it), is a sure sign that it misunderstands its core responsibilities: educating its students and demonstrating by word and example the need to respect the rights of others to self-determination, even when adjudged to be wrong. A university on a mission is a dangerous thing in a pluralistic society, a betrayal of the diverse values it purports to represent, and a sure way to alienate those it seeks to enlighten.
The list of examples Gup goes on to cite certainly makes one wonder, as one of my colleagues did with me this morning, whether some future writer will look back on these events and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Seven Votes (Crimson)
This is the blockbuster news story of the year by the Crimson. If correct, and it seems well sourced and no corrections have been added to the story in the two days since it appeared, then the Clark-Khurana committee did not reach nearly so extensive a consensus as the report of that committee suggests. (I do not refer to this as a "faculty committee," since many members were not faculty, and faculty who are not also administrators were in the minority.) The committee members certainly have my sympathy--it's a complicated issue about which it had to reach a conclusion under time pressure and with limited information. (In fact, very little factual information is in the report. I wonder how carefully the policies of other colleges were studied. There are no thanks to people at Bowdoin or Yale who were consulted, no evidence of road trips, and very little if any numerical data.)

From the time I--respectfully and in good faith--withdrew my motion, I have said nothing about the committee or its work, until now. The stunning revelation is the one in the title--that apparently the recommendation for a total ban came out of a single up-or-down vote (described as a straw vote) among ten alternatives. The Crimson reports that seven of the 27 committee members voted in favor of the option that was then reported to be the committee's recommendation. Even middle school students learn not to conduct a vote that way when choosing a team captain--the results are meaningless. And here the vote is being used to radically restructure undergraduate life forever. This is the culmination of a consultative process that was supposed to get us to a unifying end to a year of divisive discussions set off when the policy was announced, out of the blue, as students and faculty were leaving town.

If true, the article confirms all the worst that our critics think of academia: That we come to conclusions first, write fake reports to justify those conclusions, fill them with phony numbers ("small minority") and sanctimonious language about our own moral superiority (really--"pernicious" appears four times), and then claim high moral ground we do not deserve. The sadness of this, unless the article is somehow debunked, is that it sullies the reputations of academics who make other decisions with human consequences--political scientists, climatologists, medical researchers, admissions professionals. It makes us a laughing stock, and that hurts us all.

Harvard alums furious over proposal to ban elite social clubs (New York Post)
I am quoted skeptically about a new argument for banning clubs: Harvard students can't handle being rejected from them. I don't doubt that this upsets people, probably more now than a couple of years ago. (Harvard's constant complaining about how important the clubs are has probably been good for recruiting.) I get it about the stress of competition--in Excellence Without a Soul I quoted one of my assistant deans as saying he loved athletes because "they are the only people here who know how to lose." I am just skeptical about the seriousness of the problem, and that a ban is a remotely sensible response. We are an educational institution, and there is no educational value in protecting students from the consequences of their choices by taking those choices away from them. In any case, I wonder if anybody really cares that much about the stress resulting from trying to get into a club--we seem fine when students get "lotteried by application" out of two or three Gen Ed courses, which they  actually need to take in order to graduate. (The Post had an earlier editorial, Harvard's plan to make sure undergrads never grow up.)

Harvard women's groups frustrated by efforts to ban them (Boston Globe)
This does a good job shifting the attention to the collateral damage done to women's clubs, most of which have little in common with the men's clubs that were the original target. One of the annoying attitudes one hears is that the clubs don't really add anything, so if they get injured in the process of killing off the minority that are widely agreed to be obnoxious, it will still be a win.

A cautionary tale for Harvard on male-only clubs (Boston Globe)
This article draws a parallel between the Harvard ban and a recent case at Wesleyan where a fraternity won a lawsuit against the university. Unfortunately it  seems to miss the point that the new Harvard policy, which is not based on gender, may have been designed to avoid the flaw that made Wesleyan vulnerable. On the other hand, given the chaotic design-making process described in the "Seven Votes" story, that speculation may be giving the Harvard process too much credit.

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A year later, after so much has been written and said, I am exactly where I was last May. Students, just like the rest of us, should be able to join any private organization they want. We should all be held accountable for our actions, not for our choice of clubs. There are good reasons why Harvard prohibits us from asking about clubs when we make hiring decisions--because what clubs people belong to is nobody's business but their own. I will return to these thoughts on another occasion.

(updated 7/24 to reflect correction to the last Globe story)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Further comments on the social club policy

FAS has set up a website for faculty to post comments about the policy. (Actually, the report, which links to the site, says "faculty and students," but students tell me they can't log into it.) Here is the comment I just posted there.

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This drastic recommendation is the product of anecdote and generalization, rather than data and analysis. The anecdotes are largely about men’s clubs, and though the report doesn’t mention it, most of the students affected by the policy would be women. Rather than targeting the malefactors and placing them in statistical context, the report uses dramatic stories to justify moves against clubs that have done nothing wrong. It is as though an attack by somebody’s Rottweiler was justification enough for taking away other people’s service dogs, St. Bernards, and poodles.

The use of “exclusivity” to consign all the women’s clubs to the same fate as the most drunken of the men’s final clubs seems almost certainly designed to meet the President’s condition of not inviting a lawsuit—which recent Crimson reporting suggests may happen anyway. Women members will testify that these organizations have grown for reasons that have nothing to do with the drunken parties that happen at some male final clubs; alumnae have told me that the support they received from other members was not just enjoyable, but essential to their success at Harvard. The report offers no evidence that getting into one of the women’s organizations is particularly competitive, relative to the psychic rewards of membership (it is probably less stressful than repeatedly being “lotteried by application” out of limited-enrollment FAS courses). The report’s vague call for “increased efforts to foster other social opportunities for students” sounds a good deal like a recommendation to “repeal now and replace later.” Of course, the argument that women’s organizations are “discriminatory” is irrefutable—but also entirely abstract: no evidence is offered that men have ever wanted to join them.

But these are practical details. Even if we were to conclude that the clubs “should” not exist, and that our students and alumnae are exaggerating their importance, the whole idea of punishing students for joining private, off-campus organizations—for peaceably assembling, as the Bill of Rights puts it—is deeply wrong.

It is true that the rights enumerated in the First Amendment are dangerous to established order. As Americans, we can ridicule our president, and can gather peaceably together in groups that cause the authorities to suspect that we are up to no good. It took supreme confidence on the part of the Founders to build into the Constitution the assurance that the government would not interfere with these activities. It might watch us closely and stand ready to respond when we break a law, but Congress could not make the speech or assembly itself unlawful. The reason these things are allowed, even when they are considered obnoxious or worse by prevailing social standards, is that the Founders understood that society is not static, and they had confidence that an enlightened if not always harmonious society will in the long run be better off, that social progress will occur, if people are allowed to speak and assemble peaceably even for reasons the authorities find offensive.

Harvard is a private institution and is under no legal obligation to follow the principles that apply right outside Harvard Yard. On the other hand, we should consider ourselves to be, if anything, more enlightened than the average place in America, more capable of governance through the rule of reason. This absolute ban—modeled on a policy for rural institutions where fraternities were residential and the entire social structure was drastically different—projects a lack of confidence that students should be allowed the same freedoms that the Constitution guarantees to all citizens. It is as though we don’t think that appeals to facts and reason will work with our students, and therefore there is no other way to proceed except by making a rule and then enforcing it with discipline. Yes, something must be done, but it is simply not true that everything else has been tried. For example, as I testified to the committee, the College has never tried (that I am aware) even the simplest of campaigns: to tell students not to join or go to the worst of the clubs, and why, and to explain the same forcefully to the parents of incoming freshmen. My own freshman advisees last year, who entered the College when it was at peak alarm about the ills of USGSOs, reported that no one had said a word to them about this subject in any orientation, proctor meeting, or written communication.

We are an educational institution. We teach students in everything we do. If we can teach students to guard themselves against infectious diseases without quarantining them, we can get them to stay away from those clubs where we have good reasons to think they should not go. Let’s give our students, and ourselves, more credit than to say that the only possible response is an outright ban, which to be effective would have to be enforced by some system of tips from informants, surveillance of off-campus restaurants where suspiciously regular dinner meetings might be taking place, and Ad Board punishments.

To proudly adopt a ban would be to teach by example that when a national leader attacks the free press or peaceful protests, he may be responding quite appropriately to the irksome downsides of citizens’ exercise of their civil liberties. Just because the rest of the world is finding authoritarianism more congenial than personal freedom, that doesn’t mean Harvard has to follow suit.



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The new policy about social clubs

The report of the committee chaired by Professor Clark and Dean Khurana has now been posted. Harvard Magazine has a good summary, including a link to the report: Harvard Committee Recommends Banning Clubs. The Boston Globe also has a story, in which I am quoted: Harvard panel recommends barring students from final clubs. Here is the full text of what I sent the reporter:
The recommendation manages to put Harvard in a position that combines arrogance with insecurity. The University would suspend ordinary freedom of association rights so that Harvard can pick which off-campus clubs students can join. And at the same time the report displays a lack of confidence in Harvard's mission to educate students to make choices for themselves. Instead Harvard would do the easy thing: make a law and punish the nonconformists. This is not the way to prepare the citizens of a free society. 
It contains one particularly significant sentence: “The President will make the final decision.” So we have a committee, hand-picked by the dean, declaring that the matter is not under Faculty jurisdiction. I don’t know how the Faculty will react to the policy itself — I would like to think they would not support it — but I would be very surprised if they would agree that this matter is not within their authority to decide.
There is a great deal more to be said about this. The same rhetorical devices are being used as in the past: Some clubs are bad, so we must ban all clubs. We'll have to figure out later how to replace the positive roles some clubs play in the lives of some students, once we have killed them off. No data (read Professor Haig's minority opinion at the end). No acknowledgment that most of the groups and students affected are not the final clubs and their members.

I think the most interesting question may prove to be the constitutional issue suggested in the second part of my statement to the Globe. The report assigns responsibility for enforcing the policy to the Administrative Board. The Administrative Board administers the policies for undergraduate affairs adopted by the Faculty, which draws its authority over undergraduate affairs from the Fifth and Twelfth Statutes. The report says that no special oaths will be needed because the policy will be incorporated into the Handbook. But nothing gets incorporated into the Handbook by presidential fiat. The Faculty votes the Handbook every year, and votes major changes to it individually before the Handbook as a whole gets voted at the end of the academic year. It simply makes no sense to say that the President will decide this and then it will go into the Handbook, unless the fundamental principle of faculty governance over undergraduate affairs has been altered in the Statutes. "The President will decide" and "it will go in the Handbook and be enforced by the Administrative Board, whether the Faculty like it or not" are inconsistent statements, unless the Statutes have changed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The AS11 staff, then and now

Applied Sciences 11 was the original name for CS50, a course I created in 1981, before Harvard had either courses called "Computer Science" or an undergraduate degree by that name. AS11 wasn't a renaming of Nat Sci 110, it was a whole new enterprise, an attempt to be systematic and scientific about the introduction to the science of computing, more rigorous than Nat Sci 110 and with less of the Santa-suit lecture stunts that I had pulled in Nat Sci 110. It is hard to remember how thinly staffed we were in those days. Not only did I not get a leave term or even summer support to prepare the new course, I actually taught AM108 (now CS121) simultaneously in the fall of 1981. And the previous term hadn't been a light one--I was teaching AM110 (now CS51). (My whole teaching record, and an almost complete list of my TFs, is here.)

The second year I taught the course, the midterm was on Hallowe'en, and I invited the TFs over to my house for dinner after we finished grading. Margo Seltzer--now my colleague two doors down but then an undergraduate--arranged for everyone to show up with tweed jackets, mustaches, and pipes. (I still wear tweed jackets, but the pipe and mustache are long gone.) Here is the group photo, about which I blogged five years ago.
A remarkable number returned for the Celebration of Computer Science on my 70th birthday.
Left to right, Ted Nesson, Lisa Hellerstein, Phillip Stern, Michael Massimilla, HRL, Craig Partridge, Christoph Freytag, Margo Seltzer, Larry Lebowitz, John Thielens, John Ramsdell, Phil Klein. Rony Sebok also showed up, a few minutes too late to make it into the picture, and Larry Denenberg and boo gershun, who didn't make it into the original picture, were also at the event. So that is 14 of the original 23 came back 35 years after the fact (no more than 22 are still living). Sweet!

Thanks everyone!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Harvard's nondiscrimination hypocrisy

I have an op-ed by that title in the Washington Post.

Birthday stuff

I turned 70 on April 19. I made the decision some time ago to creep toward retirement around now. So I am giving up my role as Director of Undergraduate Studies in CS, a role I have had most years since even before there was a CS undergraduate major. I will be teaching half time for the next two years (I have already blogged about the cool new Classics of Computer Science course I will be teaching). I then have a year of saved sabbatical, so will transition to Research Professor or some such title on July 1, 2020.

To mark the moment, and to celebrate what has happened to the field of CS at Harvard and elsewhere in the years since I started teaching at Harvard in 1974, SEAS put on a big celebration on my birthday. Many of my former students and teaching fellows attended, and there was a terrific program of talks. You can watch all six hours of it if you are a beggar for punishment! Here is the video -- thanks to the CS50 team for producing it and getting it up so quickly. (If you just want to hear what I, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg had to say, go to about 20 minutes from the end.)

And Harvard Magazine has a nice report on the event. Thanks to everyone, and especially to Margo Seltzer, David Parkes, and Henry Leitner for their roles in putting this together.

We were able to reproduce a facsimile of A 30th Anniversary Family Photo, which I will post when I get it.

In the meantime, here is another classic -- six women computer scientists of the class of 1980 all came back for the celebration. That really means a lot to me! From left to right, Jeanette Hung, Jennifer (Greenspan) Hurwitz, Betty (Ryan) Tylko, Diane (Wasserman) Feldman, HRL, Christine (Ausnit) Hood, and boo gershun. Thanks!

(Added June 7: Video link repaired. Also here is a shorter video with some greetings from other former students.)


Monday, April 10, 2017

Tip of the hat to Dave Fahrenthold!

Harvard, the Crimson, and my family are all proud that Dave Fahrenthold '00 of the Washington Post has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, for his work investigating Donald Trump's charitable donations and for breaking the "Access Hollywood" video story. Dave is married to my daughter Elizabeth (see family photo). Before he met her, he covered me for the Crimson while I was dean. See this early example of his thorough, fair-minded work covering an uncooperative subject!