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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Solicitors General, Facebook, faith

November-December 2018

The Twenty-Ninth President

Your recent story on Harvard’s next president, Lawrence S. Bacow, was excellent (“The Pragmatist,” September-October, page 32). The review of Bacow’s endeavors provides a wonderful vehicle to present and develop a breadth of educational issues that generate a myriad of key questions and approaches. All who read the article on will have their own personal reactions as to which of so many issues most resonate or most demand our attention. 

For me the issue of the costs of education and the burdens of those costs to students and family came to the fore. That burden is not nearly as threatening for Harvard as it is with many other institutions. Harvard’s endowment and its prestige afford a degree of confidence that inadequate funds will certainly not significantly, adversely affect Harvard or its graduate schools, their faculties or, most importantly, their students. Bacow will of course confront financial issues and, most assuredly, will implement steps and policies “that work.”

The question I would raise is Harvard’s role in the broader national effort to make education more affordable, less burdensome, and less subject to the one dimensional cost/benefit analyses that surface so often in our dialogue on education. Harvard and comparable institutions will continue to flourish—but will education flourish? I suggest that as a nation, we do not allow wealth and class distinctions to diminish the importance and availability of education due to excessive costs or financial burdens. While Harvard must always strive to maintain its place as possibly the finest educational institution in the world, it should also work to assure that our nation’s system of higher education does not evolve into one that reflects the “have” and “have not” realities that appear to have taken root, grown and even been encouraged by both policies and practices in the recent past.

Don Bergmann, J.D. ’66 
Westport, Conn.

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 email to [email protected].

 

President Bacow is clearly a person of enormous talent, but he underestimates antisemitism on college campuses. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Anti-Semitic Incidents report, there was an 89 percent increase in antisemitic incidents last year on campuses where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was most active. For all practical purposes, only anti-Israel speakers can speak freely to students. 

The vitriolic rhetoric used by BDS fits the United States State Department’s definition of antisemitism, including denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism to characterize Israel or Israelis, and drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. 

By not confronting the seeds of hatred inherent in the BDS movement, anti-Semitism has become normalized on campuses, leaving no room for the “teachable moment.” For example, at Tufts, the institution which Bacow previously headed, a blatantly dogmatic course, “Colonizing Palestine,” is being offered this fall. It is hard to square this with his avowed desire to help students become more effective citizens “who are both effective advocates—and aggressive listeners.”

Alex Bruner, M.B.A. ’76
Boca Raton

 

The Solicitor General

There is one crucial, and I think overriding aspect of the Solicitor General’s role as counsellor to the Court, that Lincoln Caplan does not mention (“The Political Solicitor General,” September-October, page 47) and that I hope remains entirely uncompromised through the passage of administrations, personnel, and political perspectives: that the work coming out of the SG’s office is scrupulously accurate, displaying fully and candidly all relevant facts, presenting all arguments and fairly noting all precedents and other legal material—whether or not the brief or oral argument embraces, rejects or distinguishes these. It is in this way that the SG most appropriately assists the Court. An SG’s brief should be like the floor in a perfectly run kitchen: whatever the dish, you should be as confident eating from it as from the finest china set on a spotless tablecloth.

Charles Fried
Beneficial professor of law
Cambridge

Thank You

“The Juggler’s Tale” is the last feature by associate editor Sophia Nguyen, who departed in late August for an exciting new position at The Washington Post. She goes with our best wishes, and warm thanks for wonderful service to readers during her four years on Harvard Magazine’s staff.

 

Caplan’s detailed examination of the role of the Solicitor General misses the fundamental point that the Supreme Court itself is responsible for its own politicization. As the Court transformed itself into an engine of the sexual revolution in the contraception and abortion cases, it provoked people of faith to respond. Roe v. Wade, in particular, stimulated Jerry Falwell to abandon the traditional Baptist disinclination for political involvement. The Court’s immoral mandates, raw legislative acts that had no objective basis in the Constitution, prompted the creation of the Moral Majority which in turn propelled Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

The Reagan Revolution was a cry of outrage at the Court’s assault on American democracy and its enforcement of a social revolution that facilitated sex outside of marriage and a holocaust of infant life. Yet Caplan, far from raising an alarm at the Court’s usurpations, instead chides the Reagan administration for attempting to restrain and reverse the Court’s abuses.

The politicization of the Court is a result of the Court’s own improvident power-grabbing. The participation of the Solicitor General in the counterrevolution was part of the larger reaction of a majority of Americans to the Court’s cultural revolution. Reagan’s Solicitor Generals thus were not activists abandoning the office’s traditional role of neutral analysis. Instead they sought to redirect a runaway Court to return to the traditional judicial role of applying rather than creating law.

Martin Wishnatsky ’66, Ph.D. ’75
Prattville, Ala. 

Editor’s note: Wishnatsky is the author of “Taming the Supreme Court,” Liberty University Law Review, Vol. 6, Issue 3 (Spring 2012), pp. 597-674.

 

Facebook

President Drew Faust’s comments (“Focus on Faust,” July-August, page 46) regarding the need for a “reassessment of Facebook and other social media” (as the magazine put it) since Mark Zuckerberg’s 2017 Commencement speech are disappointingly lacking in specificity and seem designed to avoid confronting the real issues relating to Facebook. The implication that it was only after the revelation of the inappropriate use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica that it was necessary “to ask broader questions…” is not supported by the facts.

Were Faust and the members of the Corporation and the Board of Overseers unaware of the extremely numerous reports in widely read publications over many years regarding the cavalier attitude toward user privacy of Facebook leadership (e.g.: https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-a-history-of-mark-zuckerberg-apologizing/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories), in conjunction with evidence that the company leadership clearly prioritized growth and profit over user welfare despite protestations to the contrary? Were the leaders of the University also unaware of the repeated instances of Facebook having to “adjust” the numbers and methods for publicly reported advertising metrics (e.g., https://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2016/11/17/more-bugs-found-in-facebooks-ad-metrics-to-the-dismay-of-advertisers/#481f0abe2a85)? One might have thought that these widely reported and well-known realities would have weighed heavily against inviting Zuckerberg to deliver a commencement address at an institution that claims to prize, as its highest value, “veritas.”

Neil Greenspan ’75
Shaker Heights, Ohio

 

Ideological Diversity

Regarding the letter from David W. Thompson in the September-October issue decrying the lack of ideological diversity at Harvard, I wonder just how easy it is to have ideological diversity on a university faculty when almost half of the ideological spectrum in this nation does not accept science, changes long-held beliefs on a dime, and believes truth is not truth?

John T. Hansen, LL.B. ’63
San Francisco

 

Vitae

Within two years, profiles of George Bucknam Dorr and William Morris Davis have been published (September-October 2016, page 44; September-October 2018, page 44). Neither profile mentioned the other alumnus by name, though their relationship was tight—especially in 1902 when Davis invited Dorr to join his scientific team to the American Southwest. Later that year Dorr returned the favor by inviting Davis to join his companions (including Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.) for an ascent of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in eastern North America.

Yet their most lasting institutional contribution may have been as charter members of the Harvard Travellers Club, established in 1902. Under Davis’s presidency, speakers discussed their explorations of sites from the South Pole to Abyssinia. Dorr’s home was the site of the club’s second meeting—which continues to convey their enthusiasm to this day.  

Ronald H. Epp   
Farmington, Conn.

Editor’s note: Epp is the author of Creating Acadia National Park: The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr.

 

American Truths

According to Casey N. Cep’s review of Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (“True Lies,” September-October, page 64), the revision from “these truths” being characterized as “sacred and fundamental” to “self-evident” meant that those rights were “the stuff of science” and not “the stuff of religion..” But the term “self-evident” precisely excludes scientific observation as the basis of knowledge. We cannot, through scientific inquiry alone, discover that all mean are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And the Creator puts religion right back into the picture—if not organized religion, at the very least Faith.

Regardless, I have the highest degree of admiration for Lepore and look forward to reading her book.

Michael Jorrin ’54
Ridgefield, Conn.

 

I know at 101 thinking does not age like cognac but a flip of merry wonder flickered while reading Casey Cep’s commentary.

I wonder whether there’s such a significant difference between absolute religion and absolute metaphysics. Granted that self-evident truths have long been severely diminished by philosophers, but also Western sacred truths and institutions have divided and subdivided into rivals, into rebellious atheists, into originals like Swedenborg’s heaven—only for intellectuals—and Borges’s as a library.

And now I wonder about my belief that Quakers never had preachers, even one who’s a magician. Thanks for the fun of a little wonder.

Albert Schnupp, Ed ’65-’66
Towson, Md.

Editor’s note: Casey Cep writes that Jill Lepore’s text in fact refers to Benjamin Lay’s wife, not to Lay himself, as a Quaker preacher. A local obituary published after her death, reprinted in an article by Andreas Mielke in Quaker History, refers to her as a minister.

 

Slavery and Management

The article on Caitlin Rosenthal’s book, Accounting For Slavery (“Violent Innovations,” September-October, page 10), is replete with ill-explained verbiage when explained at all. I suspect few who began the effort read it all. As a sort of hair-shirt test, I read it several times, and so learned that Rosenthal’s purpose was to demonstrate that the labor element in profit-seeking activities requires regulation. An article like this is no service to either author or interested public.

Charles Tillinghast, J.D. ’57
Tucson

 

College Admissions a Lottery? A Modest Proposal

The current lawsuit against Harvard College, brought on behalf of Asian-American students who claim to have been discriminated against, has allowed all of us a chance to peek into a demanding college’s usually secret “admissions” process (a euphemism, perhaps? Should the sign over the door say, rather, “Office of Rejections?”). Some of the disclosures only confirm what most of us assumed: that athletes, kids of alumni, and children of big donors get a boost. But the details, including quoted comments on particular candidates, allow one to imagine the process vividly. One feels for the student whose application was given the stinging faint praise, “so very bright but lacking a DE”—where “DE” is shorthand for “distinguishing excellence.” The new insights into college admissions interest me because I am one of the many parents who watched my children apply (though not to Harvard), and also because in my working life, teaching at Harvard, I see daily the results of the decisions made by the admissions office.

Nearly everyone who has lived through the last two years of high school with a student bound for college feels that something is wrong with the process. There ought to be a way to steer students into colleges without this extreme anxiety, and without inducing parents and kids to spend years trying to bolster a teenager’s résumé. I think there is a way: it is to abandon the pretense that admissions committees can make the finest of distinctions among their highly qualified applicants. Let the colleges select a pool of the very able—and then acknowledge that all of them are likely to do just fine at college: let chance determine which among the able are to be admitted.

Give up groping for the DE. Many schools and colleges that once published class rankings have abandoned that practice, because it purported to show differences where really there were none. Admissions committees who think they know that this particular outstanding student must come ahead of that one often are similarly making distinctions without differences. I propose that, instead, we take advantage of a truth that everyone seems to hold to be self-evident: that many of those rejected would have done just fine if admitted.

The letters that colleges send to their rejected applicants continually make exactly that point. Brown University’s letter, a few years ago, observed, “The great majority of the young men and women who applied to Brown this year are very clearly capable of satisfactory academic performance and of making significant contributions to the college community in other ways.” Harvard’s bad-news letter used almost the same words: “The great majority of the applicants could certainly have been successful here academically....” For the fancy schools, this is not puffery; it is, to the contrary, rather obviously true. Colleges implicitly praise those they turn away, as they describe the strengths of their “applicant pool.”

A recent article on the Harvard admissions lawsuit recites how strong the applicants’ credentials are. “Of the 26,000 domestic applicants for the Class of 2019,” The New York Times reports, “about 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores, and more than 8,000 had straight A [grades].” A great many of the college’s 40,000 total applicants obviously could have done very well at Harvard, and very well for Harvard. In short, the selective colleges could have filled their classes many times over with excellent and interesting kids. Reed College’s admissions dean once put this point succinctly: “It’s not you, it’s me.” There’s nothing wrong with you; we’re just so sadly overcrowded with excellent applicants. And this point is important, because it invites a change in admissions that could concede this inability to predict.

I propose that an amended admissions process would begin much as it does now: first, identify the students that the college would be happy to see attend (the ones that cause those common expressions of regret, in the rejection letters). Forming this pool, the college would take into account its complex concerns including diversity, racial and geographic, and probably—like it or not—adding kids of alumni and of big donors. Then select the admitted by chance. The public’s awareness of the lottery would be good for everyone. It would be good for those rejected: the regrets that the rejection letter recites would no longer ring hollow. In the present scheme, Brown’s remark that so many applicants could do the academic work and contribute to the community, or Harvard’s “could certainly have been successful here academically,” is pregnant with a shadowy “on the other hand”: a big, looming “BUT...”

This other hand is something like, “...but we want so much more than ‘academic success’ and ‘significant contributions,’” and we admissions people can sniff out that super something-more. This something more is what the admissions staff is reported to call “DE.”

It is especially this something more that torments the applicants, and that fascinates admissions offices. They pride themselves on their ability to sift the very able and pick out the few with this subtle more. Unfortunately, it is exactly this fine-meshed sifting that is causing much of the painful stress that everyone sees, and that almost everyone deplores. My daughter made herself an editor of her high school newspaper and took a lead in a school play in order to enhance her résumé. Her equally impressive friend who declined those activities didn’t get in where my daughter did (the friend did okay, though; she got into Harvard). Then, in college, neither of them did any journalism or acting. If the college admissions officers were impressed by newspaper and play, and thought they could infer an important difference between the potentials of these two girls, they were kidding themselves.

I know that my suggestion will bring a curl of the lip to people in admissions offices. People who work hard on trying to sift the super from among the merely able come to believe in what they are doing. But it is this excessive confidence on the part of admissions committees that causes all the trouble. This is what leads students and parents to try to embroider and filigree their résumés, and what distorts the late years of high school. If we admitted frankly that there are not important and discernible differences among the many who could take good advantage of good colleges, and rolled the dice in acknowledgment of this truth, the benefits would be several.

Most important, smart, lively high-school students doing well in school could relax a bit; they could say--—as people did a generation ago—I’m doing plenty well enough; no need to drive myself crazy. Incidentally, the rejection season would hurt less. In my experience—which may be colored by the fact that I live in the anxious Northeast—college rejections can rankle for a lifetime.

Further—and this benefit seems important to me because I spend so much of my time with the privileged admitted, here at Harvard—the lottery would be good for those let in. No longer would it be possible for those selected by the super-selective schools to go about feeling, “I am one of the super-duper; not just smart, but a kid with that magical something more!” It cannot be good for a young person to be told, either implicitly or, as Harvard first-year students sometimes are told, explicitly, that they are the best and the brightest.

The claim is not true. Some of our students are remarkable; the rest are smart, ambitious, and diligent, like the kids at other very good colleges—in short, they appear to be what the admissions committee seems to dread, highly competent people without a real “DE.” But it is not the falsehood that troubles me most; it’s the damage I think this view does to us in these fancy colleges. Under the lottery system, an admitted student would have to acknowledge, looking at a student outside the charmed institution, “There, but for the grace of the lottery, go I!” as that other fellow got on the bus to return, say, to Yale. That would be good for all of us.

Tom Hayes
Lecturer on Physics
Cambridge

 

Errata


John F. Kotouc

Charles E. Gilbert III

A production error transposed the names of Charles E. Gilbert III and John F. Kotouc, both winners of 2018 Hunn Memorial Schools and Scholarships Awards, in photo captions (September-October, page 71).

In the fifth paragraph of “ ‘Little Shards of Dissonance,’ ” (September-October, page 61), the first “c” went missing from Michael Schachter’s name.

We regret these miscues.

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