Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Moral Effect of Studying Economics

Since writing Excellence Without a Soul, I have been arguing that undergraduate education should try to make students better people. That is, I think moral education is part of college education. I don't mean recitation of the Ten Commandments or a return to parietal rules in dormitories. For starters, I mean that when there the university itself is caught up in an ethical dilemma, it should be discussed as though there just might be a right and a wrong of it.

A variety of arguments have been used in response. A standard one, which is particularly resonant today, is that it is the job of the university to provide a forum for everyone to state their arguments, but not to pick sides--and indeed that for the university to stand for one thing would chill the speech of those who have a different point of view. 

But I hear something else too–that there is no point in trying to affect the morals of college students, because it's too late. They are who they are by the time they are in college, and our job is to enrich them intellectually, not to shape them morally.

A few years ago I ran across a nice refutation of this argument, out of the economics literature of all places. Cornell Economics professor Robert Frank and colleagues studied the effect on undergraduates of taking a standard rational-choice introductory economics course, and showed that students tend to become less altruistic and more selfish. So apparently we can have an effect on students' character after all–in the wrong direction.

I understand that other studies have confirmed and elaborated these results. The New York Times has another contribution to the literature today--The Dismal Education, Yoram Bauman of the University of Washington. His studies seem to show that studying economics doesn't degrade the generosity of the people who were going to be economists anyway. But it does have that effect on the "innocents" who did not enter introductory economics understanding the benefits of rational self-interest. Bauman writes,
… taking economics classes did have a significant negative effect on later giving by students who did not become economics majors. One interpretation of these results is that students who were not economics majors suffered a “loss of innocence” after taking an economics class, presumably because of exposure to certain ideas (like the invisible hand) or certain people (like economics teachers). 
In contrast, students who became economics majors did not suffer a loss of innocence. This may be because they lost their innocence in high school — other research suggests that pre-university exposure to economics reduces giving — or perhaps even because economics majors were “born guilty.”
At Harvard, more students take the introductory economics course than any other (though introductory computer science is catching up!). Don't studies like this have some relevance to the way we think all those future businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and legislators should be educated?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World

The Berkman Center-sponsored seminar on December 5 was a great success. I met new allies and we got good questions from the audience. One of them in particular, from Jonathan Zittrain, stimulated a lot of followup discussion offline.

If you would like to watch the video, it has now been posted here.

Monday, December 12, 2011

As if to prove my point ...

A student writing in the Crimson suggests that the standard FAS applied to Professor Swamy should be applied to Professor Mansfield as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A dangerous precedent

The Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted yesterday to approve the Summer School catalog. Ordinarily this vote, and the comparable vote on the annual catalog, are pro forma. I don't ever remember a discussion of such a motion, much less a challenge.

But yesterday the motion to approve the catalog was amended to exclude the courses of one Subramanian Swamy, an economist. Swamy taught in the Summer School this past summer, and had caused a controversy, not for anything he did in his classes, but for an opinion piece published in India, entitled "How to wipe out Islamic terror."

At this point it would be fair to point you to the article. Alas, it seems to have been removed from the Web by the original publisher. You can find a version posted on a different site, but I can't vouch for its accuracy. In brief, the article argues for Hindu nationalism as a response to Muslim terrorism--nationalism enforced by removing mosques, banning conversion from Hinduism, annexing Bangladeshi territory, and so on. The article caused a furor when it was originally published, and the furor spread to the US because Swamy was teaching in Summer School at Harvard. Now the Economics Department proposed to have him teach here again next summer. He is a PhD from the department, and hence known to some of its members. There were no complaints about his teaching last summer (though there were complaints about his being at Harvard at all, given the article).

The amendment carried and the catalog was approved. Swamy will not be professing at Harvard next summer.

I think this is not a simple matter. I participated in the discussion in the Faculty Council, which approved the catalog, unamended, unanimously. A prior commitment kept me from the FAS meeting so I am blogging without the benefit of hearing the arguments of the amenders, which apparently swayed some of the Council members who had originally voted in favor of the unamended catalog.

1. I set an extremely high value on free speech in the university, perhaps higher than any other value. The article is not an immediate incitement to violence. It has been dubbed "hate speech" but I find that a discomfiting term. Even if it is hate speech, it is Constitutionally protected speech. So in any controversy like this, my starting position is that the way to fight words you don't like is with more words, not with actions.
2. On the other hand, Swamy is not a member of the community. He was last summer, and the Department of Economics was proposing that he become a visiting professor again next summer. Harvard does not owe him a job, on free speech grounds or any other. Depriving him of the opportunity to speak by not hiring him is not an offense to his right to free speech.
3. I believe that professors are more than lecturers. We want them to be advisors, and whether it is in the job description or not, they are role models. So I think character is a rational hiring criterion for someone being brought into an instructional role. And I think it is fair to weigh people's non-academic words when judging their character. (I am well aware that this point, in particular, is arguable.)
4. On the other hand, there is little evidence that Harvard actually cares about the character of its professors. We have had scoundrels on the Faculty and never raised our voices against them. So to use that argument against Swamy seems entirely inconsistent with past practice and ad hominem. In any case a Summer School professor is unlikely to be a personal mentor to his students. The argument against Swamy is not his character but his words.
5. I was surprised at first that the motion to amend was in order, though thinking about it there is no reason why it shouldn't have been. But think of the precedent it sets. If you want to silence a colleague--even a tenured member of some department other than your own--just get 51% of the Faculty on your side and show up on the day the catalog is due for its sleepy annual vote of approval. And not 51% of the Faculty--51% of the small minority (perhaps a quarter to a third) that shows up. The opportunities for mischief are thrilling to consider. Impatient with the institutional response to the offenses of Marc Hauser? Don't hope for some administrative settlement--just vote him out of the catalog!
6. A professor I chatted with today asked me if our colleagues had forgotten what happened in the 1950s. This fellow was not himself old enough to remember--but he knew, as my colleagues seemed not to, that once you embrace advance screening of speech as a valid tool for safeguarding community norms, you instead impoverish the community, and you equip your opponents with a tool that will eventually be used against you. Find some other way to express your outrage at the speaker, other than shutting him up.

So had I been there, I would have voted against the amendment. Swamy's being on campus could have a teachable moment for discussion of religious pluralism, better than any pieties pronounced in the absence of primary data. The occasion could have taught our students an important lesson about how to deal with words they don't like. Swamy, as far as I can see, has never been caught with a Molotov cocktail in hand, or ripping stones from the foundation of any mosque. His words should have been fought with words. There is no evidence that he would have been a danger to anyone--and he surely is not the danger that the Harvard Faculty showed it to be to itself. We weakened ourselves through our ill-conceived effort to brandish our values.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bob Rubin, please just go

Harvard has changed a lot since Larry Summers became president barely a decade ago. But some things never change. Unfortunately, one of those things is that Bob Rubin is still a Fellow--that is, a member of the small governing board that is the legal Harvard Corporation, the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

In early 2010, I wrote about Rubin and Summers in the Huffington Post. The article was called Robert Rubin, Larry Summers: Will the Harvard Shadow Elite Bankrupt the University and the Country? I noted there,
Rubin is now gone from his leadership role and his board membership at Citigroup, hauling away $126M from a firm that was $65B poorer than when he joined it, with 75,000 fewer jobs. But he remains on the Harvard board, in spite of the financial meltdowns at both Citigroup and Harvard and his poor oversight of the problematic president he persuaded Harvard to hire.
That article was published a few weeks after Fred Abernathy and I wrote an op-ed in the Globe, Shrouded in Secrecy, decision makers gambled and Harvard lost. Our piece ends:

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.
Jamie Houghton happened to resign a few days later, but it was Rubin I was thinking of. The former U.S. Treasury Secretary has been a Fellow since April of 2002--and throughout the financial meltdown from which the university still has not recovered. (See my previous post on Harvard's financial condition.)

The Board has in fact expanded, and the four fellows most recently appointed (one to replace Houghton, and three to expand the board) are terrific. But Rubin hangs around. A low profile guy these days, he cannot be happy about being in the news today. 60 minutes did a piece called Prosecuting Wall Street which is, of course, about how Wall Street has escaped prosecution for what were, in some cases, clear violations of Sarbanes-Oxley and other criminal statutes. Here is a piece of the transcript, in which the CBS correspondent interviews Richard Bowen, a former vice president of Citigroup about what was going on back in 2006-2007.

Until 2008, Richard Bowen was a senior vice president and chief underwriter in the consumer lending division of Citigroup. He was responsible for evaluating the quality of thousands of mortgages that Citigroup was buying from Countrywide and other mortgage lenders, many of which were bundled into mortgage-backed securities and sold to investors around the world. Bowen's job was to make sure that these mortgages met Citigroup's own standards - no missing paperwork, no signs of fraud, no unqualified borrowers. But in 2006, he discovered that 60 percent of the mortgages he evaluated were defective.
Kroft: Were you surprised at the 60 percent figure? 
Bowen: Yes. I was absolutely blown away. This-- this cannot be happening. But it was. 
Kroft: And you thought that it was important that the people above you in management knew this? 
Bowen: Yes. I did. 
Kroft: You told people. 
Bowen: I did everything I could, from the way-- in the way of e-mail, weekly reports, meetings, presentations, individual conversations, yes. 
In early November of 2007, with Citi's mortgage losses mounting, Bowen decided to notify top corporate officers directly. He emailed an urgent letter to the bank's chief financial officer, chief risk officer, and chief auditor as well as Robert Rubin, the chairman of Citigroup's executive committee and a former U.S. treasury secretary. The letter informed them of "breakdowns of internal controls" in his division and possibly "unrecognized financial losses existing within our organization." 
Kroft: Why did you send that letter? 
Bowen: I knew that there existed in my area extreme risks. And one, I had to warn executive management. And two, I felt like I had to warn the Board of Directors. 
Kroft: You're saying there's a serious problem here, you've got a big breakdown in internal controls. You need to pay attention. This could cost you a lot of money. 
Bowen: Yes. Somebody needed to pay attention. Somebody needed to take some action. 
The next day Citigroup's CEO Charles Prince, in his last official act before stepping down, signed the Sarbanes Oxley certification endorsing a financial statement that later proved to be unrealistic and swore that the bank's internal controls over its financial reporting were effective. 
Bowen: I know that there were internal controls that were broken. I served notice in that e-mail that they were broken. And the certification indicates that they are not broken. 
Kroft: It would seem the chief financial officer and the people that signed the Sarbanes Oxley certification disregarded those warnings. 
Bowen: It would appear.  
We received a letter from Citigroup saying the bank had acted promptly to address Richard Bowen's concerns and that the issues he raised were limited to his division and had little bearing on the bank's overall financial health. Citigroup also told us that it did not retaliate against Bowen for sending the email. But not long after he sent it, Bowen's duties were radically changed. 
Bowen: I was relieved of most of my responsibility and I no longer was physically with the organization.

Three months after Bowen's email Citigroup's new CEO Vikrim Pandit received a blistering letter from the office of the comptroller of the currency, its chief regulator. It questioned the valuations that Citi had placed on its mortgage securities and found internal controls deeply flawed. The letter stated, among other things, that risk management had insufficient authority and risk was insufficiently evaluated and that the Citibank board had no effective oversight. 
Yet eight days later, CEO Vikrim Pandit and Chief Financial Officer Gary Crittenden personally signed the Sarbanes Oxley certification. They attested to the bank's financial viability and the effectiveness of its internal controls. The deficiencies cited by the comptroller of the currency were never mentioned. Citi said it didn't consider the problems serious enough that they had to be disclosed to investors and says the certifications were entirely appropriate. But nine months later, Citigroup would need a $45 billion bailout and $300 billion more in federal guarantees just to stay in business.
I recommend this piece; the video shows the actual email Bowen sent to Rubin et al. (at 4:28). (This is the second segment of the show.) The piece suggests that somebody should have been criminally prosecuted for misrepresenting the financial controls that should have been in place.

It took very little to remove Pug Winokur from the Harvard Corporation when Enron got in trouble. To what, except having friends in all the right places, can we attribute the fact that Bob Rubin continues to be one of Harvard's legal fiduciaries? Can this please be the final straw? Fellows of Harvard College, don't you realize that your own reputations, as well as Harvard's, are on the line if you continue to keep this little club together?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Civic Education -- a Discussion at Harvard

How can schools and colleges help create a better citizenry? In 2011, this is a very touchy issue. Questions of civic responsibility are easily politicized. Listening to politicians of different parties interpret the Constitution, you might wonder whether they are reading the same text; no wonder educational institutions, so sensitive to inclusivity and avoiding politics, seem to prefer service programs to civic disputations. Voting rates are abysmally low, and educated people will tell you proudly of the weak excuses they have used to avoid jury duty. The great universities proclaim their new global identities so loudly that their sense of responsibility to the U.S. and its citizens can be hard to observe.

I started writing about these matters in Excellence Without a Soul, in my reflections on the difference between the post-World War II General Education curriculum at Harvard and its 21st century successor. This fall, I have related essays out in two books, Teaching America and What Is College For? (both the latter book and my essay in it are done jointly with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann). 

Thanks to the wonderful support of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, I have been able to pull together a wonderful group of panelists to discuss "The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World" at the Harvard Law School on December 5, at 6:00 PM. Please click the link to look at the lineup--Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, Peter Levine, Elizabeth Lynn, Juan Carlos De Martin, myself, and Charles Nesson acting as provocateur (rather than "moderator"!). There is also an RSVP form on that page. Hope to see you there! I expect it will be an exciting discussion.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This Week's Government Attacks on Freedom of Speech and of Thought

I fear that for a variety of reasons, American governments, and especially the federal government, are increasingly willing to infringe Constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and of speech. Sometimes the assault is head on, on stages that are brightly lit by politically spotlights. Sometimes the assaults are apparently minor skirmishes, at hard-to-notice spots in remote regions of the bureaucracy.

Here are three I have noticed this week.

The first is the Stolen Valor Law, about which George Will has a smart column. This is the law--passed unanimously in the Senate and on a voice vote in the House--that criminalizes lying about one's military service. Of course nobody could think it was fine for someone to pretend to be a veteran. The question is whether making a false statement about military service is the kind of lying for which the proper remedy is a conviction under federal law, fines, and imprisonment. Why not?

Well, here is why not. Because when a federal law criminalizes lying, it puts the government in the business of determining what the truth is, and deciding whom to go after for shading it. Sometimes that is what we want--we do want the government to protect us against fraud, for example, where real money is at stake. Same for defamation, where truthfulness is, traditionally at least, an absolute defense. But in general, the courts have held that lying is protected by the First Amendment.

And we should not be arming federal prosecutors with weapons they can use for selective harassment. In a Veterans Day service I attended, all veterans were asked to stand at one point. From the context it was clear that the reference was to military veterans, so I remained seated, even though I think I am some kind of veteran, having served as a Junior Assistant Health Services Officer (equivalent to LtJg) in the commissioned corps of the US Public Health Service, on active duty 7/1/68-6/30/70 (sir!). If I had stood, would I have been committing a felony?

Every one of our elected representatives who voted for the Stolen Valor Law (note the misleading use of a material-goods metaphor to describe a speech act) wants us to know it. My other two examples are a lot more subtle.

The second is a proposal--now withdrawn, happily--to amend the rules that implement the Freedom of Information Act. The change, had it gone forward, would have stated that
When a component applies an exclusion to exclude records from the requirements of the FOIA …, the component utilizing the exclusion will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.
In other words, it would have allowed the government to a respond to a request to disclose a document it had a legal right (through specific provisions of the law) to withhold by stating, falsely, that the document does not even exist. Welcome to 1984, 2011 style, as proposed by the government that promised to be the most transparent in history. Thanks to the ruckus caused by Harvey Silverglate and others, this proposal has been withdrawn. I am guessing that it has been put in the bottom drawer against the day when some horrible act is perpetrated against the U.S. It will then be pulled out, ready to go as the PATRIOT Act was a few years ago, and implemented when the nation is in a spirit to sacrifice liberty for security.

Finally, what would you say if the government told you that you could have certain information as long as you did not think about it too hard or try to relate it to anything else you know? Sound like thought control? Then consider this report from the November 9 New York Times (thanks to Latanya Sweeney for bringing it to my attention):

A federal health agency on Wednesday restored to its Web site a database of doctor disciplinary actions two months after removing it from the Internet in response to a doctor’s complaints. 
But the return of the information came with a catch. It has a new requirement that anyone who uses it must first promise not to link information in the database with publicly available information, like court files, that would identify individual doctors. 
And that was exactly the way journalists for many news organizations had used the national data bank, which masked individual doctors’ names, as material for articles about weaknesses in the oversight of doctors with dozens of malpractice cases and gaps in disciplinary actions.
But the return of the information came with a catch. It has a new requirement that anyone who uses it must first promise not to link information in the database with publicly available information, like court files, that would identify individual doctors. 
And that was exactly the way journalists for many news organizations had used the national data bank, which masked individual doctors’ names, as material for articles about weaknesses in the oversight of doctors with dozens of malpractice cases and gaps in disciplinary actions.
I have been thinking for awhile that something like this could happen. In several talks I have given, I have suggested that we could, in the interest of protecting privacy, see government rules limiting how much data on a particular subject individuals could collect--making information sort of like fertilizer, legal in small quantities but requiring government permission to possess in gross. This is a different approach to the same problem--it has the government allowing people to have database A and database B, but prohibiting them from performing the trivial computer operation of "joining" them (seeing which parts of A line up with some parts of B). Since the regulations don't mention computers, just how the data is "use[d]," presumably even remembering something you had seen in one database and connecting it in your mind to the other database would be improper.

I am in favor of privacy, but there is nothing in the Constitution about it that is as absolute as the guarantees of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. As databases grow and we increasingly use our computers to amplify our guaranteed rights to think and to speak, we had better beware of well-intentioned but dangerous precedents like these, whether obscure or not.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Real Contribution to the Birth of Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to Harvard with much fanfare today. He presented himself very well at the session I attended, in the newly renamed Farkas Hall (AKA the Hasty Pudding Theater, AKA the New College Theater). The session began with David Malan, who was acting as moderator, reading part of an email exchange between me and Zuck in January 2004 entitled "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis." We all had a good laugh about this as one of the germs of Facebook, though Mark noted that it was really a different project. When he asked me, back then, if I minded his using my name (he said today that he was being careful since he was scared of being thrown out of school), I replied "Sure, what the hell, seems harmless." David put the URL up on the screen-- for the record, the Facebook prototype was hosted at

Facebook would surely have happened whatever I responded to Mark about his "Six Degrees" site (which enabled students to see how far they were from me in the network created by linking names that appeared in the same Crimson story). But it occurred to me that I had done something else a few years earlier that laid a foundation for Facebook, and indeed for all the current rage of student entrepreneurship. (The Gazette story has a lot about how much Harvard loves student entrepreneurs.)

In early 2000, I proposed and persuaded the faculty to repeal the age-old rule against students running businesses out of their rooms. Maybe it had made sense when a student business would involve moving goods (oranges, say) into and out of rooms. But it didn't make much sense in the Internet age. In fact, when students are making money by typing on a keyboard, there is no way to tell whether they are working for themselves or someone else, so there was no reason for one to be prohibited and the other encouraged. At first I thought there might be tax issues, but Harvard's lawyers helpfully advised that student businesses of reasonable proportions would not jeopardize Harvard's tax-exempt status.

So we killed the rule, and one of the grievances Harvard might have had against Facebook was pre-empted! There was some skepticism at the time about whether this was wise--it is nice to see the chorus of enthusiasm for student businesses today.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Harvard News

Harvard released its annual financial statements last week. You can download the whole report here or just read Harvard Magazine's summary here. (Try to find a story about it on the Gazette site. I couldn't, though I came up with a nice story about my colleague Michael Mitzenmacher's work on Yelp data privacy problems, another about the Digital Public Library of America, and a third about Mark Zuckerberg coming to town, so I can't complain!) The Crimson has a straightforward account. The headlines cite the $130 million deficit, which is not good but also not terrible on a $4 billon budget. Quoting the financial VP, the Crimson reports,
Shore cited a number of projects aimed at increasing the University’s operating efficiency as part of the cost-cutting effort. Among these are the consolidation of the University’s IT systems, the overhaul of the University library system, and efforts aimed at “better leveraging purchasing power with vendors.”
I am sure that the I/T consolidation was a good idea, whether or not it saves money; I am very impressed with the new leadership. So much the better if the new organization gives better service at lower costs. The "leveraging purchasing power" has been standard cant ever since Larry Summers complained about every professor buying his own bricks, or something like that. Maybe it adds up, but I rather think there would be more money to be saved if every professor did not have his or her own Center to begin with. I am worried, frankly, about saving money on the library system. It certainly was not obvious to me that having 70 libraries (a number that is commonly quoted as an indicator of the absurdity of Harvard's library system) is such a terrible thing for the world's greatest university. And it certainly is disappointing that Archives is now open to researchers only 25 hours per week. My freshman seminar students love using archival materials, but most of the hours they can access them are in conflict with class times or athletic practices.

The report cites some other things we are doing to restore our financial stability, and to avoid similar problems in the future. More of the infamous debt swaps are being retired. We are converting some debt from floating to fixed rates. And so on.

But it is worth contemplating Note 12 to remind ourselves how we got into this mess in the first place. We have borrowed $6.3 billion and have to pay it back at rates averaging 4.6%. We have floated $3.1 billion in fixed rate bonds at an average of 5%, and almost all of them have more than 20 years to go. Where is all that money? Look around you. The Northwest Building. The Center for Government and International Studies. The Fogg Museum. The pit in Allston, meant to be the foundation for a building that has not been built. Etc., etc. We borrowed so much that we can't borrow any more without risking our bond rating, though if we could do it, we could borrow today at much lower rates. We are paying $300 million per year in debt service.

And so the financial model is changing. We are pressing alumni to give "current use" gifts. They have responded remarkably well -- $277 million in current use gifts were given in the last fiscal year. But this is very unlike the old Harvard, which used to raise money for its buildings before it built them. Now a quarter-billion dollars in annual giving, solicited in preference to endowing professorships and scholarships, isn't enough to cover the interest payments on our debts. We are increasingly reliant on income from sponsored research, at a time when the Congressional "super-committee" may well decide to slash federal grants (a terrible idea for the economy in the long run, regardless of its impact on universities).

A little more than wo years ago, Fred Abernathy and I laid it out in the Boston Globe. Sorry about the paywall: here are the central paragraphs:
The story goes back to 2001. With much fanfare about President Lawrence Summers's bold vision, Harvard started a building campaign, mostly to grow the size of its science facilities by more than a third. Average yearly expenditures for facilities jumped from under $150 million in 1995-2000 to $495 million from 2001-2005, to $644 million in 2009. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences - about half the university - grew from about 600 professors before 2001 to 700 in 2006 and was projected to reach 750 by 2010. With this growth spurt already underway in 2004, Summers told the faculty not to think small. Its ambitions were limited only by its imagination, he said - Harvard could always come up with more money from its "deeply loyal friends." 
All that growth has now come to a crashing halt. The half-finished science lab in Allston has been mothballed; the faculty, only recently expanded, will now have to shrink. 
Are these the consequences of a market downturn no one could have predicted? Not in Harvard's case. By January 2006, the faculty itself was warning that Harvard's plans depended on extremely optimistic financial projections. 
Hoxby addressed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on behalf of a committee charged with scrutinizing the administration's plans. The Arts and Sciences budget - roughly $1 billion - was in balance, but with all the growth that was underway, she said, by 2010 it would be in deficit by at least $108 million. 
The biggest item was interest payments - the buildings were mostly debt-financed, in a sharp departure from Harvard's past practice of raising the money first. Add to that the salaries of the new faculty and the costs of operating those huge new science laboratories. Where would the money come from? The Faculty of Arts and Sciences had saved up $73 million, but that account would quickly be depleted as it was used to balance the budget. Selling endowment assets wouldn't work either, because almost all those funds had to be used as donors had stipulated, not for building undreamed-of buildings. So there were only two possibilities: a lot more money from donors, and very high investment returns. 
Was it wise to borrow so much? The Arts and Sciences dean explained that it was like a homeowner assuming a mortgage. Going into debt was OK, because incomes rise. And President Summers termed the whole borrowing-to-build plan an "extraordinary investment."
This year's report is the sound of the other shoe dropping.

The closing paragraph of our opinion piece suggests some governance reforms:
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. 
 This was nothing more than what a lot of people were saying in private but nobody else was saying in public. In the intervening years, the Corporation wisely decided to expand itself; I give Drew Faust a lot of credit for engineering that. I am quite happy about the new people who have been appointed (if less happy about one who remains). And I was quite happy to see the Gazette, even if it was mute on the financials, report that the Corporation has created a rational committee structure and included on the key committees some individuals who are neither Fellows nor Overseers. I don't expect Harvard to go overboard on transparency any time soon, but the more eyes that look at the books and at major building decisions, the more likely it is that someone will speak up when they see a powerful president or Corporation member pushing something that puts the university at risk. I am not holding my breath waiting for the risk reports Fred and I suggested, but I hope the echo chamber that was Harvard governance when we got into this mess under Summers is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Solar Energy Investment

A letter in the current Harvard Magazine, by an astronomer at UCLA, prompts me to blog about my photovoltaics. Professor Jura has described his experience here.

I live in an old house in Brookline, perhaps half a mile from the Brigham and Women's hospital. One day I noticed that, in spite of the houses around us, the flat roof on the garage has a pretty clear southern exposure. After getting in a contractor and running some financial models, I determined that a PV installation would pay for itself in about 7 years. It went online in May, and so far the energy production is a little ahead of the projections. Generates 5 kW peak and should produce about 7 MWh/year. The financial model has three components: tax credits for part of the capital investment; reduced electric bills because I pay only for net usage; and income from sale of State Renewable Energy Credits, one per MWh I generate independent of my electric usage.

System is depicted below. It is all but invisible from the street. And you can look here to see its production, either power or energy, by either day, week, or month. PV panel prices have softened in the past year so I'll bet it would have a shorter payoff period if I were starting today. Glad to answer any questions offline.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching by doing

I have to be honest: I have never been a big fan of "service learning," when it involves the admixture of academic obligation with pressured volunteerism. In the essay Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and I wrote in What Is College For?, we take a dim view of the way it had displaced civic education rather than embodying it.

But the continuing official commentary on the freshman kindness pledge has reminded me to say that the right way to get students to be more kind is to model kindness ourselves, to honor those who are kind, and to keep putting good models before them. Less talk, please, about how the exercise of pledge-signing was "hijacked" by some unnamed party. Fewer "conversations" about our values, more positive data points from which those we are educating can learn what those values are. Please, not another statement of values (we have one already, one that was the result of lengthy negotiation and editing involving faculty, deans, and the president; has it worked?). Instead, how about some official disapprobation when members of our community dishonor important values.

Consider these examples of simple but deeply educational things people could be doing instead of talking.

I learned today that my other alma mater, the Roxbury Latin School, has organized boys to help give dignified burials for the indigent. A funeral home has made its space available, the School has contributed a van and the time of a teacher, and the boys act as pallbearers. A remote graveyard was located that will accept these burials for the pittance the Commonwealth provides for such purposes.

When I described this to a friend, he told me how his mother, in a local nursing home, gets weekly visits from Harvard students, who are just trying to bring some cheer to the lives of the elderly and surely are not trying to earn any points.

Such examples are all around us, as are failures of kindness that pass without comment. I object to the pledge exercise not because I don't think Harvard should be in the business of promoting kindness and building character more generally, but precisely because I do, and the pledge is a bumper-sticker gesture where modeling the good and objecting to the bad would provide some actual edification.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

D is for Digital

Brian Kernighan's terrific book about computation and communication for the layman is out. It is called D is for Digital and is a bargain at $14.95. It's modeled on Physics for Future Presidents, and is a worthy analog in the realm of the digital. Brian wrote most of it while he was on sabbatical at Harvard last year so I had the privilege of reading drafts, and it is everything I would expect from him -- clear, funny, thoughtful, and containing quite a few profound analytical insights that enlighten the pro as well as the casual observer.

Available from Amazon.

The Internet as the Garden of Earthly Delights

Just out is a collection of essays based on lectures in Harvard General Education courses. It's called The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century. As originally conceived, it was a collection of last lectures in these courses, but that turned out to be rather tasteless given that there was a best-selling book about a professor's actual last lecture in life.
So instead I and a number of other far more luminous Harvard professors were invited to write up whatever we wanted based on the themes of our Gen Ed courses. I wrote up what was, in fact, my last lecture in Bits, a course that has since gone to its just rewards. The essay is called: "The Internet and Hieronymus Bosch: Fear, Protection, and Liberty in Cyberspace." It is based on the metaphor that the Internet as we know it today is not the hell that we sometimes are told that it is, particularly when we are trying to protect our children, a place where nothing is trustworthy and demons lurk around every corner. But it has also freed us from the Garden of Eden innocence of a world of controlled and restricted knowledge. It is more like the middle panel in the famous Bosch triptych. It is naughty and not everyone's cup of tea and is so alarming that it is probably unsustainable in its present form. And yet it is within our power to decide in what direction it is going to evolve.
Hope you like it! If you don't, the book is still worth buying -- you can read the essays by big guns such as Steve Pinker and Charlie Maier instead!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How not to get your online newspaper off to a good start

I just tried to pull up an article from the Globe. I got a page with the explanation below. If I click the Sign Up link, I am given the opportunity to pay to see the online content.

I get home delivery. As far as I can see, I WILL be able to get online content free, but not until tomorrow, when I am able to "link" my online and paper accounts (which I thought I had already done, but there seems to be no way to log in). If I want to see anything today or tonight, I have to pay. Which of course I won't do, so no way to use the Globe to make the point I had hoped to make.

Whose idea was it for the Globe to treat its most loyal customers that way?

The free trial has ended

Thank you for experiencing during the free trial. will re-launch on Wednesday, October 19, at 5 a.m. EDT with exciting new features, including:
  • Boston Globe Insiders – A subscriber-only benefit that will provide members with access to exclusive editorial content, events with editorial staff, and unique offers and events from Globe advertisers.
  • Comments – Subscribers will be able to comment on articles and connect with reporters and editors from the Globe, joining in select conversations.
  • More Site Features  |  Sign Up

A new experience on Wednesday

  • Home Delivery Subscribers:
    All home-delivery subscribers get unlimited FREE access to once they have linked their home-delivery subscriber number to registration. If this is complete, you can use your email and password to log in. If you have not yet linked your home delivery subscription you may do so tomorrow starting at 6AM.
  • Accessible With a Subscription Only:
    All articles, Globe Insiders benefits, video, crossword puzzle, and comics.
  • Always Free:
    The homepage and section fronts of will remain accessible to all users.

Monday, October 17, 2011

New Book: What Is College For?

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, former dean at HGSE and now professor at Bard College, included me in  a series of fascinating roundtable discussions about higher education. A number of the participants in that roundtable have written essays about higher education and the collection is being published by Teacher's College Press. The book is entitled What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education. It is now available for pre-ordering from Amazon (click on the title to go to Amazon). Book will not be published for a few more weeks but when it is, the paperback will be available immediately, for $20.43 from Amazon.

The lead essay is by Ellen and me, and it is on the subject of civic education (something I wrote about in my contribution to another recently published edited volume, Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education). I really like our essay; it presents an interesting historical analysis of civic education, going all the way back to the Massachusetts Constitution and before, and all the way up to the present day. Instead of moaning it makes some concrete proposals, grounded in our analysis of the realities.

The other essays are also worth reading, of course! Here is the full set of author bios.

Paul Attewell is a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests focus on issues of education and social inequality. His most recent book (coauthored with David Lavin) is entitled Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? He has also published about the effects of remedial coursework on college students and on the impact of requiring a more de- manding high school curriculum upon college success. His current research examines the causes behind high dropout rates among college students. 
Elaine Tuttle Hansen served as president of Bates College from 2002 until 2011, and is now executive director of the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. Previously she was professor of English and provost at Haverford College and authored three books: The Solomon Complex: Reading Wisdom in Old English Poetry, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, and Mother Without Child: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crisis of Motherhood. 
Ellen Condliffe Lagemann is the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College, a Senior Scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, and a senior fel- low at the Bard Prison Initiative. She has served as the Charles Warren Pro- fessor of the History of American Education at Harvard University and as dean of the Graduate School of Education there, as well as president of the Spencer Foundation. She is the author of many books and articles, includ- ing An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (2000), and chaired the National Research Council committee that produced Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy (2010). 
David E. Lavin is professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and also at Lehman College. He is author and co- author of several books, including Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations (with Paul Attewell), Changing the Odds: Open Admissions and the Life Chances of the Disadvantaged (coauthor), and Right Versus Privilege: The Open Admissions Experiment at the City University of New York (coauthor).

Harry Lewis is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences of Harvard University and is a fac- ulty associate of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has served as dean of Harvard College and is the author of Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future (2007) and coauthor of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (2008).
Catharine R. Stimpson is university professor and dean emerita of the Gradu- ate School of Arts and Science at New York University. She is past president of the Modern Language Association and of the Association of Graduate Schools. She has written widely on literature, women and gender, and educa- tion. Her books include Where the Meanings Are and Class Notes, and she was the founding editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
William M. Sullivan is senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Ad- vancement of Teaching, where he has directed studies of professional educa- tion in law, engineering, preparation of the clergy, nurses, and doctors as well as research on liberal education for undergraduate business students. He has authored or coauthored a number of books in these areas, including Work and Integrity: The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America, 2nd edition, 2005
Douglas Taylor is professor and chair of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is an evolutionary biologist who specializes in how conflict and cooperation arise and are resolved in the natural world. He has published more than 50 scientific papers on these and related topics.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Enthusiastic Consent

In 2006, in Excellence Without a Soul, I noted that the first "Take Back the Night" rally at Harvard took place in 1980. I continued,

From this point on, the issue of rape flared up on a schedule approximating the four-year cycle of college generations—sometimes emerging after three years in the background, sometimes after five, but not every year. Different circumstances bring the issue to the fore in different years, and each time the college community starts from a different place in responding.
Right on schedule,  it's back. According to the Crimson, the University "recently appointed student representatives to a special committee to review the sexual misconduct policies of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response." I am not quite sure what to make of that sentence. Quite possibly I missed the announcement and news reporting on the creation of the committee, but this is the first I have seen of it in either Harvard announcements or the student press. In any case, I seriously doubt that it is the OSAPR itself that creates sexual misconduct policies, de jure anyway (I thought it was the Faculty). Be that as it may, the revival of the "what's rape?" issue seems to be due to the series ("slew," in the Crimson's scrupulously objective journalese) of Title IX complaints against universities, including the Harvard Law School.

The article itself is about a delay in consulting students. But what is rather arresting, if you will pardon the expression, is this passage in the reporting. Instead of the legal definition of rape--sex is rape only when the victim refuses or is incapable of refusing--one of the students

… said that she and other students on the committee hoped to push the University instead toward an “enthusiastic consent” model, in which an incident can be called rape in the absence of affirmative agreement.
“The only people who lose out in this model are the rapists,” said [another student], who had also intended to serve on the committee.
[The first student] said that she plans to discuss the stay on student involvement with Rankin, but she might eventually consider leading a “student protest” or “something more radical” than acting through administration-approved channels if she feels that student voices on this issue are not being heard.
The question of sex with a partner who was agreeable but not eager sounds like a chapter in a book about improving your marriage, not a standard for prosecution of a crime. But the change would definitely have the effect of increasing the conviction rate. One is reminded of Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." The student is correct: If rape is redefined to mean sex with consenting but unenthusiastic partners, the "rapists" will, by definition, be the losers. Only that category will be rather broader than it used to be. 

I am sorry to see this no-win issue coming around again, and sorry that it seems to be getting off to a bad start, with threats of radical action before the committee has even begun its work.

Sorry, but not surprised.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Those Days There Were Giants in the Earth

Dennis Ritchie has died. Ritchie bears more personal responsibility than any one else for C and Unix, and hence for their many derivatives. The world would be a VERY different place had he not created these things.

His passing also makes me remember the days when one or two people could change the computer world. Some may argue that is still the case, but I am not so sure. Too much legacy code now. It is harder to take a clean sheet of paper and start over, as Ritchie did.

I love James Grimmelmann's tweet: "Ritchie's influence rivals Jobs's; it's just less visible. His pointer has been cast to void *; his process has terminated with exit code 0." 

(Harvard folks will remember James as a summa undergrad in CS who TF'ed CS 121 three times, having taken it as a freshman, and wrote his senior thesis on quantum computing. Internet lawyers know him as a professor at NY Law School who is the expert on the Google Books copyright case.)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A bit of nuance on Steve Jobs

I think the canonization of Steve Jobs is getting a little tiresome.

I actually thought that within a day of his death, but restrained myself out of respect. De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

The statute of limitations having now run out, I'd like to add a few words.

First on the plus side. Jobs was a design genius. His resolute insistence on simplicity and cleanliness wasn't a new thing in technology, but it was a new thing in computer technology. The over-complication of Microsoft software created a huge target to shoot at, but Jobs did not stop at being better. He really did have a genius for reducing things to their intuitive essentials and not accepting anything less.

So of all the tributes, I like Ross Douthat's in today's NYT the best. Nobody would have said that a computer was beautiful before Apple products. The all-white IBM Charlie Chaplin ads tried to make you think that PCs were beautiful, but they weren't.

And one of Jobs's greatest successes has not gotten a lot of press: The iTunes business model. He jerked the music industry into the Internet age and found a way for everyone to make money by selling singles for $.99. That was a stunning development given the rigid conservatism of the music industry's selling-plastic business model. (But see Dan Gillmor for appropriate reservations where this success is taking us.)

Having said all that, I would add three reservations.

First, Jobs was not a technological innovator in any significant sense. As has been told many times (though not often in the past week), the snappy, intuitive Mac interface was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Jobs oversaw the process of squeezing it down to fit in a box with 128K of memory and no hard drive. Those first Macs barely ran, but they got the ball rolling. There are many other examples. I toured the Mac assembly line in early 1984 -- the manufacturing technology was Japanese and had never been used in the US the way Apple was using it.

So part of Jobs's genius was recognizing the potential in other people's inventions, and executing the consolidation and integration of those developments. Of course, this is not really a negative. The world is full of examples of inventions that changed the world due to the genius of the executor, not the inventor. (Think Facebook.)

Second, Jobs's uncompromising insistence on simplicity sometimes got the better of him. When the Mac was designed, it was a courageous decision to insist on a one-button mouse. That was the source of some ridicule at the time (as well as some admiration). PCs already had two-button mice and there were experiments with 3-button mice. In this case the insistence on simplicity was right. But Jobs also insisted on a keyboard with no function keys. That pretty much cost Apple the business market, because Excel users needed function keys. I felt sorry for the true-believing Apple salespeople trying to sell Macintoshes into the workplace. Except for graphic design, it was a non-starter. So in this instance at least, the refusal to compromise was short-sighted. The course of computer history would have been different if Jobs had put function keys on the early Mac keyboards.

And finally, I am glad to learn that Jobs was a good family man, but he wasn't always a nice person to the people who worked for him and who challenged his absolute authority. Perhaps some of those people have already written about their experiences or will do so shortly. And even with family members, it wasn't always all love all the time--for years he refused even to acknowledge his first child.

Perhaps I am being churlish to note any of these things, but as Tom Lehrer said, if you don't like my song, you should never have let me begin!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two Extremely Powerful Op-Eds about Copyright

Both by Lewis Hyde, relevant to a case being argued before the Supreme Court today: the Constitutionality of the US law restoring copyright to foreign works that had fallen into the public domain. The citations from American history and the examples of copyright abuse are breathtaking.

The Genius of Free Governments
Hold the Line: Stop Copyright Rendition!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The explosion wreaks more destruction

The Globe Corner Bookstore is dead as a physical bookstore anyway. If I remember correctly Harvard gave it some preferred treatment as other book emporia (including the Harvard University Press store) closed. But it just couldn't last.

In other news, I was interested to see that the "Fleeting Expletives" case, FCC v. Fox, is back on the Supreme Court docket. The last time around, in 2009, the Court upheld the FCC's censorship rights on somewhat technical grounds but noted that the case might come back on pure First Amendment grounds. That is what is happening. This is not a standard liberal-conservative-Kenney split. Justice Thomas signaled in his independent decision two years ago that he might switch over to Fox's side if the only issue were the government's right to censor Cher's televised "Fuck 'em." In essence, the Internet has smashed the uniqueness of the broadcast media, and with so many other ways to get speech out, it is not at all clear that the premises for the government's authority to censor speech on the airways still hold. Fascinating.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nice review of "Baseball as a Second Language"

The Asian Review of Books reviews Baseball as a Second Language here. For those just coming to this subject, the book is available here. (Amazon will have it available eventually, but it takes several weeks to turn up in Amazon's index.)

Wrap on the Pledge

The freshman pledge has by now gotten rather more attention than it deserved. Among those commenting on it are Virginia Postrel (Bloomberg), Andrew Sullivan (Daily Beast), Ross Douthat (NYTimes), Josh Rothman (Boston Globe), Carly Weeks (Toronto Globe and Mail), and the Edmonton Journal.

I would not have brought it up again had I not run across this priceless clause from the Constitution of the Lawrence Base Ball Club, Harvard's first "New York Rules" baseball team. The Constitution is dated November 3, 1858 (the team had played a few games in September of that year). This is the way such things should be dealt with--by private agreements, if at all: "Any member of this Club behaving in an ungentlemanly manner or rendering himself obnoxious to the Club, may be expelled from the Club by a vote of two thirds of the members present and voting at a meeting specially called."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Jobs for the Digital Age

We have heard so much about jobs and the need for a workforce educated for the computer age, I couldn't get this out of my mind.

Last Saturday I went on my weekly supermarket run. At the deli counter I asked for "six-tenths of a pound of turkey." The deli man, who was in his twenties, replied, "What's that? Two-thirds?"

This struck me as an odd response. The scale is digital, after all, unless the display he sees is different from the one that faces the customer. His response suggested that he did not know that "six-tenths" is "0.6." But more than that, what was he going to do with the information if I told him "yeah"? Would he know how to read two-thirds off a digital scale? I told him "A little more than half a pound" and that is what I got.

I shrugged and forgot about it. Until I went to a different supermarket today on the same errand.

"Six tenths of a pound of turkey," I said. Deli man #2, about the same age, replied, "Is that like a quarter?" Wow, I am seeing a pattern here. Maybe it's just the Stop&Shop chain?

How the hell is the U.S. going to compete in this world when people in their twenties don't know decimals? You can't even slice turkey in a market without knowing that much!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Speaking of kindness

I was party to a weird event this afternoon. I was attending a panel discussion at Harvard. There were three panelists and two moderators sitting at a table in the front of the room, and the room was overcrowded, maybe 125 people with only about 100 seats. I arrived exactly at 5pm and took one of the few seats that was available at that time, which was in the first or second row, next to the end. About 10 minutes later, a few minutes after the first speaker started to speak, a quite elderly woman walked very slowly and uncomfortably from the back to the front of the room along the aisle on the opposite side. She started to seat herself on the floor in the front of the room. Everybody could see this but nobody made a move. I stood up, walked in front of the panel table across the room, and gestured to her to take my seat, which she did. I am still scratching my head over that one. If anyone else was there and thinks I missed something in the way this little scene unfolded, do correct me.

Also, here is a homily I gave at Morning Prayers last Friday, which is not unrelated this whole troubling subject.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Freshman Pledge, continued

The Huffington Post has a piece taking my worries about the pledge to another level.

And anyone following this ought to read the Christakises' piece in the Crimson and the comment thread attached to it. I don't agree with everyone who agrees with me, by the way.

I am glad the display of the signed pledges has been abandoned, and appreciate the good judgment of the College on this decision.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Innovative University

An interesting book by that title has just been published. The authors are Clayton Christensen of HBS and Henry Eyring, an administrator at BYU-Idaho. The book provides parallel histories of the evolution of these two universities, Harvard and BYU-Idaho. BYU-Idaho is an LDS-church affiliated institution, and I was surprised when I learned that my rendition of Harvard history in Excellence Without a Soul seems to have influenced the authors. It's quite a good account of why change is hard in higher education, giving a case history of one instance in which it has been successfully implemented. I enjoyed reading it, and was interested to learn about what used to be called Ricks College, though I might have learned more if some other examples of higher ed innovation, ones more comparable to places like Harvard, had been presented--though they are not that easy to find!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Freshman Pledge

I think for the first time in history, Harvard is "inviting" all freshmen to sign a pledge. This is what it says:

Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge
At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that "each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society." That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility. 
As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.
The names of the students in the entryway are printed below the pledge, and the students are to sign by their names. The document is to be framed and hung in the entryway throughout the year.

An appeal for kindness is entirely appropriate. Apparently there has been too little of it in the Yard sometimes. But for Harvard to "invite" people to pledge to kindness is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent.

First of all, it would be a precedent. Of course, students regularly commit themselves to pledges and oaths at the behest of student and national organizations. But I am unaware of another instance in which the university itself has asked all students to sign a pledge. In fact, Harvard has a deep and ancient antipathy to pledges and oaths. The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing on pages 339-341 of The Founding of Harvard College, describes how remarkable it was that Harvard did not, in any of its founding documents, follow the practice of its British ancestors in requiring a religious oath of its students. "Our founders knew from their English experience," Morrison writes, "that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. … Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them."

In more recent history, President Pusey raised his voice in 1959 to object to US legislation that would have demanded that certain scholarship recipients swear to uphold the Constitution. Loyalty oaths, even ones affirming unexceptionable principles, are, as Pusey put it, "odious."

But, it may be objected, no one is required to sign the freshman pledge. Its purpose is to make people think and to induce conversation on the important matter of civility and generosity. I am assured that the intention is not to make anyone feel compelled to sign the pledge.

In this case, alas, the line between an invitation and a compulsion is exceedingly narrow, and I doubt those who explain it to students can consistently do so with the required nuance. The pledge is delivered to students for signing by their proctors, the officers of the College who monitor their compliance with Harvard rules and report their malfeasances to the College's disciplinary board. Nonconformists would have good reason to fear that they will be singled out for extra scrutiny. And their unsigned signature lines are hung for all to see, in an act of public shaming. Few students, in their first week at Harvard, would have the courage to refuse this invitation. I am not sure I would advise any student to do so.

The substance of the pledge is critically important. This is not a pledge to refrain from cheating, or to take out the garbage. It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one's thoughts. Though it refers to sound institutional values affirmed at Commencement, the pledge pretends to affirm them not through the educational process to which the Dean testifies, but through a prior restraint on students' freedom of thought. A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.

On the face of it the pledge is so benign that one might reasonably accuse me of making a mountain out of a molehill. But the right to be annoying is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts. Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college. In the words of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving compulsory flag salutes, "Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. … As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent  on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. … Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

I want to stress that I concur with the ends. I do not condone rudeness or incivility in students, and I agree that the exercise of personal kindness in this community is too often wanting. But trying to get students to sign a pledge, in their first days on campus, is not the way to build a healthy community. After all, there is plenty of faculty rudeness too; why would we not ask the faculty to join in this communitarian commitment? The way to create a kind community is to model kindness, not to tell the most junior members they should be kind while not expecting others to meet the same standard. Who, except for our clerics, has urged kindness on the rest of the community?

Because I fear the precedent, I am planning to propose legislation to prevent pledges like this from being promulgated in the future. I am tweaking the language and would welcome editorial suggestions, but here is my first crack:
Students shall not universally be requested, invited, or expected to commit to any pledge or oath that would oblige them to curtail their freedom of speech or thought.
I am not sure how much of an explanatory note the legislation would require, but to be clear:  This is Faculty legislation, so the subject of the passive is implicitly the Faculty; this would not prevent a student organization from offering a sustainability oath, for example. Nor would it prevent a specific group of students from being expected to make certain promises and commitments before being given access to certain privileges, equipment, or information not generally available to undergraduates. Nor would it preclude commitments to act in certain well-defined ways (not cheat, for example), if the Faculty ever wanted to propose such a regime. (I am not in favor of such a code, but I am not trying to preclude it here.)

A thought in closing. This pledge is tied up with the "Community Conversations" that take place during freshman week, in which entryways discuss readings about diversity and community. The readings vary from year to year, but one text, no longer used, was once constant: excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance. This is a difficult text, and always a conversation-starter. It is an ennobling and empowering essay, but it also makes it clear that Emerson would have been the roommate from hell. I think, if the Pledge had been around in his day, he would have refused to sign it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Prius Review

I've had a Prius for about two years now, mostly commuting the short distance to work. But one of the reasons I bought it was to drive cross-country when I had the time, and this summer was the time. I drove out to our summer place in northwest Montana, and back. I thought I'd offer a few observations for the benefit of anyone who likes long drives.

  • Reliability. The car complained about nothing the whole way, nor did I find much to complain about. Oil and coolant levels were the same at the end of the trip as they were at the beginning.
  • Driveability. I was pleased to discover that I could set the cruise control and the car would hold the speed perfectly, even in the hills and even when I had it set for 75mph (which is the speed limit in Montana and Wyoming on the Interstates). Even more surprisingly, cruise control holds the speed fine even with the car in Eco (high fuel efficiency) mode. Eco mode definitely is less zippy than normal mode when accelerating manually, but once I decided to try Eco mode (somewhere in Minnesota, driving westward) I never turned it off. The car did not feel at all unstable even at high speeds, nice smooth ride.
  • Audio. It's a base model Prius with one accessory: XM satellite radio, an invention made for cross-country drives. Wonderful. Also listened to the music on my iPod and iPad.
  • Fuel efficiency. With gas varying between $3.59 and $3.89/gallon (except in Wyoming, where it was $3.39), this was the biggie. I had gotten used to getting about 43 mpg in city driving. This trip was 7690 miles total, from the day I rolled out of my driveway to the day I rolled back in. About 5400 miles of that is the drive out and back and about 2300 is local driving in Montana during my time out there. Mileage for the whole trip was 51.6 mpg. Best performance was at 65-70 mph; on the last leg yesterday, from Syracuse to Boston, with a passenger and a full load of furniture and baggage in the back with the seats folded down, I drove 230 miles and got 54.8 mpg. Highest I ever got for a long day's driving was 56.0 mpg. But at a steady 75 mph (across Wyoming and South Dakota) the efficiency drops to 48.5 mpg.
  • Complaint? Only one. The dashboard dims when the headlights are on, and I like to leave the headlights on during the day, except that I can't then read the speedometer. Or maybe I just didn't find the right control!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Baseball as a Second Language

I've written a little book to help people unfamiliar with baseball understand the way baseball language gets used in American English. I got the idea from explaining the game to international students at Harvard. The book (78 pages, including about a dozen photographs) is called Baseball as a Second Language and it's available for $9.99 from by clicking here. (Eventually, Amazon will list it and other booksellers will also have it in their database, but apparently that takes 6-8 weeks.) Hope you enjoy it!

My professional justification for this basically recreational project was to experiment in dis-intermediated publishing. The book is published under a BY-SA Creative Commons license, so anyone is free to re-use the material it contains as long as they give proper attribution and publish their own work under the same terms. This was key to getting good images-- I was able to draw on a huge store of BY-SA photography on Flickr. Thanks to the fine photographers who made their work available!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Great License Plate Kerfluffle

There has been a lot of press lately on a plan to increase the use of license-plate reading cameras by Massachusetts police. The state will pay for the equipment, on the understanding that the data will be shared with state and national law enforcement. The notoriously liberal town of Brookline, where I live, is tied up in knots over it (see the Globe), in part because the hated TV cameras already installed actually helped solve a horrible crime in Coolidge Corner a couple of years ago.

The issues are pretty straightforward: Are you more worried about the government tracking the innocent or about the possibility that a crime will unnecessarily go unsolved? As with all such tradeoffs, the analysis, to be done properly, needs some numbers. How big are the risks of abuse? How big are the chances of solving a crime by use of this data that would not have been solved without it? How big are the damages due to potential abuse? How big are the damages due to those unsolved crimes? The answer to the last question is "almost infinite, if the crime was against you or one of your family members." But how do you make policy out of that, even if you could come up with good estimates for the four numbers?

Harvey Silverglate is quoted in the Herald this morning in opposition:
“What kind of a society are we creating here?” asked civil rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate, who along with the ACLU fears police abuse. “There comes a point where the surveillance is so pervasive and total that it’s a misnomer to call a society free any longer.”
And it is hard to argue with that.  But what if the "surveillance" were done by ordinary citizens operating in public spaces?

License plate reading cameras are consumer commodities now. They cost a few hundred bucks. Here is one site with a lot of choices for you. There are many others. Fire up your shopping fingers and go to town.

What if we made the car-location database a crowdsourced project? A bunch of us buy these cameras and set them up outside our homes, aimed at the street. Logging every car that goes by and creating a database of license plate numbers and times of day at our location.

Then we share the data with each other and start to build up a city- or state-wide database. Or more likely, a peer-to-peer network of our individual databases so no individual has it all.

Of course, the database would not be as useful as what the police would have, because the index of who has which license plate number is not public information. But we could crowdsource that too. Make it a high school project -- have all the students walk around their neighborhoods and jot down the tag numbers of the cars parked in their neighbors' driveways. Better yet, give the Girl Scouts an extra badge if they collect this information as they go door to door all across America selling cookies. Such a database would be imperfect, of course, but obviously useful.

Disintermediation. We don't need the police any more to invade privacy; we can do it ourselves, particularly if we collaborate. If ordinary people can build Wikipedia, they can certainly build this database.

I have been thinking about this scenario for some time and I have no idea what to do about it. It shouldn't be against any laws to jot down the license numbers of the cars going down the street (when I was a kid trying to see all 50 states' plates, I was supposed to write down the actual number, not just the color pattern). Can't see why photographing them would be any different. Can't see why sharing information with my fellow citizens should be criminalized (now we're talking about my civil liberties). Ditto for writing down what is plain to see in public view, the street number of a house and the tag humber of a car parked in its driveway. If someone who knows more law than I do sees a logical leap in this reasoning, I'd love to know what it is. Perhaps this kind of data will be treated like nitrogen fertilizer--unregulated in small quantities, but heavily regulated in bulk. Would such a law about the private aggregation of mere facts pass Constitutional muster?

The first thing I said to Mark Zuckerberg (I still have the email) when he showed me the "Six Degrees to Harry Lewis" web site almost exactly seven and a half years ago was "It's all public information, but there is somehow a point at which aggregation of public information feels like an invasion of privacy." 

In 1998, in his book The Transparent Society,  David Brin asked a question which, updated to this particular scenario, would go like this: Would you rather live in a world in which the police have the location data for everybody's car -- or a world in which everybody has that data? 

My problem is, I don't see how to stop the latter transparent  world from evolving, unless we are prepared to limit other personal liberties (each individual's right to observe what is happening in public and to share that information with others). And at that point I have to conclude that we're not going to make the police the only people kept in the dark!