Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Resisting temptation, middle-class finances, fathers of humanism

May-June 2006

Harvard continues to be an acute embarrassment to me, but unfortunately not to itself. It will take my beloved College 20 years to overcome the damage it has done in running Summers off. What were you thinking of, you at the FAS? That only you can define the acceptable parameters of academic discourse? Well, you won. You made Summers grovel (shame on him), and then you sent him packing. What a lesson you have taught anyone who is fool enough to think and talk openly at Harvard. You have disgraced my University. You have won a Pyrrhic victory. Enjoy it.

Bill Swann ’64
Knoxville

 

Even given his abrasive personality and lack of interest in communication and involving key groups, Summers was on the right course. He obviously handled one critical part of his job badly. The key question, however, is where in the world was our vaunted high-power Board of Overseers and Corporation while this was developing over the years? It seems they helped make a probably manageable problem worse. It may be time to consider removing some of the “blinders-on” board members and some of the “take-no-prisoners” FAS folks.

James S. Wattenmaker ’46
Chagrin Falls, Ohio

 

In my judgment, the recusal of Summers from the government case charging a senior Harvard faculty member and others with fraudulent activities while entrusted with the task of helping the Russian government privatize its state-owned utility and other companies (“HIID Dénouement,” March-April, page 67) has been swept under the rug by Summers and the Harvard Corporation. The good name of our University has been besmirched to an extent that requires that the individuals guilty of this gross breach of trust should have been dismissed.

There can be no question that a willful failure to respect their collective and individual dedication to ideals that this institution stands for, in order to enjoy personal gain, was what occurred. Who is most responsible for protecting the University’s integrity? The Corporation and the president.

Who will doubt that, in some future situation, when our government is looking for professional assistance in sensitive matters, requiring not only expertise but trustworthiness, this sorry episode will come up? In my eyes, the moral stature of the University has been inexcusably and irrevocably reduced by the action of those directly involved, the president, and the Corporation. This was the main justification for the forced departure of Summers, but the Corporation still has unfinished business, if it has the will: to revisit this whole episode and repair the damage done to the integrity of the University.

George Vlahos ’53
Byfield, Mass.

 

Now that the Corporation has turned the University over to the FAS, why would any reasonable person send another dime to Harvard?

John W. Smith ’52
St. Helena, Calif.

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While Summers may not score high marks in style points and is not very sociable, his actions and their results score very well with me. Addressing the need for investment in science and other areas, along with the financial burdens on the undergraduate students, are but part of his contribution. What are the required qualifications for our president? Should he be someone who leads with a vision and asks tough questions, or should he be someone who merely works to compromise the different views and interests that exist in a large, diverse university? I am afraid that I fail to see why Summers is unfit to be our president.

Peter Yam ’83
San Marino, Calif.

 

The lack of tolerance on the part of the faculty for divergent ideas and philosophies is fundamentally arrogant and at odds with both the search for truth and the best of this country’s liberal traditions. The faculty has embraced a lock-step political correctness and rejected a wide range of alternative points of view—including conservative thought, ROTC, and some others of Summers’s perspectives. This is self-righteous extremism. It demonstrates a small mindedness that bodes poorly for the future leadership of this once-great institution. My only hope is that the Governing Boards will see this event for what it is, a clarion call for change, and keep this very sad day from being the precursor to a continuing degeneration into self-congratulatory irrelevance.

Rand P. Mulford, M.B.A. ’72
Del Mar, Calif.

 

I welcome the resignation. Once Summers dressed down Cornel West, I lost all respect for the man. His comments on women and science were only the last straw. Now I can continue to contribute to Harvard’s endowment.

Peter Baker ’78
Baltimore

 

Harvard has suffered irreparable harm from a faculty that is not committed to academic excellence or diversity of opinion. Here is my prediction: political correctness will reign supreme in the selection of the next president. The only way to appease women in academia and atone for their terrible treatment by Summers will be to appoint a woman as president. And if at all possible, the woman will be a lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual. I hope my prediction that Harvard will make a choice for president based upon a reparation mentality does not occur, but odds-makers will be on my side.

Edward H. Parker ’60, M.D.
Spokane, Wash.

 

Harvard has survived much turmoil and many hardships in the past. It will survive this as well.

John Winthrop ’58
Charleston, S.C.

 

Farewell to a Friend

James O. Freedman ’57, L ’60, a contributor to these pages, member of the board of directors of Harvard Magazine Inc. since 2001, and president since 2003, died on March 21 after a 12-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Characteristically, he never hid the depression or anger he felt when his illness confined him to the hospital again, or limited his vision or mobility—nor did he dwell on those problems: every conversation turned to perceptive comments on the magazine’s contents, story ideas, or encouragement for the staff and for our work.

James O. Freedman
Joseph Mehling / Dartmouth College

President emeritus of the University of Iowa and of Dartmouth College, Jim brought to our deliberations deep knowledge of and love for such institutions. An astonishingly voracious reader, he combined to a rare degree a forceful intellect with a gentle, even sweet, spirit. Jim also had a genuinely common touch: an informed sports fan, he had real appreciation for the ballpark hot dog and he relished the baloney sandwiches he had special-ordered for our business meetings.

We benefited from Jim Freedman’s wise counsel, generous support, and personal example. We were honored to have become friends. We miss him sorely.

Catherine A. Chute, Publisher
John S. Rosenberg, Editor

Resisting Temptation

Craig Lambert’s cover story on “resisting temptation” (“The Marketplace of Perceptions,” March-April, page 50) sidesteps the greatest siren song of them all: to use up natural resources and lay waste the planet before our kids get the chance to. Professor of economics David Laibson’s work suggests that people favor consumption over savings to a degree inconsistent with their own happiness, or, put another way, they discount the future with an outrageously high interest rate. This is the precisely the economic problem with environmental sustainability, namely that the future doesn’t matter; applying even a modest discount rate, the value of future costs and benefits approaches zero after about a generation. Economists usually explain overconsumption as an unfortunate, but rational, phenomenon, enshrining it within the same market framework that brings us efficient, non-bureaucratic allocation of resources and maximized social welfare. After reading Lambert’s article, I’m not so sure. Is it a rational collective choice we make when we drive species to extinction to satisfy present desires, or do we need to be lashed to the mast to be saved from those very desires?

John Reid, M.P.P. ’93
Conservation Strategy Fund
Philo, Calif.

 

Lambert discusses the significant role that Harvard scholars have made in the important field of behavioral economics. In fact the actual role was considerably more significant than the article suggests. Research in professors B.F. Skinner and R.J. Herrnstein’s laboratory at Harvard’s psychology department in the basement of Memorial Hall helped to launch the movement. Studies there explored self-control, pre-commitment, picoeconomics, gambling, and other risky choices, temporal discounting, and many other aspects of what came to be known as behavioral economics. Experiments were conducted with humans and with pigeons in the vastly productive “Pigeon Lab.” A few of the researchers in the lab included Howard Rachlin, Ph.D. ’65, George Ainslie, M.D. ’69, and myself. Ainslie’s research and theorizing on discounting functions laid the groundwork for that of David Laibson, cited at length in the article. Rachlin, in parallel with my students (especially Steven Hursh, now professor at Johns Hopkins, and Alan Silberberg, now professor at American University), went on to be founding members of behavioral economics. Rachlin’s students have continued to make major contributions to the appreciation of rational and irrational decision-making.

The field is properly named “behavioral economics” and not “cognitive economics” (an alternative term suggested by Eric Wanner on page 52). The field took root in the behavioral experiments conducted in the Harvard psychology department early in the 1960s.

Edmund Fantino, Ph.D. ’64
Distinguished Professor of psychology
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, Calif.

 

I consider your cover on the March-April 2006 issue to be pornographic, belittling of women, insensitive, and totally appalling! The whole magazine went into the garbage can immediately. The magazine is too liberal for this conservative. You can cease sending them to our home.

 Melva McKenzie
Caldwell, Ind.

 

I heartily welcome all theoretical insights that remind us of our distinctly nonrational natures. I wondered, though, if there isn’t a connection between the work of professors Laibson, Nava Ashraf, Iris Bohnet, or Sendhil Mullainathan and Nathan Fosse’s paper on sexual habits of African-American men (“Sex and the Inner City,” page 14). Of the four themes in Fosse’s paper, his words on mortality seem consistent with the findings of behavioral economics: “—the frequency with which relatives, friends, and acquaintances die at young ages, and the men’s intimate contact with death— forms a backdrop for carelessness in sexual matters.” Fosse also argues that African-American men have ignored outreach and educational campaigns on drug abuse or contraception despite knowing the consequences of such dismissals. Could it not be a “seductive now-moment” that Laibson has theorized? Perhaps, as in so many other cases, vibrant and creative interdisciplinary work at Harvard can help address pressing social issues as well as affording intellectual insight. Let’s hope so.

Meredith M. Bagley ’99
Austin, Tex.

 

Crimson Creativity

Beginning this fall, Harvard Magazine will expand its coverage of arts, culture, and creativity, as practiced by alumni, faculty, and students. Reviews of books—the principal focus of “The Browser”—will remain important. But reporting, profiles, criticism, and interviews focused on works in other media (painting, sculpture, film, video), performance and recordings (theater, music), and other creative realms (architecture, design, fashion), as examples, will join the roster. Deputy editor Craig Lambert, editor of “Right Now” for 16 years, will direct this new effort; he welcomes ideas and suggestions at [email protected]. Given the magazine’s bimonthly frequency, coverage will emphasize context and depth over reviews of ephemeral presentations or sheer publicity.

Managing editor Jonathan Shaw will edit “Right Now,” continuing its focus on developments in research.

Middle-Class Finances

In her article on the plight of the middle class (“The Middle Class on the Precipice,” January-February, page 28), Elizabeth Warren amply documents the financial dilemma faced by families even with two wage earners struggling “just to try to break even.”

An important cause of reduced pay for the middle class is what might be called the “summing down” of many wages accompanying the dumbing down of many jobs. Grandfather earned $45 an hour as a unionized employee in a factory job. Son or daughter earns $15 an hour in a less-skilled job. Grandchild earns minimum wage as a fast-food clerk. Work that requires considerably more talent and skills, ranging from airline pilots to zoologists, is also rewarded with diminished salaries. Meanwhile the ratio of income of the CEO to that of the average worker in a company has increased over tenfold. One consequence of the loss of disposable income in the middle class is lack of (supply!) side funds to maintain a balanced society. This is not the America in which I grew up.

Stephen J. Seligman ’52
Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

 

Too bad that Warren did not—at least so far and for whatever reason—respond to her critical letters in the March-April issue (page 5). Had she done so, she would doubtless have answered John Braeman’s irrelevant argument that taxes are percentage-wise higher now than in the early 1970s. Never mind that the family’s medical, Social Security, educational, and many other benefits would be even more jeopardized than they already are if taxes were lowered, putting them in even direr straits. As for military expenditures, when Iraq, Afghanistan, the military component of NASA, the VA, the various spy agencies, and black programs are included, the actual military budget is well over 50 percent of the total federal budget.

Warren would also, I’m sure, have pointed out to Barbara Bergmann that, if wages had not actually dropped in real terms since the 1970s, then the two-earner family would, of course, have much less to worry about if one of them lost his or her job. To suggest that Warren has an intrinsic problem with dual-earner families is an unbelievable cheap shot and typical of the reactionary right.

Rudolf Dankwort ’62
Phoenix

 

Warren’s article seems to have been written by someone who is out of touch with reality. Her assertion that 75 percent of family income in the United States is earmarked for the basics is simply wrong. We are the most over-housed, over-automobiled, overfed, and over-consuming society that has ever graced the face of the earth. Housing square footage per person is up 30 percent versus a generation ago. Our national savings rate has fallen to zero as our nation puts its hands out for loans from Asian bond investors, whose countries enjoy savings rates in the 25 percent range. Has Warren ever been to a Disneyland, a mall, or a suburban McMansion community? If she has, she should have a better grip on how much of our national spending goes to items other than basic food, healthcare, and shelter.

Robert Henderson ’84
Boston

 

Antidote to Xenophobia?

I have found it interesting that the Harvard community has so many “screeching wheels” whenever anything Arabian, Middle Eastern, or Islamic is mentioned, e.g., the incident when graduating senior Zayed Yasin ’02 chose to devote his Commencement address to an explication of jihad as “an individual struggle for personal moral behavior,” and the recent generous gift from one of the Saudi royal family (“A Saudi Prince’s Controversial Gift,” March-April, page 68).

The American university system has failed miserably to develop Islamic specialized studies that are more than topical. Few such scholars are graduated from our great universities.

This xenophobia is hardly limited to Cambridge types. I believe nearly all of this is U.S.-media directed. It amazes me how popular it is to bash anything Islamic or from the Middle East! Are all Palestinian men, women, and children who are killed really terrorists? Are all the dead and injured Israelis innocent victims? Is taking exception to the Israeli government really anti-Semitism? I think not.

The American public is not very sophisticated about these matters. And our State Department apparently is not either! Can this academic void have a direct causal relationship to the American-Middle East failures these past 50 years? And to terrorism? Is it time to try something else? I think yes.

One does not need to be an Islamic culture expert to figure out that illegal confiscation of land, severe economic oppression, and programmed unemployment lead to discontent—and war.

For certain, such cultural miscalculation has led to disaster in Iraq. Having spent time as a volunteer clinician in the West Bank and in Iraq immediately after the fall of Baghdad, I have more than media-based information to point to these failures.

I believe our society can take a clue from the easily developed collegiality among the Muslim health professionals with whom I worked in Kosovo, Kenya, the West Bank, and Iraq. A common goal united us and provided a special bond for long-term friendships. We exchanged information in a productive and useful fashion.

Rather than being suspicious of the prince’s endowment to Harvard and Georgetown universities, I look at it as one small step toward understanding Islamic cultures and Arab mentality that might lead to tolerance and then acceptance. This is hardly dangerous; and it could point to good answers using evidence-based factual information.

Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud—may his tribe increase!

 Nelson E. Bailey, D.M.D. ’63
Selinsgrove, Pa.

 

Professor Keohane

In your note on “Corporation Credentials” (March-April, page 64), describing the credentials of Patricia A. King as the newest Fellow of the Corporation, you write: “When she joins the Corporation in May, King will be its only member active on a faculty (a profession rarely represented), although fellow member Nannerl O. Keohane, president emerita of Wellesley and Duke, has extensive academic experience.” Keohane is at this time the Rockefeller distinguished visiting professor of public affairs and part of the faculty of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Chester R. Davis Jr., LL.B. ’58
Winnetka, Ill.

 

Editor’s note: Professor Keohane reports that she is “teaching two seminars this semester, and I plan to do this for several years to come.” We regret our error.

 

The Fathers of Humanism

Adam Kirsch’s Rereading the Renaissance” (March-April, page 34) is most engaging. He may be a bit hasty, though, when he concludes that Francesco Petrarco [sic] “…certainly did not expect that his sonnets and canzoni would be his major claim on posterity.” I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that Petrarca shrewdly assesses his future prospects when he pens the very opening of The Canzoniere: “Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse…” (“Oh You who in these scattered rhymes may hear...”). Kirsch, himself, later suggests that it is in (and, I might add, through) an Italian canzone (“I’ vo pensando”) that Petrarch looks forward to fame.

I also doubt that “…Petrarch is perhaps the first writer to address one of the major intellectual problems of the modern world: the sense, later embodied in the myth of Faust, that knowledge might be incompatible with goodness.” We know about Dante’s autobiographical depiction of Ulysses’ insatiable longing for a total knowledge of the world that apparently surpasses longing for wife, son, father, and homeland (see Inferno, Canto XXVI).

Both Dante and Boccaccio, as well as Petrarch, surely respected Latin; but they trusted Italian even more—at least enough to choose it for giving voice to their greatest creative works. Those boys knew what they were doing.

George Viglirolo
Brookline, Mass.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Kirsch’s article, though question his suggestion that Neo-Latin literature has been neglected. While very few people today would even be aware of Alberti’s Momus, it would be impossible to imagine an undergraduate paper in quattrocento art and architectural history that did not make references to lengthy passages of De pictura praestantissima (1435), De re aedificatoria (1485), and—if its attribution to Alberti is to be believed (though I disagree in the strongest terms)—the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).

I find it slightly disturbing that Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris is being used anywhere as a gender-studies text when his Genealogia deorum gentilium libri (1360) is demonstrably addled and error riddled. Frankly, I doubt the author of the Decameron had any genuine insight into the inner life of women at all beyond what modern commentators have read into him.

Andrew Paul Wood
Christchurch, New Zealand

 

I am puzzled by the reproduction of the engraving of Pope Pius II. The engraving itself seems to indicate that he lived from 1500 to 1564. If he did, then the caption dating this likeness to circa 1459 could not be correct. Who did the engraving?

 William J. Glick ’59
Meriden, Conn.

 

Editor’s note: Professor Margaret Meserve ’92, coeditor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library’s volume of Pope Pius II’s Commentaries, notes that “the portrait comes from Jean-Jacques Boissard’s Bibliotheca chalcographia illustrium virtute atque eruditione in tota Europa, clarissimorum virorum, I believe from the second edition of the work (Heidelberg and Frankfurt, nine volumes, 1652-69). The dates given for Pius in the engraving are wrong: he died in 1464, not 1564; he was born in 1405.”

 

Superstar Money Managers

The men who ran Harvard’s endowment (“Money-Manager Compensation,” March-April, page 69) are superstars. While they may look and act like normal people, they, like Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, are capable of doing something important significantly better than millions of other people who try to do it equally well, but cannot. What they earned was what an intelligent employer considered good value. That is how a marketplace works. As one who has spent a lifetime (it often feels like several) doing what they do, I feel that what they were paid was trivial in relation to what they did for Harvard, and they will now earn far more elsewhere. While I hope their successors will be equally talented, there is scant evidence that they will. If they are not, Harvard will suffer grievously.

Tuitions have certainly risen too high. Harvard, like America generally, is probably terribly wasteful. But I do think that the trustees could well pay out another 1 percent of the endowment each year and reduce student fees, among other things. This could result in better facilities, faculty, and students, and enhance Harvard’s contribution to the world. Doing so might increase gifts to the school as alumni and others realize how much value Harvard is contributing to its students and the world.

Edward G. Shufro, M.B.A. ’58
New York City

 

Of Stolen Paintings

While reading Theodore Stebbins’s outstanding piece on John Updike and his association with and love of art (“The Perfect Amateur,” March-April, page 19), I couldn’t help but be reminded of his poem “Stolen.” The poem addresses the unfortunate theft of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 in words both poignant and, to me, inspiring.

He imagines what it is like to be a stolen painting. The poem reads, in part:

Think of how bored they get, stacked
in the warehouse somewhere, say in
            Mattapan,
gazing at the back of the butcher paper
they are wrapped in, instead of at
the rapt glad faces of those who love art.
Only criminals know where they are.
The gloom of criminality enshrouds them.
Why have we been stolen? they ask
            themselves.
Who has benefited? Or do they hang
admired in some sheikh’s sandy palace,
or the vault of a mad Manila tycoon?
In their captivity they may dream of rescue
but cannot cry for help. Their paint
is inert and crackled, their linen friable.
They have one stratagem, the same old one:
to be themselves, on and on.

Anthony Amore , M.P.A. ’00
Director of security, Gardner Museum
Boston