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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Houghton Library, coddled campuses, labor law

May-June 2017

Justice Breyer

A comment from an uninformed foreigner. It seems to me that the U.S. Supreme Court is the very insurance that the government reflects what people want, to some extent anyway, that many foreigners look on with envy (“A Workable Democracy,” by Lincoln Caplan, March-April, page 48). In the U.K., decisions of the courts are subject to government modification. I wish that they were not. 

Hugh Quick, M.B.A. ’56
Ilminster, Somerset, England

 

I was delighted to read the comprehensive and thoughtful article discussing Justice Stephen Breyer, my much beloved former boss. I enjoyed the article tremendously, but also noted a small error. On page 51, the article refers to one of the Justice’s earlier academic works. The proper title for the book is Breaking the Vicious Circle, not Breaking the Vicious Cycle.

Aileen McGrath, J.D. ’07
Law clerk to Justice Breyer, October term 2008
San Francisco

Editor’s note: We are grateful for the correction, and in awe of McGrath’s sharp eye.

 

Speak Up, Please

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by e-mail to yourturn@harvard.edu.

 

When I taught political science at UC Berkeley, I told my students that they did not really favor free speech and thought. Since the 1960s, the students were for mostly leftist views. In the 1950s, the closed-minded students of America were for more rightist views. 

But whether the national pendulum is at the right or at the left, they all have in common that they are against truly free speech. Speech that they greatly disagree with is labeled as fascist, or communist, or racist, or sexist, or some other smear word. Rarely do they want to allow it.

The same is true of any “democracy.” Even true democracies are intolerant. They only grudgingly allow others to speak, if they cannot discourage it, or ban it, or intimidate it, or call it names like “rude” or “disruptive” or “nasty” or “uncalled for.”

The people in power try to do the same thing. They do not want to lose their power, and they do not want to answer criticism of their power. If people in power are able to censor, they will try to censor. If the people out of power strongly object to being censored, the people in power might back off, especially in America—a nation that has a tradition that encourages free speech and condemns censorship.

Sometimes organizations, like homeowners associations, forget that free speech is the rule in America, not the exception—not a gift that citizens should be grateful for, but a right that they should fiercely defend.

Dr. Edward Vogt, J.D. ’68
Walnut Creek, Calif.

 

A Scholarly Temple

As a graduate student in history, I quickly came to regard Harvard’s Houghton Library as a scholarly temple whose treasures surprised and enthralled (“An ‘Enchanted Palace,’” March-April, page 36). My favorite of its holdings, a journal kept by Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller during the republican revolt in Rome in 1849, had been recovered from Fuller’s fatal shipwreck off Long Island after she sailed home to America. The pages musty, the ink still blurry, its scribblings fiery in defense of Italian freedom, it managed—through a magical mix of the sensory and the intellectual—to bridge the gulf of time. I recall Fuller’s loud pleas amidst Houghton’s anachronistic hush, as she daily recounted the progress of a Roman representative assembly and finally the French invasion that restored papal rule. Here, in this “enchanted palace,” past and present melted into one, ink and blood and water blended on the page, and the short-lived European strivings of 1848 yet survive.

To this day, in life’s daily din, I close my eyes and imagine the big tables with the archival boxes, snow serenely falling in the Yard, Charles Sumner’s oil portrait gazing down upon us—and the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini entering Rome in triumph.

Yonatan Eyal, Ph.D. ’05
Cincinnati

 

In Praise of Quiet

Lydialyle Gibson’s excellent profile of Susan Cain and her associates highlights a very disturbing cultural trend, and it isn’t only introverts who are affected (“Quiet, Please,” March-April, page 31). The whole of our lives have become noisy lives. Our electronic devices and instant access through so-called “social media” have shrunk our attention spans to a dangerous degree. Likewise, the demand that we respond to every stimulus, social, political, and personal, threatens to turn us into mere reacting organisms. The egoistic instinctive reactions of tweets and selfies hang in the atmosphere like a toxic miasma of inane blabberings.

How to return to the virtues of silence? How to make room for reflection, contemplation, and the digestion of our experiences? The relentless exteriority of our lives is a very real threat to our humanity and to the cultivation of sensitivity and feeling which alone can form the platform from which real help can come to a suffering world.

To quote Lao Tzu, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” For as the Master of Tao knew, “Silence is a source of great strength.”

Jeffrey Antman, M.T.S. ’79
Lebanon, N.J.

 

“Quiet, Please” brings articulate comfort to the culturally beleaguered introvert; yet, a Janus face appears. Does offering enlightened perspective mitigate the pejorative, self-centered? Or like actors, whose outer performance emanates from a profound inner space, are extroverts but “quiet” players on life’s stage?

Stephen J. Fischer, M.A.T. ’56, Ed.D.’66
Miami

 

It was a pleasure to hear that introverts are having their day. Ironically, the contrasting of introversion and extroversion can be found in a similar debate of a little over a century ago. Harvard graduate and philosopher William James’s lectures on Pragmatism identified then two distinct personality types:  the tough-minded and the tender-hearted.  The dichotomous relationship between the two was observed in this way:

The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and soft-heads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal. Their mutual reaction is very much like that that takes place when Bostonian tourists mingle with a population like that of Cripple Creek. Each type believes the other to be inferior to itself; but disdain in the one case is mingled with amusement, in the other it has a dash of fear.

One might argue that in the past 100 years, Western culture has managed to become more broad-minded. But interestingly enough, James came to the same conclusion as Susan Cain, that what is needed is a sense of balance between the two, in order for useful endeavors to proceed. Clearly, this remains our challenge as humanity evolves.

Jeremy Black ’84
Centerport,  N.Y.

 

Ants and bees work cooperatively and communally. Human beings are higher animals for whom togetherness engenders social communion. We just cannot help ourselves. The boundaries between work focus and friendly banter is frequently transgressed. Although Google encourages cross-pollination in shared workspaces that facilitate groupthink and brainstorming, the achieved effect is often tight acoustic reverberation that militates against quiet thinking and thoughfulness. The out and proud dissemination of juicy gossip and one’s latest romantic entanglement appears to be a freedom too often indulged by effusive talk-casters one in trapped within earshot of. Like a caged animal, I am subjected to the noise annoyance and repeated disruptions to work focus from my fellow workers’ conversations and phone calls.

With limitless appetite for self-referencing talk and need for constant attention, contemporary worklife nowadays is about the explication of what “I” did, feel, plan, feel good or sad about. At a social function, I would perhaps even welcome animated extroversion from a significant other, family or close friend, offer a shoulder to cry on or share the happiness of others. But not at work—I am being paid to be usefully productive.

There is no escape from our rampant ear-splitting culture of personality. Aside from impaired work performance and intensified cognitive demands to filter out loud, persistent, and often startlingly unpredictable distractions, unwanted indoor noise is associated with adverse health outcomes, reduced self-rated health and job satisfaction. Far from enhancing work collaboration, a large amount of office banter occurs within social cliques in implied zones of exclusion and have nothing to do with work. Headphones and other strategies like retreating to quiet zones are viewed as unsociable by free-range talkers. The greater worry is that the higher mortality risk observed in residents living close to busy highways or underneath noisy flight paths could apply to long-term exposure to noisy workplaces.

We need to set some ground rules so that those of us who live by the increasingly rare principle of maintaining a dignified silence are not pursued and berated into extinction. Non-work related conversation, whether in person or on the phone, is to be conducted outside the sacrosanct confines of the open-plan office, out of hearing range of those they do not concern. If no alternative venue is available, try to keep the voice volume and dramatisation to a non-operatic level. Remind yourself that over-the-top talking mercilessly permeates an enclosed space and holds those in your proximity captive without necessarily captivating them. Quiet everyone, I can’t hear myself think!

Joseph Ting
Adjunct associate professor, School of Public Health and Social Work
Queensland University of Technology
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

 

Coddled Campuses

At least I got a nice chuckle out of “A Coddled Campus?” (The Undergraduate, by Matthew Browne, March-April, page 22). The author describes the “funereal spirit” at Harvard following Trump’s election; how “people cried, phoned loved ones, hugged, slumped…;” and how the entire town had “the glaze of something sinister.” When asked by friends and family if there was anybody at Harvard who supported Trump, the author admits he knows of no one who did, and that “it strikes me there was genuinely almost zero support for his campaign on campus.”

I was delighted to learn that Harvard students aren’t coddled and that the College is doing an incredible job admitting a diverse student body. I was inspired to send a crate of Kleenex in response to the next solicitation from Harvard. I’m certain there must have been progress since my day. But when I was at Harvard, students weren’t shy about proclaiming every view from the extreme right wing to communism. We had lively dinner table debates, yet remained friends. Somehow, I think that was a better atmosphere for intellectual freedom and learning.

Sam Levin ’80, J.D. ’83
New York City

 

Matthew Browne notes that he hasn’t “had a substantive conversation with a fellow undergraduate who vocally identifies as a Trump supporter.” Then he avers that the “Clintonite consensus and shock of the electoral result weren’t a product of an echo chamber wherein no alternative viewpoints are discussed.” Indeed. Is critical thinking no longer taught at Harvard? Perhaps it’s merely been buried under a pile of snowflakes.

Mike Szymonifka ’80
Clark, N.J.

 

A jewel rewards the reader near the end of Matthew Browne’s thoughtful, informative, courageous, and well-written column.

Still, I fear he misuses “coddling.” Echo chamber, which Browne uses correctly, can exist among adult equals. When John Stuart Mill in On Liberty said “truth is burnished by its collision with error,” he was rejecting the conformism of an echo chamber, not assailing nurturing in a primary school.

I feel Browne is too hard on students for “making careful decisions that ensure security.” This is prudence, not self-coddling. But he may be too soft on faculty and administrators (he barely mentions either), who are the real problem. The echo chamber is real on the faculty, at Kirkland House, and to a degree at the Fairbank Center (three places I happen to know from inside), and the worst part is that its existence is unrecognized.

Example: After George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, the Fairbank Center held a panel, “Bush’s foreign policy in Asia in his second term.” The five panelists were all liberal Democrats. No Republicans were asked. (I noticed the omission as I was advising Vice President Cheney on China at this time.) Leaving aside unfairness, it was pedagogically flawed to exclude anyone from Bush circles, who just might have a clue to plans for the second term not known to Sinologists of the opposing party.

This is so normal that a similar example—shocking to Mill’s insistence that truth can only be burnished by brushing error—came upon Trump’s election, when the Asia Center and the Fairbank Center mounted a panel “Trump and Asia.” No one from Trump’s appointees or circle was on the panel.

Browne says he feels no “gag order” to conform. You don’t need a gag order to keep Harvard leftist. We few conservatives are constrained to a self-generated gag order by manners and experience. 

I’m sorry to tell Browne that angry people waving banners may be coddled as well as living in an echo chamber. And the professor who “criticizes the world deliberately and forcefully” is not necessarily burnishing truth by rubbing it alongside (what he considers) error.

Anyway, Browne is an icon of true liberalism compared with many of his “superiors.”

Ross Terrill, Ph.D. ’70
Boston

 

Matthew Browne reports that students at Harvard are not so coddled that they needed to be treated gently after Trump’s election. He reports that classes went on as usual. But he also acknowledges that all students, without any exception known to him, (1) voted against Trump, and (2) were horrified by his election. He further suggests that students are indeed coddled, but only in their being trained not to take chances, so that they are not “fit to do something about our shock and outrage.” They do talk about Trump in an effort to “understand the factors behind Trump’s supporters and where his supporters are coming from.” But nobody apparently speaks up and says, maybe Trump will be good for the country.

I suggest that students are indeed “coddled,” in the sense that the student body has a uniform political point of view, so nobody has to actually debate with those having different ideas. The Ivory Tower has never seemed so remote from the everyday world of people running businesses and working for a living. The anti-Trump conformity among Harvard students of today is certainly a disappointment to this old grad.

Edward F. Martin ’64
New Orleans 

 

Matthew Browne references an article about a Yale professor’s canceling classes after the election. Brown refers to the article’s source as “some alt-right publication.” The publication is actually the libertarian-leaning Heat Street, which if anything is anti-alt-right. It is owned by News Corp and, at the time of the article’s publication, was led by Louise Mensch, who has been very critical of Donald Trump and even suggested an advertisement to the Clinton campaign to run against Trump.

The term “Alt-Right” connotes a nationalistic and xenophobic outlook, most closely associated with White House adviser Stephen Bannon. Browne’s careless use of the term reflects a poor understanding of American conservatism (understandable given what he acknowledges is a very politically skewed environment on campus) or, worse, a deliberate attempt to smear mainstream conservative journalism by conflating it with the Alt-Right.

Please see this article from Politico providing more information on Heat Street.

Mark Sneider ’93, M.B.A. ’99
St. Louis

 

Bad Beef

Many, many thanks for publishing the article on Gidon Eshel and his superb advocacy (“Eating for the Environment,” March-April, page 11): “lose the beef” indeed. I would add only that dairy products are as bad or worse than beef from an environmental, nutritional, and ethical standpoint, and for all the same reasons. Concerned about calcium? Fear not: Harvard’s own Walter Willett and School of Public Health call federal dairy recommendations “egregious” and make clear we will get even better forms of calcium (and protein) directly from plant sources (where cows get their own nutrients, after all). 

For those unsure how to transition to a plant-based life, free resource guides include the kickstart program offered on the first of every month by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, guidance from the hit movie Forks Over Knives, or Lani Muelrath’s The Plant-Based Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide.

Ellen Kennelly ’85, M.Div. ’90
Bellingham, Wash.

 

Of course, I am impressed with the gains the world could make by decreasing the growing of beef for our diets.

Related to this, I was interested to read in Hugh Ross’s article about global warming [online (http://www.reasons.org/articles/climategate-less-heat-more-light-needed) at Reasons to Believe] that using ostriches to provide meat to our diets would have great benefit in reducing methane production. Plus it would not enforce vegan diets.

 I do not understand the “Climate Change Advocates’ ” insistence on reducing CO2 production by decreasing the ignition of carbon-based fuels when there are many more effective ways to get better results.

Bill Benz ’64
Myerstown, Pa.

 

As a vice president at PETA, I was interested in Gidon Eshel’s research proving, once again, that animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and other environmental problems. Going vegan is the answer, as all animals suffer when raised and killed for food, and it takes far fewer resources—and generates far fewer greenhouses gases—to produce plant-based foods than animal-based ones.

But laboratory-grown meat is becoming a promising option for people who consume animal flesh.

Three global manufacturers are investing in plant-based steak that’s produced using shear-cell technology, and a Bay Area startup recently unveiled the world’s first chicken strip that was cultivated in a laboratory. Laboratory-grown meat will not only spare the massive suffering of billions of animals each year, but researchers say that it will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 96 percent and require only 1 percent of the land and 4 percent of the water that conventional meat uses. In vitro meat may very well be the future of food.

In the meantime, everyone can enjoy the tasty, healthful, and environmentally friendly vegan foods available in grocery stores and restaurants today.

Jessica T. Sandler ’78
Norfolk, Va.

 

It was bad enough when the environmental movement was displaced by the sustainability movement with its strong stake in “sustainable development,” rather than the restoration of the earth’s degraded ecosystems…but to read this horrific proposal to further contort the planet’s natural-resource base just to appease what is really nothing more than a fad—this irrational opposition to the of consumption meat, which has no basis in any of the sciences…is simply astonishing…

First off…few human activities are as ecologically disruptive as agriculture, a fact that Shaw himself touches upon, though he minimizes its significance. Crop-agriculture clearly provided more food than its predecessor (gathering)…but its impact on the environment was devastating—beginning with the extermination of virtually every herbivoral predator…from microorganism to mammal…

Second…few human activities have proven as successful, in terms of producing foodstuffs with no environment degradation, as ranching… that is, the substitution of domesticated stock for wildlife. Domesticated-stock ranching has been practiced sustainably wherever the land allows for it…wherever humans exist…throughout history…for millennia …

Third…according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, only 10.8 percent of the world’s land-mass is suitable for agriculture—primarily where there is a consistent, reliable, supply of water. But even there, agriculture is inherently destructive (see above)…

Fourth…26.6 percent of the world’s land-mass is pastureland—the grasslands, prairies, and savannahs of the world, the natural habitat of the world’s once great migrating herds. Is it possible to grow crops on pastureland as Shaw suggests? Absolutely!…but the environmental impact is devastating…beginning with the depletion of groundwater (see Ogallala Aquifer)…massive loss of biodiversity…loss of ecosystem services…extinctions…and so on…

Fifth…although veganism, as a proposed solution to global climate change, might resonate with a small segment of the urban population…it is regarded as pure nonsense by almost everyone outside the confines of the city. The vegan “solution” (sic) is more than unlikely…it is a pipe-dream. Only one-half of 1 percent of Americans are vegans…(maybe 5 percnt vegetarians)…but the rest of us eat meat…

Sixth…there is a much better solution which, though it might sound insane to Shaw…and most readers of this publication…would probably resonate fairly well with the 95 percent of Americans who eat meat…and it addresses that “whole cascade of important choices” noted by Shaw…

The Solution

The once-great migrating herds of bison, reduced to less than a thousand in the late nineteenth century, have recovered nicely, with the current population in the range of 400,000 animals—90 percent of which are on private land. There are now some 4,000 bison ranches in North America, and bison ranching, being a commercial enterprise, depends upon the sale of bison products. So the first step is to support the bison-ranching community by buying and eating bison meat, now available at virtually every supermarket in the country…(and much healthier than beef). And as demand grows, so does supply…not only of bison, but of bison habitat…that same land that Shaw wants to destroy by converting it to agriculture.

But the second step is even more important. Get out there and shoot a bison.

Almost 14 million Americans hunted last year, a number which doesn’t include those who hunt from time to time, but didn’t hunt last year…nor does it include those who might like to hunt, but don’t know where or how to begin…(like myself at one time)…

 …and about 80 percent of Americans approve of hunting…even if they don’t hunt themselves.

So get out there and shoot a bison. It’s not that hard. And if every meat-eating American hunted one bison over the course of his or her lifetime, the Great Plains could be restored to pristine wilderness in less than a century, the bison herd restored to its original population of 40 million animals…and a major step in restoring the earth’s degraded ecosystems would be accomplished…

…and that’s a step in the right direction.

Steve Gluck, A.L.B. ’14
Salem, Conn.

 

Henry Knowles Beecher

I didn’t know much about Henry Knowles Beecher before I read Jack El-Hai’s Vita (March-April, page 42), but then I only met and chatted with Dr. Beecher for about an hour, in the fall of 1954.

He was in the news for his study of how opioids worked to kill pain—science, not anecdotes. I needed a third-year-paper topic, was interested in law and medicine, and my best friend’s father, who’d suffered a heart attack that summer, had changed his will in the hospital under the influence of opioids.

Expecting nothing, I phoned Beecher, got an appointment, and found him very interested in my topic: medication as a threat to testamentary capacity in will contests and in advising medicated clients. The paper was published in 1957. I went on to teach and write on law and medicine, and grew up with the institutional review board movement.

I learned from Beecher what it was to be received and inspired by an ethical medical investigator.

David J. Sharpe, LL.B.’55, S.J.D. ’69
Hudson, N.Y.

 

Jack El-Hai’s Vita reminded me of the time I visited Dr. Beecher at his invitation during a trip to Washington. Lunching on club sandwiches and whiskey, he quizzed me at length about my participation as a subject-investigator in U.S. Navy diving experiments. He wondered whether my participation involved some thinly veiled self-destructive wish. It seemed he was unaware of the tradition of Scottish physiologist J.S. Haldane, “himself such a coalmine canary,” whose contributions involved the study of humans including himself in extreme environments. In our case, the studies conformed to the ethical bounds of informed consent on the part of us Navy divers, none of whom had any death wishes but were vulnerable to the lure of adventure. Only from recently unclassified disclosures did we learn that—like Beecher—our work had been supported by the CIA. It enabled divers to do the heavy lifting needed to conduct surveillance of the USSR’s naval undersea cable communications. The Bell Labs listening device is now in a Russian museum.

Lawrence W. Raymond, S.M ’57, M.D.
Captain, U.S. Navy Medical Corps (Ret.)
Charlotte, N.C. 

 

Labor Law

In America, we have three categories of workers: hourly, salary, and independent contractor. Hourly employees have the least risk, independent contractors the most. Nonetheless, the riskier categories provide the most freedom, and potentially the most reward.

In a free society, you would think workers and employers could choose their own pay arrangements. But no—our Department of Labor insists workers be paid hourly, the lowest-risk and lowest-reward category, unless they meet an exception. Working on salary, or working as an independent contractor in the “gig economy,” is forbidden unless you qualify through multi-factorial tests. Choose the wrong category, and the employer faces penalties far exceeding any “damage” to the worker.

Labor Litigator” (by Marina Bolotnikova, March-April, page 64) introduces attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan as she prosecutes a “wage-theft” case. Her clients were working on salary but now claim they should have been paid hourly. Liss-Riordan states, “You’re a company that brought in $600 million in revenue last year. You can afford to hire a lawyer to explain these things to you.”

The whole system, which she works to great advantage, is wrong-headed. If employees voluntarily work on salary, there is no “wage theft” involved. Indeed, where a company hums along for years paying assistant managers an agreed salary, it is theft for the government to enable collection of devastating penalties after the fact. And why are labor laws so complicated you can’t understand them without an attorney? For years I have advised on the tests for overtime eligibility, which are anything but “straightforward.”

In the interests of balanced dialogue, surely the author could have found someone to provide the counter-argument?

Laura Fleming ’93, J.D. ’97
Dubach, La.

 

Workers and Wages

I am disappointed that the “Workers and Wages” article in the January-February issue (John Harvard’s Journal) was not a more prominent story. While I found the article itself to be well-written, I felt “the first strike at Harvard since 1983” deserved to be flagged for the reader’s attention. No reference to the article was on the cover. On the table of contents, the only mention was “more challenging labor relations,” easily lost amidst a list of 13 items under John Harvard’s Journal. I only came across the article because I flipped through the entire magazine, page by page.

According to the Harvard Magazine website, the magazine is “written, edited, and produced…with readers’ interests foremost in mind” and is “not published with the aim of promoting financial donations to the University.” Yet the placement of the article seems to contradict this statement.

As a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, I was aware of the strike from my relationships with current students and from social media posts. Harvard Magazine’s coverage of the strike did not effectively inform Harvard alumni of this historic labor action.

Todd Pierce-Ryan, J.D. ‘15
Chicago

Editor’s note: The article, a summary, reflected the space constraints of our bimonthly print issue. Because it was drawn from multiple in-depth, prominent website stories on these labor events as they took place, links to those online posts were included in the print account to aid readers interested in learning more.

 

McNamara at Harvard

I negligently missed the McNamara 1966 visit, automobile-treeing, letters (“Divisions, and Dylan,” November-December 2016, page 80; “McNamara at Harvard,” January-February, page 6; “Entrances and Exits,” March-April, page 68)—but have a small footnote of possible mild interest.

Covering the event as the Time Harvard stringer, I somewhat intrepidly ended up on the car roof right next to him. Desperately trying to think of a question to ask him, I came up with “Will you return?”

He answered “Yes,” then was promptly rescued and whisked off per Steve Young’s account.

Doug Matthews ‘66, J.D. ’73
Westport, Mass.

 

Earth’s Largest Flower

As an amateur botanist, I enjoyed reading the article on the huge parasitic flower, Rafflesia arnoldii (“Colossal Blossom,” March-April, page 44). Thank you.


William Babson Jr., M.D. ’65
 Sinclair, Me.

 

Living Off Campus

Thank you, Lily Scherlis ’18 (“Mise en Scène,” The Undergraduate, January-February, page 31), for your 40-years-later affirming note on undergrad off-campus living. Half term January 1978, mid-junior year, taking that step that I knew was so right for me yet so foreign to most in the Harvard community. Even today, Dudley’s home page talks about “Dudley’s aggressive outreach” “and its determination to see that undergraduates use the opportunities at Harvard fully and contentedly” as if acknowledging a Harvard undergrad’s dorm life’s inability to prepare one to live in the real world.

I may be one of a very few College alums to claim three Houses in my undergraduate career [during the multi-year transition from all-male to coed freshman dorms in the Yard, some first-year women were housed there and some first-year men at the Radcliffe Quad]: South House, and Mather, but proud to march with Dudley for my diploma.

Dan Raker ’79
Sarasota

 

Mark Zuckerberg

Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else as ironic and a tad hypocritical that Harvard would ask Mark Zuckerberg to speak at this year’s Commencement?

Especially ironic is that, during a year in which the men’s soccer season was suspended due to a tendency to discuss members of the opposite sex’s physical and other attributes online, Mr. Zuckerberg would be invited. If memory serves, wasn’t the initial concept behind Facebook, while Mark was still at Harvard, to rate female students—the Harvard version of the “Am I Hot or Not?” website?

I understand that Harvard would dearly like Mr. Zuckerberg to make multiple and especially generous gifts to the school, and that it uses the Commencement address to help facilitate that goal (just look at who recent Commencement speakers have been—e.g., Oprah, M. Bloomberg), and, therefore, might close its eyes and hold its nose in the face of such obvious hypocrisy. But it doesn’t make it any easier to swallow the hypocrisy part.

Personally, I do not have anything against Mr. Zuckerberg, nor his speaking at Commencement, which I would like to believe is a recognition by Harvard of him not only having grown much wealthier since dropping out, but also having grown up since his Harvard days. However, in this era of hypercritical perception sensitivity, his speaking doesn’t look too good, nor very enlightened. Perception aside, I, like Harvard, also hope that he supports the institution financially to the full extent of his ability.

I do not condone sexual harassment or bullying. I do condone good-natured banter and friendly teasing. I do not condone discrimination. I do condone the right of one gender to associate with other members of that gender in organizations of their creation and/or choosing (the only caveat being that they are legal entities to begin with).

It would seem, however, that we may have crossed the line between common sense and biologically and sociologically impossible expectations, otherwise known as reality. Every once in a while men like to associate with men with no women present, as do women with women. It eliminates the tension between the genders and allows each group to relax in a way they cannot when mixed.

The University’s president, and apparently a few other administrators, wish to initiate institutional discrimination against those (men and women) who would choose to belong to certain single-sex organizations (see “Sanctions Scrutinized,” March-April, page 21). And yet they do not address those who would belong to, say, the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, both organizations that have, since their inception, “discriminated” against one gender or the other. Neither was any mention made of the Junior League or the priesthood, also both longtime organizations that “discriminate” against one gender or the other. Would members of those organizations also be banned from leadership positions within the University and support for international scholarships?

Are gays and lesbians discriminatory because they do not date/marry members of the opposite sex? Are there separate organizations of these two groups on campus, and if so, would they be subject to the same rules Faust is proposing?

The final, and most obvious omission is the lack of mention of Harvard’s men’s and women’s sports teams. Should these organizations be forced to accept teammates of the opposite sex, or by virtue of the potential rule, have the members thereof forgo their opportunity to lead their very teams? Against whom would they compete? But now, I fear, we delve into the ludicrous and the absurd. That, though, is what awaits at the end of the slippery slope.

Coincidentally, as I write this on March 8, it is International Women’s Day. Would Harvard believe that this is a recognition of women that should not occur? Does it include men?

Obviously, the issue is not simple. We as humans seem to enjoy adding complexity. Harvard’s approach to it, though, seems overly simplistic and will not accomplish its goals, if those goals are to change the behavior of what is certainly a very small number of social sexual transgressors. Legislation never has. The approach is too fraught with omissions and hypocrisy, not to mention a basic lack of understanding of the behavior among and between the sexes. One would think that with all the smart folks who populate the University, a better, more educated approach could be developed. I also think back to Harvard’s values statement of 2002, which I believe covers the behavior Harvard is really trying to affect.

 An interesting side question to all of this: Should Harvard be liable, criminally or financially, if it admits someone who harasses (or worse) a member of the opposite sex? Shouldn’t Harvard have known, or been able to predict, a student’s behavior after its rigorous admissions process?

Alas and alack, what does “Veritas” stand for today?

David Mitchell ’72
Columbus, Ga.

 

Reform the Corporation

The time to modernize the Harvard Corporation is long overdue.

In spite of President Faust’s recent attempts at reform, the Corporation remains an anachronism, a superannuated relic of the seventeenth century. It has long outlived its original narrow mandate—to insure the triumph of Reformed Calvinism in the College and the Massachusetts Bay Colony—and has since become an impediment to academic progress by jealously guarding its ancient privileges of autonomy and self-regeneration.

As its history tells us, the original reason the Corporation was granted this autonomy was the confidence felt by kindred clergymen in the Massachusetts General Court that the Corporation would execute its duty to the faith, and instill Christian virtue in its wayward young charges while preparing them to become preachers of the Word. In the beginning, the Corporation was the College—its members were Dissenters trained at Cambridge University, like John Harvard—and it had no duty separate from instruction in matters of faith, including branches of learning we now identify as secular, but which at the time were considered merely supplements to mastery of the Bible, and a prelude to learning of a higher order.

Yet after 360 years of intellectual and social change the Corporation still retains the essence of its original narrow charter, as only slightly adjusted over the centuries. It remains effectively unanswerable to the will of Harvard’s alumni, except as the charter is violated, and whatever changes to it the Corporation agrees to make. This does not mean the Corporation is necessarily indifferent to the alumni, only that it is directly accountable only to the Massachusetts legislature which inherited jurisdiction over its original charter, and since the legislature has long since left Harvard to fend for itself, for all intents and purposes there is no external influence over the Corporation, other than whatever outside argument it will consent to hear.

This accounts for the Corporation’s vexing habit of selectively justifying its acts to the Harvard community in patronizing and sometimes disingenuous terms, using its own kind of peculiar logic, with little regard for standards of discourse recognized by the wider Harvard community. Free from the burden of intellectual accountability, or the need to achieve consensus with the rank and file of the alumni, the only effective duty the Corporation continues to recognize is its duty to agree with itself, whatever its protestations to the contrary. And this incestuous self-validation is only amplified by the sense of moral mission retained from the Corporation’s Puritan beginnings, when it was solemnly charged with training the next generation of white male preachers to convey the literal Word of the Bible to the depraved sinners inside the Colony and the godless savages outside the stockade. This was its original intellectual task—so far from our modern conception of higher learning as to be virtually unrecognizable—and a vestige of it persists today, the pea still tucked beneath all those blankets in spite of the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, and the triumph of democratic liberalism over the following 360 years. A living testament to Calvin’s hold on the New World, as well as the religious origins of higher learning in the West, and the tension between faith-driven religion and rational science that has existed since the Middle Ages.

The Corporation is not unique in believing Harvard has a transcendent duty to improve the world, and put its knowledge and skills to ethical ends. This belief that learning must serve a higher purpose than mere acquisition of knowledge is also widely held in academe, and partly on account of Harvard’s historic role in shaping American education, Harvard now shares the podium with many institutions animated by higher purpose much as Calvin defined it. However, the Harvard Corporation’s tendency to self-justification seems uniquely fortified by its Calvinist faith in the inveterate moral rightness of its actions. As trustees of the world’s wealthiest and most prestigious university, no external ethical test need apply, and if in our capacity as moral stewards we seek evidence of God’s approval, we need only look to Harvard’s vast endowment, and its pre-eminent reputation in the world, for proof that God agrees with us.

So today, even after expanding its numbers and modestly diluting its authority, the Corporation is an island of self-sanctifying conservatism whose conclusions are forever reasonable because it recognizes no higher standard than its own, and forever moral because its proclamations are wrapped in its primordial virtue, and point to a higher truth than mere science or logic can obtain. And sooner do we expect a priest to perform his own absolution, than we should expect the Corporation to voluntarily cleanse itself of its seventeenth-century conceits—an act of humility and self-examination beyond its capacity, as its history suggests—and share its powers with the wider community.

So to raise the Corporation’s intellectual bar, and render it accountable to the Alumni in fact as well as rhetoric, and square it with modern science, and make way for progress worthy of the name, it may be necessary to complete the process begun by President Faust—to excise the Corporation’s autonomous powers and reconstitute Harvard’s charter along the lines of Penn, Stanford, and other more progressive schools, with term trustees and more direct accountability to the community. By itself this won’t modernize Harvard—for a patriarchal institution so steeped in predestinarian Calvinism, much more than merely redrafting the charter will be required—but it may be a good first step.

Frank Morgan ’73
Wrightsville, Pa.

 

Clarifications

Information provided by Harvard athletics led to the misidentification of Sofia Carrera-Justiz as Haley Bowe in a caption for the story about water polo coach Ted Minnis (“A Players’ Coach,” March-April, page 26). 

Megan Marshall, author of the Elizabeth Bishop biography reviewed in the March-April issue (page 61), notes that her finished book describes Robert Lowell’s work as “comparatively neglected,” not as “comparatively forgotten,” which was cited from a galley in the review. The young Bishop was dangled over the railing of a second-story porch balcony, Marshall writes in her chapter “Balcony,” not from a second-story window. Marshall herself did not, while a student in Bishop’s class, break Bishop’s rule and submit a poem “that she had previously workshopped in another class,” although Bishop mistakenly believed she had.

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