Friday, November 29, 2013

License Plate Privacy Act?

There is a bill before the Massachusetts state legislature to prevent the state government from using license plate scanning technology to collect and share license plate information: which cars were where when. The Boston Globe has a perfectly reasonable op-ed arguing in favor of the bill.
The NSA scandals show what happens when we give vast powers to government agencies to spy in the dark: mission creep and the potential for serious abuses of power. We hope that police, who themselves object to being tracked as they go about their workdays, will join with the ACLU to call for sensible legislation to regulate the use of license plate readers and the collection, retention, and data-mining of our sensitive location information.
But there is an important difference from the NSA data. The micro data is inarguably public. Lots of people see lots of cars on the street every day and could notice the license plate numbers if there was any reason to do so.

I wonder, therefore, about citizens' ability to collect this information for themselves. People can buy license plate reading cameras and set them up on the side of their houses or on their front lawns.  They can organize themselves to crowdsource to create a national database. Maybe the Boy Scouts can give a merit badge to scouts who tie a hundred plate numbers of cars parked in neighborhood driveways to their owners' names.

Can this be outlawed too? If not, do we really want to keep out of police hands a database that the public could assemble for itself? If this kind of data aggregation can be outlawed, how would it be done? Would there be some quantitative threshold, so private citizens could retain small amounts of data but would need a license to collect a lot? What if the database is distributed so nobody has possession of the whole database, but it is possible to query it?

In other words, are there certain kinds of information that will in the future have to be treated the way we now treat nitrogen fertilizer – OK to buy, sell, and possess in small quantities, but subject to heavy regulation when handled in bulk?

Numerical Mysteries

Two puzzles to contemplate for those not busy celebrating Black Friday:

1) What is the smallest number that can be trademarked?

The New York Times has a story about the Hells Angels, describing how vigorously the Angels defend their rights to the number 81 (as in, the ordinal positions of H and A in the Roman alphabet). Some (though not all) of the defending happens through recourse to the legal system. Is there a smallest number that an entity could lawfully claim as its own?

If zero isn't taken yet, can I have it?

2) What the correct rate at which to consume an extremely delightful commodity that is finite in supply but lasts forever?

Around forty years ago I bought several bottles of Boal Madeira from an 1897 solera. Now that is not an 1897 vintage, but there are certainly some molecules of the 1897 vintage mixed in. I think I've uncorked only two bottles. One was for a very large numbered birthday or wedding anniversary of some elderly friends, and the other was after Thanksgiving dinner last night with the whole family. It was incredibly good, rich and fragrant and warming. The cork was solid.

Now as I understand it, you could in theory keep an old solera going forever, because the system involves replacing part but not all of the barrel every year. But apparently the EU regulations now ban the marketing of solera wines. So what I have may literally be irreplaceable, and, unlike old Bordeaux, won't turn bad as far as I know. How precious does an occasion have to be before I open another bottle? Or do I leave it to my kids and let them figure that out?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

They Aren't All Angels

I have done enough bragging on this blog lately, about my students and about Harvard. Time to highlight Harvard's role, and my own, in turning out charlatans. 

Well, I did call out Noah Freeman recently.

But today's subject is Buddy Fletcher, that is, Alphonse W. Fletcher, Jr. Harvard AB 1987 in Applied Mathematics. My student. My advisee. Once the toast of Harvard, when he donated a University Professorship in his own name in 1996:
"We are extremely grateful to Buddy Fletcher for his wonderful generosity to Harvard and for his powerful statement of confidence in the University and its programs," Rudenstine said. "His support is magnificent testimony from an alumnus who only recently celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and who is still a year away from his tenth reunion. Buddy has a deep dedication to Harvard and a strong commitment to the importance of education.  
"Those qualities are reflected in the intention and spirit of the new professorship that will bear his name," Rudenstine added. "He has expressed his preference that the chair be held, whenever possible, by a faculty member from one of the professional schools who is devoted to teaching and research about contemporary moral, religious, and social values, and whose interests include undergraduate education. The intention is to give special attention to our nation's tradition of pluralism, including the ways that differences in cultural, ethnic, and regional values may be reconciled and drawn upon to strengthen our democracy." 
That chair was held first by Cornel West and now by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

Buddy has had a strange history. After years of reporting dizzying hedge fund profits, he now seems to be broke. A story published yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reports his latest woes.
In a prospectus to investors, hedge-fund manager Alphonse Fletcher Jr. said he planned to achieve returns by doing deals "immediately, quantifiably worth more to the buyer than the seller." 
But a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee said in a report this week that the values Mr. Fletcher placed on investments were inflated through fraud, and that his firm's funds were likely insolvent as far back as December 2008. 
In the report, the trustee, Richard J. Davis, said that a network of related Fletcher hedge funds had not made a profitable investment after August 2007. Instead, working with a consultant, Mr. Fletcher, chairman and owner ofFletcher Asset Management, created "wildly inflated valuations" to generate more than $30 million in fraudulent fees and attract new investors, the report said. 
Mr. Davis's report said that the Fletcher firm also generated "cashless notes" between its own funds that led to extra fees and improperly increased calculations of assets under management, just before funds were evaluated by a key hedge-fund industry index.
"In many ways, the fraud here has many of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme where, absent new investor money coming in, the overall structure would collapse," Mr. Davis said in a nearly 300 page report.
What investors fell for this? The Firefighters' Retirement System of Louisiana. The Municipal Employees' Retirement System. The New Orleans Firefighters' Pension and Relief Fund. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Fund.

Pensioners are bearing the costs of Buddy's alleged schemes, and his $8 million investment in a movie project of his brother.

I wonder what sort of due diligence they did. Not due enough, obviously. I hope they did not think that Buddy has a University Professorship named after him at Harvard, so he must be on the level. 

I don't mind having my salary paid by the gift to Harvard of a generous cad. I like to think that universities cleanse the money they take from such folks and society comes out better the exchange, as long as the donors don't buy too much influence and the university doesn't honor the donors too publicly or too fulsomely. Harvard accepted the Fletcher Professorship long before the beginning of the period covered by the current fraud allegations. People change, and it's hard to question a gift accepted early in the lives of someone who engages in sketchy activities years after the gift was made.

But it's a bit awkward to be sure, and may explain why in all the current celebration surrounding Professor Gates and his "Many Rivers to Cross" project, we are seeing more of the Hutchins name than the Fletcher name. (Or the DuBois name for that matter, but that would be a subject for another time: How it is that it a university that needs money but has limited growth potential more or less retires names like Mather and Holyoke and Dubois in favor of Stone and Smith and Hutchins.)




Monday, November 25, 2013

Miscellaneous arguable comparisons, random precedents, and nostalgia

It would be hard to imagine a better weekend for Harvard against Yale. Harvard's football team beat Yale, for the seventh year in a row. Thanks to an upset win by Dartmouth over Princeton in snowy Hanover, Harvard wound up sharing the Ivy title with Princeton.

(Please, don't even think of complaining that Harvard cheats. After losing five years in a row, Yale hired 4 of Harvard's football coaches and has kept right on losing.)

Dick Friedman '73 has a nice piece about the Harvard-Yale game of 100 years ago, when Charlie Brickley drop-kicked five field goals to beat Yale, 15-5.

The Harvard-Yale rivalry is at once legendary and inexplicable. The two places could hardly be more alike. I imagine that pretty much every Yale student could equally well have wound up at Harvard and vice versa, but for some throw of the dice in the respective admissions offices. Walking in the crowd to the Yale Bowl, I was surrounded by cohorts of students who were, in aggregate, indistinguishable from each other except for the color of their clothing. They were all mixed together – pretty much every Harvard student has Yale friends from high school and every Yale student used to go to science fairs with people who wound up at Harvard.

As colleges, they are two peas from the same pod, their similarities far more notable than their differences. Yale has Colleges and Harvard has Houses. I'll happily entertain the notion that Yale might be a better run place than Harvard and that the educational experience might be better. I have no idea how you could get an impartial assessment of that, but I'm well aware that Yale is superb and Harvard could be a lot better than it is.

And yet Harvard seems to keep coming out on top. Six of the thirty-two Rhodes Scholars are Harvard students this year; three are Yalies. The Harvard team has won the William Lowell Putnam mathematical competition three of the past five years; the last time Yale placed in the top 5 was in 1991. Harvard was the North American champion in the international programming competition in 2012. There are 42 Harvard alumni in Congress; 19 Yale alumni. Maybe the legislature would work better if the numbers were reversed, but for some reason Harvard grads get voted in at twice the rate of Yale grads. Right or wrong, it's one of the reasons why I am so insistent that we take moral education seriously. What we teach and model for students makes a difference to what will become of the world.

This is not (just) a game. We are friendly rivals, but we are certainly competitors. In fact, there are lots of things on which we cannot cooperate, on pain of antitrust action. I remember how stunned I was back in 2001, when Neil Rudenstine stepped down as president, to read this quotation from him in the Boston Globe:
Some students have pressed him to use the larger endowment to eliminate student loans, a move Princeton announced to fanfare in January. But Rudenstine was dissuaded by a phone call from a group of nervous college leaders.

"Please," pleaded one Ivy League president with a billion-dollar endowment, "don't follow Princeton. You'll kill us." [Patrick Healy, March 2, 2001]
Er, that is not the way the free-market system is supposed to work.

We fight each other and, in theory at least, the competition is good for everyone. And Harvard keeps winning. My sense is that over the past thirty years or so, Harvard has become more iconic. It used to be that Yale jokes were funny; now they are either mean, or confusing (sorry, I don't get it – why isn't the question "How many Harvard students …?").

A Harvard student made a hilarious (and yes, in places mean) spoof of a Yale campus tour. This is the same fellow who got himself elected president of the Undergraduate Council as a joke – at least in part by promising students better toilet paper. Something I did fifteen years ago, actually!

The Yale Daily News has a curious article contrasting Princeton, Yale, and Harvard: As Yale Talks Grade Deflation, Princeton Pulls Back. The thesis is that Princeton's admission yield has decreased as Princeton's effort to constrain grade inflation has taken hold. Students admitted to Princeton and Yale are now more likely to choose Yale because they are already imagining Princeton and Yale transcripts being compared by employers and graduate schools who do not realize that Princeton controls the number of high grades it gives.
Most Yale undergraduates and third-party college admissions experts interviewed said that while grade deflation was not a decisive factor in causing students to choose Yale over Princeton, grade deflation does reinforce the perception that Princeton has a more competitive and less collaborative academic culture than Yale.
Elsewhere the article suggests that Harvard's grades are as inflated as Yale's but Harvard has a competitive environment like Princeton's rather than a collaborative environment like Yale's.

The evidence presented is rather thin and the authorities quoted are not giants of the field, so I am not sure any of that is true – except the fact that Princeton has done more to fight grade inflation than Harvard has lately. Harvard has stopped distributing information to the faculty about grading practices – not that it was ever clear that it was more deflationary than inflationary to let faculty know what their peers were doing.

To the extent we have been talking about anything like this at Harvard, the conversation has been about academic integrity – and that started before the Gov 1310 mess. It's rather too bad, because I am not alone in wanting to develop a more collaborative pedagogical style, and feeling a bit adrift about how to assess students' work when much of it is done jointly. The academic integrity discussion seems rather orthogonal to the pedagogical issues – not necessarily a bad conversation to have, but one that is sucking up way too much oxygen by comparison with improving how we teach.

One last comment about current events. There is quite a bit of activity and opinion-writing on the issue of "gender-netural housing," a rather abstract way of saying "letting men and women be roommates." I am guessing this will happen, but I am not at all sure it is a good idea. I cannot imagine that it will reduce the number of allegations of peer sexual assault, which of course is another subject of community concern. The notion that anything could possibly go wrong if you have 18 to 22 year old men and women living together, with plenty of alcohol around – well, pardon my patronizing attitude.

On the other hand, as with the toilet paper controversy, I read about the gender-neutral housing agitation with some nostalgia. Back in 1990, a wonderful young woman named Julia Shaffner lobbied for exactly the same thing, arguing that Harvard's housing policies were discriminatory, a civil rights violation in fact, because they were based on an assumption that students were heterosexual.

This was before I was dean, so our argument was healthy but in the abstract. And it was not the only argument I got into with Julia. CS 121 alums will recall that while I refuse to rename the "Traveling Salesman Problem" in gender-neutral terms, in deference to the many occurrences of that name in the literature, I agreed many years ago always to explain annually that it is a special case of the more general Traveling Salesperson Problem. Julia was the person with whom I struck that deal, while she was my TF in the course.

I wonder what would have become of her, had she not died of cancer at a young age. She was brilliant, tough, and lovely all at once. Quincy House awards a science prize in her honor annually.

For sure, she would be reading the Crimson and saying, "What? They still haven't gotten that housing issue right?"

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Added 11/26: A Yale alum points out that at least for comparing the number of congresspeople, I should have corrected for Yale's smaller size -- not just the college, which is about 20% smaller than Harvard, but the business and law schools too. True, and I actually meant to mention that. My correspondent also notes that the student bodies are not actually alike, because Yale College has larger and more robust performing arts programs than Harvard. How much does that make the place feel different?

In related news, above the fold on the front page of today's Boston Globe is a very nice article about computer science at Harvard, and specifically CS 50.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Some Afterthoughts on the "Campus Center"

A friend who apparently does not want to be identified or to post anonymously passed along the following thought about the Campus Center. Perhaps the plan is to have a sort of sterilized version of the Harvard community, safe from infection by the neighbors, with Harvard restaurants and caf├ęs open only to Harvard ID holders.

Let's look at the announcement again.
University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances. The first floor of the renovated structure is expected to remain open to the public, offering a mix of retail and food service options.
So it seems that the existing walkthrough will remain open to the public and will continue to have some food options, but you will need a Harvard ID to get into the elevators that will take you up to the Center proper. Study and event spaces I get; Harvard has not enough of either. The critical question is what kind of food service, and for whom. To what problem would Harvard-only food service in the Smith Campus Center be the solution?

It doesn't seem like a good idea to draw undergraduates away from the Houses and Annenberg (the freshman dining area), especially at lunch. It might be a good idea to move the Faculty Club; I don't really know, and mention it only because the Faculty Club seems to be in trouble. Professors I know don't eat there unless the meal is being charged to a Harvard account, and yet it's not classy enough for very high end purposes either. When we have a heavy date with a prospective faculty candidate, we tend to go to Rialto or Harvest instead.

I was musing about this, and thinking about mixed retail-residential dining services I have seen at other universities (Penn, for example), and then I thought of what is happening in Silicon Valley, as described in the New Yorker by George Packer a few months back. Google and other companies are creating bubbles, like human biospheres, catering to all the needs of their communities and isolating them from the rest of the world. These utopian companies even support employees who wish to maintain the illusion that they are living in San Francisco without interacting with it–you can take your private Google bus from your San Francisco pad to the Valley, and thus have a San Francisco zip code but never see anyone except family members and Google employees. San Francisco real estate prices, I am told, now vary inversely with distance from the private bus stops.

Is part of the idea of drawing the Harvard community together to make it possible to withdraw from the daily life of Harvard Square? Or if that is not the intention, have the "Harvard planners" who have been thinking about this planned how to prevent that from happening? Even as Elsie's and Tommy's and the Wursthaus and One Potato, Two Potato have gone to restaurant heaven, the Square is full of places where Harvard eats alongside tourists and locals. All of the blooming, buzzing, non-Harvard confusion that you have to navigate to walk around Harvard is what makes Harvard Harvard. Why would we want to encourage members of the Harvard community (a word that, strikingly, occurs six times in the short Gazette story) to avoid it?

I am sure some of this has been thought through. I don't think an architect would agree to be featured in the lede of the story if no concept sketches, no planning, no estimates had been done. Nor, I imagine, would this particular donor have given a substantial gift without evidence that some planning had been done–his wealth springs from the business of movie theaters, which today is substantially a food business.

I really do hate to think about the worst case, but as with many things at Harvard these days, one suspects that a great deal more thinking by non-educators has been gone into this than has been disclosed by the time the educators in the Harvard community first hear the news.

To what problem is the Campus Center the solution? Is the problem just that Harvard does not have a Campus Center, and you can't any more, in the judgment of the non-educational professionals, be a real university without one? Heavens, until the past few years we did not even have a "campus"--that neologism was brought in by experts in best practices of the industry. How will the Campus Center change Harvard, other than to make it more like everyplace else?

I'd really like to know what John Stilgoe thinks.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

But What Is the Educational Philosophy?

Harvard has announced the creation of a new "Campus Center" in what used to be known as Holyoke Center and will now be the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center.

The Smith family are true Harvard loyalists. They have been generous to Harvard in the past. My brilliant colleague Joanna Aizenberg is the Amy Smith Berylson Professor, for example. Richard Smith has served as Overseer and Fellow. The video that accompanies the announcement I find moving. The Smiths are proud of their association with Harvard, proud of passing the habit of philanthropy on to their children, and grateful for their long association with the university; and yet their choice of verb tenses and of phrases like "legacy gift" suggest an awareness of their mortality intersecting with Harvard's eternity.

What is not so clear is what this "Campus Center" will actually be. More important than the details of what it will contain (though one immediately wonders whether the misconceived SOCH will be relocated to it) is the prior question: What educational role will it play? If it is not being thought of as an educational entity, what social problem is it meant to solve? Philosophically, what will the creation of a Campus Center mean for what Harvard is?

Hints are hard to find in the announcement. We do know this:
The Smith Campus Center will be open to faculty, staff, and students across the University, and is intended to draw the community together and complement facilities already available in Harvard’s undergraduate residential Houses.…
The planning process for the center is just beginning. Faust’s intention is for a comprehensive outreach effort to engage the Harvard community in the pro­cess of planning and programming the center. University planners said the facility is expected to offer large, flexible indoor gathering space for students, faculty, and staff and include food service, lounge, and study areas, as well as space for exhibitions, events, and performances.  
So it is not to be a "student center," and certainly not an "undergraduate student center." But it surely can't be a faculty-student-staff center on an equal basis, nor a med-student-law-student-undergradatue center on an equal basis either. Who will feel they "own" it? Fellows from the Kennedy School, a couple of blocks away? The office workers in the upper floors of the building (the Campus Center will occupy only a few floors, apparently)? Freshmen, who mostly lack proper common rooms and are also only steps away? The custodial staff, taking a break from plowing the snow in Harvard Yard? HUPD? These questions can't be settled by any "outreach effort."

Though it is nowhere stated, I'm going to assume that this Center is meant to be an educational unit, not a purely social space. The statement that it is complementary to the Houses is consistent with that interpretation–the Houses surely are educational spaces. But what does it mean to say that the Center will "complement" the Houses? We are to imagine, I think, things happening in the Center that can't happen in the Houses. And to be sure the Houses are overcrowded and can't accommodate large College-wide activities. But do we want the Center to be the default location for small gatherings that now happen in the Houses? Isn't there a risk that the Center will enervate rather than complement the Houses?

It would have been nice to have a Master cheering the creation of a Campus Center, saying how this new unit would help House life, which is already challenged due to a variety of developments in society, developments Harvard can't control and has to live with. But no Master is quoted, and I am not sure the Masters know any more about the plans than is stated in the Gazette story.

It is all so ahistorical, so unrooted in Harvard educational philosophy. At one level it sounds like the Union, which was created in 1900 as a club for the boys who had no club, but was the solution to an identified problem: as the elective curriculum took hold under Eliot, starting in 1869, the College lost its coherence. When you sat next to the same fellow in class every hour of the day for four years, you didn't need a separate social space to get to know him. Under the elective system, your fellow students kept changing, and the Union was Henry Lee Higginson's way of recreating a sense that Harvard students had something in common.

Then the Houses came into existence under Lowell, and the Union fell away, eventually becoming the Freshman Union and then the Barker Center. (The freshmen have never fully recovered the loss of that common social space.) The Houses were backed by a very strong statement of educational philosophy:

.. [T]he increase in numbers of the larger American colleges brings with it disadvantages. The personal contact of teacher and student becomes more difficult. Large communities tend to cliques based upon similarity of origin and upon wealth.... Great masses of unorganized young men ... are prone to superficial currents of thought and interest, to the detriment of the personal intellectual progress that ought to dominate mature men seeking higher education. This drift ... is the cause of the exaggerated importance of the secondary interests as compared with the primary object of education; of what Woodrow Wilson, when President of Princeton, called the overshadowing of the main tent by the side-shows. (President's report, 1927-28)
The problem of the college is a moral one, deepening the desire to develop one's own mind, body and character; and this is much promoted by living in surroundings and an atmosphere congenial to that object. ... The Houses are a social device for a moral purpose. (President's report, 1928-29)
 Do we still believe this philosophy? How does the Campus Center "complement" it?

And how does the Campus Center relate to the development of Allston? If the Campus Center is going to be the new center of the campus, the place where Harvard is drawn together, doesn't that mean it will more difficult for Allston to be a coequal Harvard campus, effectively bridged to and unified with Cambridge?

What is the big picture of what Harvard will be? The Gazette story says that the Campus Center is being launched "after years of discussion," but by whom? Which faculty have been talking about it? Which deans? What did they say? What do they think? Can we get any bigger picture of the significance of this development than a Gazette story and a beautifully produced 3-minute video of the donors?

I am not sure which I would prefer to think: that no one has actually thought about the big picture, including the relation to the Houses, or that there really have been years of discussions behind closed doors and the crucial philosophical decisions have already been made, but will only come out during the "consultation" process.

Can we no longer write and speak thoughtfully about who and what we think we are?

----------

On Tuesday there will be a discussion of Harvard's proposed honor code. I have read it, and have some thoughts about it, but I suppose I am not supposed to blog them because the draft code is confidential. The code was drafted by students; I wonder if students can see it. I hope faculty will turn out for the discussion, because there are again philosophical questions of institutional identity at stake.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Crisis Crisis

The humanities are in crisis. (From the New York Times.)

No, they aren't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Ben Schmidt. His original blog post is here.)

The US has a critical shortage of STEM workers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). (From the National Science and Math Initiative.)

No it doesn't. (From the Chronicle of Higher Education, by Michael Anft.)

In the twitterverse, the world of simple punch lines and thumbs-up-thumbs-down binary choices, you can no longer have a problem that isn't a crisis. We have a crisis of nuance in our rhetoric about our problems. A meta-crisis. A crisis crisis.

But when everything is a crisis, we don't recognize a real crisis when we see one.

Describing something as a crisis serves a purpose in academia. If you are an academic and tell your dean or president you have a problem, the response is likely to be, "Yeah, well I have lots of problems to solve. I'll put yours on my list." Same with Congress. But if you can draw a graph showing you have a crisis, you stand a better chance of catching the eye of the media and getting some leverage.

Except that if your graph turns out to be a distortion or a manipulation, your crisis is deflated. You are discredited. You no longer have even a problem, much less a crisis.

So it was when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released this image of the "Decline and fall" of interest in the humanities.

 

Off a cliff! Looks like my class of 1968 was the end of the golden era.

Not exactly. Put the zero point of the x-axis back a few years and the graph looks very different:



That is numbers of humanities degrees as a percentage of total degrees. But some of those non-humanities degrees in recent years might be going to people who wouldn't even have gone to college fifty or sixty years ago. If you plot the humanities degrees as a percentage of the college age population, you find that the density of humanities degree holders is actually higher now than it was in the 1950s. It was the 1970s that were anomalous, not the past couple of decades. (All graphs from the second source linked to above, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, but you can read pretty much the same argument on Schmidt's blog, also linked above.)


Now it's an interesting argument which is the right basis for comparison. Should the number of humanists represent a fixed proportion of the population or of college students? Either way, the data make the humanities crisis look a lot more like an identity crisis of my fellow students of the late '60s and early '70s than a crisis of student careerism in the early 21st century.

In Excellence Without a Soul, I offered a couple of comments on the humanities. In the preface, commenting on the then-nascent new General Education curriculum, I wrote:
From the beginning, science and globalization drove the review. These would be the engines of human progress in the coming decades, and Harvard College needed to make these themes central to undergraduate education. The new curriculum would marginalize the humanities. At the same time, the academic disciplines themselves provided the raw materials from which an undergraduate curriculum should be composed, as though students going to college en route to careers in business, law, or medicine were doing something slightly out of place at Harvard. This superimposition of economic motivations on ivory-tower themes has exposed a university without a larger sense of educational purpose or a connection to its principal constituents. We have forgotten that we teach the humanities to help students understand what it means to be human. We have forgotten that students from families with little money may not share the assumptions that well-to-do families have about the purpose of education. And we have forgotten that universities could not teach students about our interconnectedness in a global society were it not for the freedoms that American society provides to citizens. 
And in the chapter on grading, I thought about why grades tend to be higher in the humanities.
The humanities are, I think, in a bit of a mess. What is considered legitimate academic work has expanded greatly over the past thirty years, and judgments of the quality of scholarly articles have not reached a stable consensus. It should come as no surprise that consistent judgments of students’ work are also hard to come by, especially when those judgments are made by graduate students who are learning the subjective academic standards of their disciplines. 
That lack of a stable consensus continues. I was in a meeting recently with some humanities faculty and came out of it thinking about what I used to say about the difference between computer scientists and mathematicians: When the mathematicians circle the wagons, they point the guns outwards. The computer scientists have learned to be less self-destructive while defining and defending their discipline. The humanists have not. At Harvard the humanists can't even define their Gen Ed areas in less than thirteen syllables ("Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding"), the sort of pretentious diction that is a dead giveaway for muddy thinking. History got tacked onto the curriculum as an afterthought, in a requirement invisibly laced across all the other requirements. There may not be a crisis but there are definitely problems of identity and outreach.

One anecdote, a sad one. I had dinner recently with a bright student who expected to study literature at Harvard. She was rethinking it because the pitch she heard as a freshman for studying humanities here emphasized media, and she was more interested in books. Good grief.

Is there a national STEM crisis? I tend to think so, but it's awfully hard to tell from where I sit. Even the contrarian article cited above, which is behind a paywall in the Carbuncle of Higher Education (as a friend calls it), acknowledges the shortfall in computer and information science. I just signed at least 110 forms for sophomores to be Computer Science concentrators, and I am talking to seniors who are getting fabulous job offers. And some of the seniors getting those fabulous job offers do not have fabulous academic records. But Harvard students always do well in the job market. I am convinced that some employers just use the Harvard College admissions office as a filter and don't care that much about what we teach and what students learn. They just want 21 year old versions of the people Harvard thought had the most promise at 17, because hiring those people has paid off in the past. So it's always risky to judge what the world needs on the basis of what is happening to Harvard students!

On a national level, is there really a critical undersupply of STEM professionals or just a problem of retraining one kind of engineer to work in another area? I tend to think there really is an undersupply and the mythologizing rhetoric about the shortfall may be being fed by anti-immigration money. But I can't claim to be sure, and the crisis rhetoric makes me less sure, not more.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

CS 50 Students Have the Most Interesting Careers

Luke Chung took the course as a freshman in 1981, the first year it was taught. Wasn't even called CS 50 then, because there weren't any "Computer Science" courses as such–the original name was Applied Sciences 11. It didn't turn him into a CS concentrator (actually, there was no CS concentration then, but he didn't concentrate in Applied Math either). He has gone on to a three-decade-long career as president of his own software development firm, FMS Inc.

He is now widely quoted on the technology failures of the Affordable Care Act web site and will be testifying on Wednesday before the House Homeland Security committee about possible security issues with the site. Big deal! Break a leg, Luke.


Gore Vidal Left Everything to Harvard?

Apparently he did. Though whether he was in his right mind when he did it is being contested.

It is rather nice to think that Vidal thought the Harvard libraries would be a safe repository for his papers and that the University would use his riches wisely. It is not so nice to think of Harvard profiting from a self-centered fellow who was too mean-spirited and nasty to take care of the relatives and helpers who made his life tolerable during his decline. Some of them are hoping that even if Harvard gets the bulk of the money, it will make some provision to support them for the rest of their lives.

It is a nice set of dilemmas. Would Harvard have a moral obligation to second-guess Vidal's feelings toward his kin? Would it dishonor Vidal to provide for people Vidal quite intentionally disinherited? Would doing so tend to support the position of those who think Vidal was not thinking straight when he brought Harvard into the will in the first place, only in the last year of his life?

It would not be the first time Harvard has received a large bequest and relatives left penniless were distressed about it. Thank you, Gordon McKay! McKay at least provided for some of his dear friends, even if he changed his mind several times about who those were.



Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will Colleges Self-Censor?

There is an important article in the New York Times today about the awful compromises facing news organizations reporting out of China. My guess is that similar questions are going to face universities doing business in China, Singapore, and other countries where the regimes are authoritarian and the universities stand to gain vast influence and money through their engagement with those regimes.

Bloomberg pulled some of its investigative reporting out of fear that it would be expelled from China if it exposed the lavish lifestyles of the families of senior Chinese officials. Bloomberg reports world financial news; it can't be a credible authority if it can't report from inside China. What a terrible dilemma. I feel sorry for any news organization today. There are only a few news organizations that have enough money even to try to operate multiple foreign bureaus. But China can credibly reason that Bloomberg needs China more than China needs Bloomberg. And no decision of this kind is ever black and white. In not publishing something that its investigative reporters uncovered, it is not withholding from its readers some essential news, some story of a major typhoon or a default on the US debt. Who would ever know the difference if it failed to publish a story that no other news organization even knew about?

I am afraid that American colleges are going to face similar choices. Plenty has been written about Yale in Singapore and NYU in Shanghai, and whether there can really be academic freedom without political freedom. So one set of risks is that the compromises needed to operate a pseudo-liberal arts campus in an authoritarian state will seem unproblematic, and could be imported seamlessly to the American side.

But there is another risk, that teaching controversial subjects will seem to the authorities in American colleges more trouble than it is worth if it seems likely to incite wrath from Chinese educational partners. For example, Harvard offers a freshman seminar on the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. I could imagine that this could come up as Harvard engages China in any of the various research and educational collaborations it is establishing with the mainland (which, happily, do not include any liberal arts campus). If the seminar quietly disappeared from the books, who could know why that happened? No one has a right to teach a freshman seminar. I'll bet it would actually have a large audience if it were offered as a General Education course. Would Harvard dare do that? No way to know, since there are plenty of reasons for a course not to be offered, other than reluctance to offend an important business partner. The screening for Gen Ed courses is vigorous, and Rowena He, who teaches the Tiananmen seminar, is not a ladder faculty member.

In recent years I have started to travel regularly to Hong Kong. I happened to fly from the mainland to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the massacre--there was no notice on the mainland that June 4 was an unusual day, but I joined a rally in Victoria Park with tens of thousands of others remembering what had happened. Here is a photo I took.

The people of Hong Kong are much more acutely aware of the fragility of their liberties than Americans are of theirs. Could you imagine thousands rallying anywhere in the US to protest curricular changes? It happened a year ago in Hong Kong. Heck, in Hong Kong they even protest the paucity of television stations.

I don't know that any educational compromises are happening in American universities in order to facilitate international partnerships. We may be seeing in the skittishness of Wellesley College about its links to China an indication of what is to come. But that case involves a well known individual professor. What we teach--that is in any case subject to so many pressures and compromises and decisions taken for vaguely judgmental reasons of one kind or another, we might never know the difference between deference to authoritarian power and ordinary academic horse trading, unless the faculty remains vigilant and asks hard questions.

Snowplow parents

That is the term for parents who are so over-involved int he lives of their college student children that they want to clear the snow ahead of time so their kids won't slip and fall on it. Bella English has a terrific, and terrifying, story about the phenomenon in the Boston Globe today.

Some of the examples cited are hilarious, but none unbelievable. I am surprised how often I have to explain to students that the way to do something is just to go ahead and do it; there is no special form to fill out or rule to check, no permissions needed, before asking a question or seeking out an opportunity. We really do have some students (only a few, but they exist at Harvard) who seem never to have had to cope for themselves.

One of the most unfortunate developments is the phenomenon of students feeling so programmed to go to college that they don't realize they don't have to stay in college, when they really have no internally generated justification for being there. Harvard is very lenient about taking leave for a year or two or even longer, and coming back later without endangering one's financial aid or requiring any complicated readmission protocol. If you aren't making progress, if you are lost and aimless, just leave for awhile, I regularly advise. (It was not an option in my day, because men would get drafted, and I saw friends get very screwed up as a result--college became simultaneously a sanctuary and a prison.) If you can't think of anything you'd rather do than be in college, consider whether changing the direction of the flow of dollars might be a tie-breaker as to whether to stay or go. Heaven knows there are a lot of other people eager for your place, and you can always reclaim it later!

But sometimes students can't have an honest conversation with their parents about leaving, in fact don't even know how to begin the conversation. So they trudge joylessly on, following instructions. The fortunate ones wake up their senior year while they still have a few years to reclaim their lives.

I am glad I went to college before the days of cell phones and social media, and while there were still all-night bookstores. The day I landed at Harvard was the day I started to become an adult, and that is the way the world should work. Human childhood is so long, it needs something like going off to college to mark the ending.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Too much time and too much money spent on sports, students schedule classes around extracurriculars, etc.

Some of my colleagues were grumbling about such issues in a meeting I attended recently. It all sounded familiar somehow, and then I ran across this old report.

… it is reasonable to suppose that at least two thousand students out of the thirty-five hundred in Cambridge take some active part in one or more of the thirteen sports in which an enumeration of the number of participants was made. A second table in this report demonstrates that the receipts of gatemoney have nearly doubled in eight years, while the expenditures have increased only about 50 per cent. There are also tables which exhibit the expenditures for six years in each one of the following sports-foot-ball, base-ball, rowing, and track athletics. The Chairman calls attention to the fact that the expenditures for foot-ball are steadily increasing. A quarter part of all who take part in this sport are injured enough to lay them up for ten days on the average, and a much larger proportion of those who really play the game for the season are thus injured. The changes in the rules during the past ten years have tended to increase the number of injuries, rather than to diminish it. The temporary injuries are so numerous, that it is impossible to count on putting any particular eleven men into an important game on a given day. In order to provide the necessary number of substitutes for each place, the foot-ball squad often numbers sixty men. Hence large expenditures. The outfit for candidates grows more expensive, because they wear about fourteen pounds' weight of padding and armor. On the whole the game, under the existing rules, tends to become slower and less visible in its details, and therefore less interesting. Moreover, the ethics of the game, which are the imperfect ethics of war, do not improve. The martial axiom --attack the enemy's weakest point-inevitably leads to the deliberate onslaught on the cripple or the convalescent in the opposing line; and the habitual violation of rules, if penalties be escaped, is regarded by many as merely amusing. The Chairman's discussion of eligibility rules will be found interesting, if also somewhat discouraging. It is a cheerful feature of the report that a larger proportion of the gate-money than formerly has lately been used for the permanent imnprovement of the playgrounds. To drain and grade the large surface of the Longfellow marsh will be a work of time, andti will call every year for the expenditure of a considerable sum of money. 

Of all the competitive games in which the students are interested, foot-ball is the only one against which any serious objections can be raised; but there is increasing objection to the great exaggeration of all athletic sports. There is now a series of competitive games which covers the entire academic year; and the distraction of large bodies of students from the proper work of a university grows more intense and continuous year after year. …In the College and the Scientific School the afternoons of many students during far the greater part of the year are devoted to play, or to looking at the games which the most expert athletes are playing. The range of elective selection among the studies of the College is seriously limited, because of the desire of students, and therefore of teachers, to avoid appointments in the afternoons. Such are some of the evils which attend the prevailing exaggeration of athletic sports; but whenever the 
evils consequent upon this exaggeration are mentioned, it should also be mentioned that the outdoor sports on the average and in the mass do more good than harm; for they promote vigorous physical development, and provide invaluable safeguards against effeminacy and vice. 

Annual Report of President Eliot for the year 1901-02, pp. 39-41.

Kind of amazing, isn't it, that such a sports-crazed, anti-intellectual place could have survived into the 21st century as an iconic American college, a place that regularly wins the Putnam competition as well as the Ivy football championship. It seems like nothing has changed, including even the consternation of the faculty. Even the landscaping problems are the same -- Harvard is still trying to drain the "Longfellow marsh" enclosed by the bend of the Charles River!

This is still us. The way this all works together is not simple and requires constant vigilance. But it also requires a considerable degree of humility and sophistication on the part of the faculty about what makes us great, what has made us succeed.

"Change the World"

That is the title of a piece in the New Yorker last spring by George Packer. I read it only recently, just before my recent trip to California. I recommend it to everyone engaged with the Silicon Valley utopia, and in particular all my students and alums who are pulled into that alluring vortex. It so energizing and exciting; new ideas spark flames that suddenly burst into bonfires. The conditions of work and life are being optimized for maximum productivity and convenience of the brilliant and talented tech workers. More and more of the workers now live in San Francisco and take the corporate buses to the Valley. Google, Facebook, Apple are building closed campuses, with all the comforts of home, so workers can now live in San Francisco, work in the Valley, and yet never make eye contact with anyone except family members and employees of their firm. The first time I experience free food was decades ago, out on Route 128 at Kendall Square Research; the theory was that it would reduce espionage if the engineers were talking to each other in the lunchroom rather than in Burger King. That line of thinking seems to have been carried to its logical conclusion. Real estate values, a friend told me, are inversely proportional to the distance from the corporate bus stops.

These nouveaux riches and those aiming to be so are young enough to be idealistic about the liberating power of the Internet and the information flows it enables. Trouble is, as the article movingly relates, coveys of idealists living in their bubbles tend to narcissism and disconnection from the grimmer reality of the world around them. Engagement with government is definitely uncool. This is from a puff for the article:
In “Change the World” (p. 44), George Packer travels to the San Francisco Bay Area to talk to members of the tech industry about Silicon Valley’s increasing interest in politics. “Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s history, its executives have displayed a libertarian instinct to stay as far from politics and government as possible,” Packer writes. “The technology industry, by sequestering itself from the community it inhabits, has transformed the Bay Area without being changed by it—in a sense, without getting its hands dirty.” Today, “Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America,” Packer writes. “The technology industry’s newest wealth is swallowing up the San Francisco Peninsula.” But many young Valley residents feel that technology—not government, which “is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies”—can improve the human condition. Sam Lessin, who leads Facebook’s “identity product group,” tells Packer that simply improving communication through social media is “moving the ball forward—making people more efficient with their time and able to effectively live longer lives therefore, you know, and making them happier.” One young entrepreneur says to Packer, of his colleagues, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.” Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, tells Packer that part of the problem is Silicon Valley’s underdeveloped intellectual culture, which comes from the Valley’s competitiveness, an orientation that requires an unyielding focus on one’s company, and from “that libertarian strain—we’re just all out building stuff, and everything else is kind of extraneous.”
It's a good, moving, thought-provoking piece.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Financial News from All Over Harvard

A few news items of interest, only vaguely related to each other, but I'll draw them together under that rubric!

First, Robert Rubin is leaving the Harvard Corporation after 12 years. Rubin is credited with having reassured skittish members of the presidential search committee about Summers' suitability to be Harvard president. As Richard Bradley tells the story in Harvard Rules,
Rubin called three members of the search committee who had particular doubts …. It was true, Rubin admitted, that Summers had once had what Rubin would call "a rough edges" issue. But he'd mellowed, Rubin insisted. This was a man who'd successfully negotiated with congressional leaders and foreign treasurers, who'd survived and prospered for a decade in a viciously partisan Washington environment. His temper existed more in legend than in reality. Rubin's seal of approval worked. "Rubin made us confident that we weren't getting a bull," one member of the committee later said. 
A year after Summers became president, lo and behold, Rubin was named to the board. He has been quite invisible–not that visibility is typical of Fellows of Harvard College. But when other Fellows (Robert Reischauer, for example, who is also stepping down) communicated and met with faculty during the Summers troubles, the one most responsible for his appointment was nowhere to be found. Similarly, when the Harvard endowment tanked in the great financial meltdown, the sometime chair of Citigroup had nothing to say.

On December 12, 2009, Fred Abernathy and I vented our frustration in the Boston Globe.
IF AN ORDINARY corporation had the kind of fiscal year Harvard University just had, some of its directors would be gone. Long-term investments down $11 billion; another $1.8 billion lost by top management speculating with cash accounts; another half-billion gone in an untimely exit from a debt rate gambit. The institution left so illiquid that it was forced to sell assets and issue bonds at the worst possible time, just to pay the bills. A publicly held company would have experienced a shareholder rebellion - especially after the Globe reported that the chief investment officer had repeatedly warned the president about the risks he was taking with the institution's cash. …The Harvard Corporation is a dangerous anachronism. It failed its most basic fiduciary and moral responsibilities. Some of its members should resign. But the Corporation's problems are also structural. It is too small, too closed, and too secretive to be intensely self-critical, as any responsible board must be. Until the board can be restructured, the fellows should voluntarily share their power with the overseers. And Harvard should reveal the risks of its business plans, as would be required if it were a publicly held corporation. That exercise in transparency would surely serve Harvard well. 
Two days later, Jamie Houghton announced his resignation–an accident of timing about which I feel a bit badly, since of course it was of Rubin that Fred and I were mostly thinking. Almost at the same time as Houghton's resignation was announced, a structural review of the Corporation was announced. It ended a year later with a set of measures aimed at correcting some the things Fred and I had pointed out. There would be term limits. The board would be enlarged.

Opinions differ about whether these changes are having the right effect. Some people I respect tell me that the main effect of enlarging the board has been to make responsibility more diffuse. But I can't help thinking that having more voices around the table must reduce the dominance of any one of them (as well as compensating for systematic absenteeism–which I gather has been a not unheard-of problem).

And I also can't help thinking that the other recommendation Fred and I made would also serve Harvard well: that Harvard should disclose the risks of its business plans, exactly as a publicly held corporation has to do. After all, if it is going to collect $6.5 billion–and I hope it succeeds in doing that–why shouldn't its annual report disclose to donors, and to the public by whose benevolence those donations are untaxed, the ways in which it is running the risk of losing lots of money?

Who will replace Rubin and Reischauer? I am glad that Bill Lee will become Senior Fellow–he has the energy and the open ears to engage the issues and not wait for them to overwhelm the board. My hope for the vacancies would be someone with some sense of the civic role of the university in society. (And I don't mean another former Treasury secretary.) It will be hard to resist the pull of money as a qualifier, what with Harvard being in the middle of a campaign and all, but the board that oversaw the collapse of the endowment was not short on allegedly smart investment types anyway.

Which brings me to news item #2: The grim report about Harvard's investment performance over the past few years. Fortune has a searing article entitled "Harvard: Great School, Lousy Investor." The lede:
Harvard University has the nation's largest college or university endowment, valued at $32.7 billion through the end of June. It also has worse investment returns than any of its peers over the past five years, according to a Fortune analysis. 
The article acknowledges some of the special challenges in managing the largest university endowment, but specifically counters each excuse for the poor performance. Most importantly, the article notes with arched eyebrow the omission from Harvard's report of the industry-standard 5-year investment return (presenting instead the returns over 1, 3, 10, and 20 years). Harvard's performance over 5 years is 1.7%, the only 5-year performance figure less than 2% among the 25 largest college and university endowments. Knowledgeable alums have written to me in some annoyance about this exercise in opacity.

To be sure, Jane Mendillo, the HMC head, entered her job at the worst possible moment. But I can't help wondering if everything that has happened since whatever happened to Jack Meyer has not been a downward slide. (I never bought into the indignation over the compensation of the high performing HMC managers.)

And finally, item #3: SAC Capital Agrees to Plead Guilty to Insider Trading. That's a Harvard story? Well, yes: Harvard grad Noah Freeman, fired from SAC for poor performance, was the first guy who went down in the SEC probe, and he wore a wire so his best buddy would go down with him. I have always wondered what Ethical Reasoning course Freeman got credit for as part of his undergraduate requirements. I remember him well, and I wonder if Harvard failed him somehow. In those days he was a progressive, lecturing the deans on Harvard's capitalist evils. He protested when Shell Oil came to Harvard to recruit, explaining, "[One of my goals was to] make any Harvard students who are interested in working for Shell think twice about working for a company whose hands are so bloody in so many ways." Noah also was in the vanguard of the fight to keep Harvard from dirtying its hands by serving Pepsi in the dining halls:
Noah R. Freeman'98, a member of the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition, an organization within the Undergraduate Council, said he believes PepsiCo has an obligation to deal with human rights issues. "The way the government is set up, foreign investment profits only the military government and in no way profits the people of Burma," Freeman said. He also stressed that a fundamental problem with international business was that it places profit before ethics [my emphasis].
Ah, the irony. Freeman once apologized to me for acting like a jerk, but it doesn't seem he really learned anything. He got his insider tips from Taiwan and that cost him big time. Could Harvard have done anything to have made this tragedy less likely, a personal tragedy for Freeman, a tragedy of lost opportunity for someone else, and a tragedy for the people he swindled? Isn't this question a lot more significant than trying to figure out if making thousands of students write out an honor pledge every term would prevent the next Gov 1310 fiasco?

One other thought. It is unimaginable that the Shleifer mess, had it come up today, would be let go with a civil suit against the professor and the university. The Feds have gotten tougher and society has gotten less patient. I'll bet that in today's atmosphere, both Shleifer and Harvard would have to deal with criminal charges, and it remains a puzzle why that did not happen at the time.

P.S. Nice story in the Crimson a few days ago about SEAS growth. I wish it had said a bit less about the problems we were facing and a bit more about how hard we worked to create them! A lot of people, both in CS and elsewhere in SEAS, have worked to create an atmosphere that the applied sciences are not only exciting but welcoming, and students have figured it out. I have just come from a packed sophomore advising fair and it looks like the boom is continuing.

PPS. added 11/6: If you are new to the Rubin-Summers-Shleifer tale, I summarized it in the Huffington Post a few years ago.