Sunday, March 30, 2014

Asian Universities Introspect

There was a conference in South Korea about university education in Asia, the relentless push for rankings and preparing students for the job market, and all that is lost when these objectives are paramount.
Are modern universities, asked Inwon Choue, president of Kyung Hee University, in Seoul, “begetting academic excellence without soul?”
That man has a gift for a memorable phrase.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is the Jig Up for the NCAA?

Yesterday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the football players at Northwestern University are employees of the University and entitled to unionize and bargain with the University about their work conditions. As William Rhoden of the New York Times says, "The jig is up."

I have been teaching a freshman seminar about the curious notion of athletic amateurism. It's an un-American concept, in its origins and in its implications; there are things that seem sketchy when you get money for doing them, donating a kidney for example, but generally speaking Americans don't have any trouble with payments and prizes. Amateurism is actually a British concept, rooted in the social class separation between gentlemen and laborers. But as a condition on athletics it does not survive in England, or in the Olympic movement which once celebrated it -- only in American colleges.

Whatever its origins, amateurism has been becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective fiction as the sums of money in college sports have exploded. Contrary to common belief, few schools actually make a profit on their athletic programs, because expenses have exploded too. But the sums made by the profitable programs have tempted many others to try.

To maximize their competitive strength, on which their revenues depend, the schools offering athletic scholarships have agreed to screw their athletes in various ways. For example, they offer only one-year athletic scholarships, so they don't have to bear the cost for four years if someone either chooses not to play or becomes physically unable to play -- or just turns out not to be as good as a someone admitted later on. If I recall correctly, the scholarship schools have collectively agreed not to allow any school to offer multiple-year scholarships, as that, however good for the student, would create too much of a competitive advantage for the schools that were able to absorb the incremental cost.

The Ivy League, which offers no athletic scholarships, is free from that form of abuse. Having no athletic scholarships also keeps the coaches on better behavior, since dissatisfied players can walk away from their teams without any financial penalty. It happens a lot, often not out of dissatisfaction but just because other opportunities become more interesting. One Harvard CS entrepreneur I have taught was a recruited athlete and never played a single game, having quit the team during the first week of practice.

The NLRB regional director has concluded, reasonably enough, that players whose continued financial support is dependent on athletic performance are employees first and students second.

This will be litigated, of course; the NCAA, which can afford very good lawyers, is not going to come crashing down on the say-so of one regional labor director. But I do think the jig is up. Between the Ed O'Bannon case, and some persistent, high-profile journalism that is laying bare the NCAA's hypocrisy, some things are going to have to change.

In fact, the remarkable thing to me is that the NCAA, which has been so successful in turning football and men's basketball into a national entertainment empire, could not have seen this coming and made some limited changes to their most ethically indefensible policies. They must have calculated that there was no reason to increase their costs until they were forced to. So much for the student-athlete fiction. And now they may not get away with offering decent protections against the financial consequences of injuries and whatnot; the big time schools may have to pay their athletes, which could get very very complicated -- since whatever other ripples that step might have, it could surely not happen without paying women athletes as well as men.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Obama calls for end of bulk telephone metadata collection

The New York Times reports that the president will ask Congress not to renew the authorization for the NSA to collect all the telephone numbers of calls made in the US, one of the most shocking of Snowden's revelations. Obama has also decided not to have the phone companies retain that information for five years so the feds could get it without storing it, a workaround that had been considered.

This is an important privacy victory, made easier for everyone by the fact that the telephone metadata collection never seems to have yielded much useful intelligence anyway. In making it, the president has accepted the argument of the EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which the NYT cites, and on whose advisory board I sit) and US District Judge Leon, who concluded that the program was probably unconstitutional.

(A note: In a previous post I overstated the opportunity for eavesdropping on US citizens due to the reported recording of all phone calls in a foreign country. If a call involves a US citizen, the spooks are not supposed to be listening without a warrant. Thanks to a careful reader for pointing that out; I have struck the offending sentence.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Only for Fans of the Printed Word

If you look forward to the disappearance of paper and ink in favor of digital media, you can skip this post.

If you think computer-typeset, laser-printed text is all the world needs, don't bother reading on.

Because when I say printed, I mean printed, with moveable lead type set in trays, inked, and pressed onto, really into, heavy paper.

Oh yes, and if you don't want me to ask you to make a donation, you'd better switch to the next blog on your list. I have never done it before on this blog, but I am going to break my rule and suggest that you give a few bucks for something cool.

Alex Green has run a small indie bookstore in Waltham, Back Pages Books, for the past ten years, starting shortly after he got out of college. Needless to say, nobody does this to get rich. It's amazing he has been able to stay in business. It is an old fashioned place, with unfinished wood bookshelves, readings in the evenings, no parking lot, and a proprietor who knows his customers by name.

He's been doing letterpress printing on the side. High quality small run things, single poems, short pamphlets and books, special programs and invitations.

This is a dying art. He used to use a printing press located near him, but it moved, so he now has to carry trays of lead type on buses. It is, as he says in this nice video, romantic but absurd.

He is trying to raise money to buy his own letter press, so he can keep up his art, maybe even give some lessons. Donations in any amount are accepted; if you want to go straight to the donation page, it's here. Credit cards are fine. He even has some printed items he will send you in exchange for donations at various levels.

I have known Alex for a long time; he is the nephew of my college roommate Larry Green. Larry and I had met at a science fair and remained friends after college, when he became a promising medical researcher. And then all of a sudden he died at a young age, of Hodgkin's disease.

It was actually Larry who taught me, deep in the night on the second floor of Weld Hall, the concept of the absurd. He argued to me in the language Kierkegaard and Sartre, and I lamely tried to argue back in that of Quine. A Harvard education at its best.

Alex is an honest man and a good guy, and no crazier than you have to be to want to live your life running a tiny bookstore and printing beautiful documents by laboriously setting lead type and cranking fine paper through a hand-operated press. He won't squander the money, and if you support him, then some day, perhaps, you will be able to get him to do some beautiful printing for you.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"What is College For?" Chosen as CHE Book Club first selection

The Chronicle of Higher Education has started a book club – a scheduled and paced group reading of a different book every month, with online discussion and an online chat with the authors. The editors proposed four books about higher education for the first book to be discussed, and my book with Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education, won the balloting. The format for the reading is presented here, and I certainly hope we can schedule an online chat about the book in April.

I have been thinking about public purposes as I watch what is happening to liberal education in Asia and the US …

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Add Wyoming to South Carolina

… as a place where the state legislature wants to restrict what's taught. In South Carolina, it was books about gay themes; in Wyoming, it's teaching about climate change. In a footnote to a budget bill, the state legislature has blocked the adoption of a new set of national standards for science teaching, because they include climate change.  "There's all kind of social implications in evolved in that that I don't think would be good for Wyoming, said one representative named Teeters. So because burning Wyoming coal might have something to do with the climate changing, Wyoming won't be teaching that the climate is changing. It's only the state's rights, I suppose, to define the truth as suits their political interests. As the Casper newspaper reports,
Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy, as the state is the nation's largest energy exporter, and cause other unwanted political ramifications. 
When challenged as to whether setting the science curriculum was an appropriate job for the legislature,
"We set their budget," Teeters said. "We control what they do."
So we are back to the "it's only a theory" nonsense that is still being fought about evolution, after all these years. I said in my talk in Beijing that there could be no American Lysenko, because the separation of academia from government control, and the tradition of open debate, would correct any such tragic nonsense. As one example I cited John Winthrop in 1755 lecturing on earthquakes at Harvard, proposing that they were not the result of divine wrath but of something mechanical happening down inside the earth. As another example I used Harvard sponsoring a conference last year on a "one state" solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, over the objections of Senator Scott Brown, who wanted the conference cancelled as "dangerous thinking." Dangerous thinking, I explained, was exactly what society needs universities for.

Was Massachusetts, even in the 18th century, better than Wyoming and South Carolina are today?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Good Guess About Recording Phone Calls

About nine months ago, at the time of the initial Snowden revelations, I took out my trusty #2 pencil and did a quick and dirty calculation of how much it would cost to record every phone conversation made in America. Here is what I wrote in a blog post:
With so much about the surveillance system still undisclosed, I wonder if the following could be true. … it would be very cheap to record and store all US telephone calls. Audio is highly compressible; a back of the envelope calculation suggests the government could store a whole year's telephone calls -- all of them -- for a small number of millions of dollars, given the low cost of massive storage units. What is preventing the government from doing that is, presumably, wiretap law. Could the calls be lawfully be recorded by the government, but listened to only after issuance of an appropriate court order? Could the recordings be made by the telcos and held in dead storage, but turned over to the government in response to a narrow and specific court order?
 If you are surprised to think it would be technically and economically feasible to record everything, every word of every call for an entire year, just think of how many hours of audio you can carry around on your iPod. And storage technology keeps getting denser while the number of minutes of phone calls is probably going up very slowly if at all.

Well, it turns out, courtesy of more Snowden documents, that the NSA is doing exactly what I speculated, though not, as far as we know, for calls within the US. Some lucky country--the Washington Post is cooperating with the US government by not telling us which one--is having every single telephone call captured, not the "metadata" but the actual audio, every minute of it. The recordings are stored for later review, which requires no judicial authority. That means if you are an American and you call granny in the lucky country, the NSA has the call on record and needs no authorization to listen to what you two were chatting about. (Added 3/24: Calls involving US citizens are subject to separate protections.)

The NSA's comment is predictable: We wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't lawful and important. Problem is, the NSA doesn't have to do the risk-reward calculation. Based on the ever-shrinking number of terrorism plots said to have been prevented by the bulk metadata collection program, there is good reason to be skeptical about claims that the rewards are substantial. And what are the costs when something like this comes to light? Already the EU, furious about US surveillance of Europeans, has voted to suspend the "Safe Harbor" provisions of European privacy laws -- essentially a loophole that allowed US companies greater flexibility in the way they protect the privacy of data than European companies enjoy. What will be the cost, in cold hard dollars, if American companies lose European business over this, or are forced to spend what it takes to come into compliance with European standards?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Beijing, and South Carolina

I write from Hong Kong, where I arrived last night (well, this morning to you at the antipodes) from Beijing. I gave two talks at the Beijing Institute of Technology, an enormous engineering school that has ambitions to be a top university in the liberal arts as well. I was surprised when I received the kind invitation from Professor Pang Haishao to learn that "Liberal arts" was even a concept on the mainland. In fact Professor Pang heads an institute for liberal education that unites the interests of faculty at several universities. I am grateful to the Institute for inviting me to speak and am honored to have had the opportunity to meet the Chairman of the Council, Guo Dacheng, and several other senior officials of BIT.

Some of the challenges to liberal education in China are the expected ones and would be familiar to any American academic who has participated in a general education program that cuts across all disciplines. For example there is the competition for curricular time with specialized subjects; students demand to know "what will learning this get me?" I admire Prof. Pang and her colleagues who are pressing the case that liberal education is good for the soul, and actually makes for a more creative educated class.

In my talk I hit hard on the key phrase in Harvard's Gen Ed masthead, of education conducted "in a spirit of free inquiry." I pressed the need for universities to be the places in society where everything can be questioned, where nothing is ever finally settled. I noted the dichotomy in Harvard's statement about the goals of general education, between cultivating traditions and preparing students for a changing world. And I stressed the importance of universities as the places where ethical leaders are educated.

The money quote I used to explain General Education came from an unexpected direction. When some Harvard Hollywood types were up for prizes recently, the Globe ran a story with this piece of wisdom from a colleague in the department of Visual and Environmental Studies:
Alfred Guzzetti, a filmmaker and VES professor, describes that philosophy in straightforward terms. 
“If you want professional training, do it after college,” said Guzzetti. “In college, try to learn about the world.” 
The reaction was very positive, and I got some touching notes from young faculty, some referring to specifically to the Guzzetti quote. I signed about ten copies of Excellence Without a Soul, and that astonished me. These were copies of the second Chinese printing, which I had not seen -- it has a different and cheerier cover than the first. One person told me she had tried to get a copy of the English language original but it was confiscated at customs! I have a vision of a naughty customs official reading it by flashlight in some secluded hideaway.

As I talked to more people about the book, I began to understand that its appeal was only partly due to whatever meager eloquence I might have brought to the argument for liberal education. Professors liked it just as much for what it said about the possibility in America, and in an American university in particular, of defying authority and getting away with it.

So I am glad I hit the issue of free speech very hard, and the inextricable intertwining of academic freedom and freedom of speech. In one slide I posted ex-NYU-President Sexton's avowal that you could have academic freedom without full free speech rights, and said I doubted that was true, so ventures like NYU-Shanghai and Yale-NUS were inauthentic lookalikes of liberal institutions. I observed that America had never had a Lysenko, and that the courts were backing the rights of climate scientists and evolutionary scientists against the appalling political interference to which they were sometimes subjected.

I stumbled in at least one place, where I wish I had explained myself better. I talked about universities having a role in promoting civic engagement, which is the fourth of the listed purposes of Harvard's Gen Ed program. One questioner asked point blank whether that meant that Gen Ed was a vehicle for promoting political correctness. I realized only afterwards where that question was coming from -- the difference between propaganda and promotion of civic virtue is far from obvious when "harmony" is a matter of law. I had already spent some time on the First Amendment and the fact that mistrust of government is itself a fundamental civic ideal in the U.S. The audience seemed to particularly enjoy my images of political cartoons of American presidents, from Jefferson as a cock to his hen Sally Hemmings, to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama as monkeys.

So overall it was an inspiring visit, not only for what it taught me about the aspirations of Chinese academics but for what it reminded me about how lucky I am to be a professor where I am, in a country that puts academic speech out of range of government censors and propagandists.

Then I woke up in Hong Kong and read about the government of South Carolina.
This month the House moved to strip the College of Charleston of $52,000 in the state budget and the University of South Carolina-Upstate of about $17,000, citing concerns that the reading assignments were out of line with taxpayers’ values. 
So there we are. The legislature thinks it is just promoting civic virtue by punishing a university for assigning a couple of books that talk about gay issues. Maybe we don't have so much to be proud of after all, if legislators are so easily confused about the meaning of speech, debate, discussion, and argument. It's like we were back in the McCarthy era, when academics and schoolteachers got punished for having students read The Communist Manifesto.

A word to American academics of all disciplines: There is no possibility that we could talk too much about the importance of free speech. Lose that and we lose everything. Defend that and we give hope to the world.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

All Hail Coach Kathy

The Harvard basketball news has been dominated by the men's team winning the Ivy League outright by beating Yale Friday night, in New Haven. The Ivy season is a double round robin tournament, with every team playing every other, once at home and once away. All the games are on Fridays and Saturday, no mid-week travel during term time. There is no postseason tournament to get into the NCAA March Madness, and that is why Harvard was the first team into the brackets.

Harvard's team is pretty unusual by national standards. I was swapping sports talk with a friend at a big state university and mentioned that one of my CS students, Laurent Rivard, was on the starting five -- and another, Steve Mondou-Missi, is an Applied Math major. He thought I was making it up.

Harvard's success under the estimable Coach Amaker has gotten a lot of attention, but I am glad that our women's coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith, has gotten due recognition. The Globe had a lovely tribute last week in anticipation of her 515th win, which would make her the winningest coach in Ivy League history. That victory came Friday night, as the women's team was beating Yale at Harvard at the same time as the men's team was clinching the Ivy championship in New Haven.

Coach Delaney-Smith is a complete anomaly in today's collegiate sports world. She has coached at Harvard for 32 seasons, and never coached at any other college. Harvard hired her from a local high school, where she had picked up basketball coaching as an add-on to what started out as a job coaching the swim team. She hadn't even played the five-on-five game herself. When she came to Harvard she stepped into the shoes of no giant, inherited no grand recruiting tradition. She achieved her successes by hard work, study, and personal magnetism.

Coach Delaney-Smith must have had a million opportunities to jump to other schools. Her teams have won 11 Ivy championships. One of the most exciting moments of my years as dean came in 1998, when she took one of those championship teams to the NCAA tournament and, seeded 16 in their bracket, knocked off #1 Stanford. Only time it's ever happened in either the men's or women's game.

What makes the Globe profile so good is that it emphasizes Delaney-Smith's relation to her players, and how those relations persist. I've heard it from her alums, and she describes it exactly the same way they do.
“I love Ivy League titles,” she said. “I love the banners in my gym, and I’m very proud of them. But more important than that for me is my athletes, my alumni, their experience. I’m really in it for my student-athletes, not for my records. I want them to grow, I want them to be rewarded. 
“I love when my alumni come back and talk about and share their experiences with each other and with me about how important being part of the Harvard basketball program was to them and their lives.”
Yup. That is the person I know. I wish we saw that spirit in the faculty more often than I do. I've always found it telling that the advertisements for coaches' jobs at Harvard talks about those values, of the importance of mentoring and developing the character of students during their formative years. I've been on search committees for coaches, and there is as much talk about character as there is about Xs and Os.

No ad I've seen for a faculty position mentions the developmental role of the professor. No faculty hiring committee would discuss such things, at least not for long. Nor does the incentive and reward system for faculty take much account of whether a professor has such relationships with students. The students who have anyone like Delaney-Smith in their Harvard lives are very, very fortunate.

Congratulations, Coach. Way to go. You are the best.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ukrainian Family Portrait

The baby is my grandmother, Rose Grogoza. The location is Volodymyrets', in northern Ukraine. The year is probably 1886.

I don't know, but based on this portrait, I'd guess I have some second or third cousins in Ukraine right now. Hope they are OK.

The Barron Committee Does Its Job

After it came to light last year that the email of several of Harvard's resident deans had been read in an overreaction to something printed in the Crimson, the president appointed a committee to recommend policies on the privacy of electronic communications. That committee has now issued a fine report. It doesn't cover every base--it doesn't explain the status of searches of email addresses for alumni, for example. (Those are not actual email accounts, just proxies for the alums' own off-campus email addresses. I don't know that anything sent to post.harvard addresses is stored at all, but in principle Harvard could access messages on the fly.) But it gets all the big ideas right, at least approximately.

I won't repeat what I blogged last year (starting just a year ago, on March 9, see also this and this). The Barron Committee recommendations include a number of elements of the FAS Faculty email policy which, depending on your point of view, either existed or never did. In particular, the notice requirement, which was in the FAS policy, is in the new policy, with only a little wiggle room. The would-be FAS policy language:
 in extraordinary circumstances such as legal proceedings and internal Harvard investigations, faculty records may be accessed and copied by the administration.  Such review requires the approval of the Dean of the FAS and the Office of the General Counsel. The faculty member is entitled to prior written notice that his or her records will be reviewed, unless circumstances make prior notification impossible, in which case the faculty member will be notified at the earliest possible opportunity.
(Authorization at the level of the dean of the faculty and the general counsel are also part of the proposal.) The Barron Committee language:

When the University intends to access user electronic information, notice ordinarily should be given to that user. All reasonable efforts should be made to give notice at the time of access or as soon thereafter as reasonably possible. 
I consider this provision extremely important, as it provides the best gating mechanism. If you are going to have to explain yourself to the party being searched, you are probably going to use a pretty high standard before doing the search. The language is not unequivocal, but I am willing to grant that there may be edge cases I haven't thought of (aside from the obvious ones, separately treated in the committee report, of searches required by government agencies which prohibit notice to the individual being searched). The creation of an oversight body will also suppress the instinct to peek; another good proposal from the committee.

In the Globe story that broke the news of the search, I observed, "Why not tell them what was being done if it was really an OK thing to do?" I drew some flak for that comment, which was my completely spontaneous and unfiltered reaction when the reporter told me what had happened. It always just seemed to me common courtesy, whatever the policy, and I am glad that what should all along have been good manners will likely become an official rule.