Social science, diversity, harpsichords, divestment, hemlocks
It is remarkable that your encomium to the “Disruptive Genius” of Professor Clayton Christensen, and his theory of “disruptive innovation” (July-August, page 38), appeared at almost the same time as a scathing critique of the historical underpinnings of that theory by Professor Jill Lepore appeared in the June 23 issue of The New Yorker. Lepore delivers what appears to be a devastating analysis of both the theory and factual foundation for Christensen’s “Gospel” of disruptive innovation.
Lepore calls the theory of disruptive innovation a theory of history “founded on shaky evidence” that has been “subject to little serious criticism.” Perhaps her most damning criticism is that “Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met [by disruptive innovation.]” Lepore deconstructs Christensen’s paradigmatic case of disk drives and the fate of Seagate Technologies. She concludes that, quite contrary to the theory of disruptive innovation, “victory in the disk-drive industry appears to have gone to the manufacturers that were good at incremental improvements, whether or not they were the first to market the disruptive new format. Companies that were quick to release a new product but not skilled at tinkering have tended to flame out.”
It would be interesting and informative for Harvard Magazine readers if you initiated a conversation between Lepore and Christensen to explore these questions further.
David A. Drachsler, LL.B. ’68
Editor’s note: Many readers (see additional letters online) commented on the coincidental, nearly simultaneous publication of Harvard Magazine’s profile of Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen and the appearance in The New Yorker of a critique of his work by Kemper professor of history Jill Lepore. Those interested in how the articles have intersected may wish to read “Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ ”.
Clayton christensen was my bishop in the Cambridge student ward of the Latter-Day Saint church many years ago. I have never met anyone who exuded more sincerity, humility, and love than he did. Because he was such an inspiration to me throughout my life, it is always with great interest that I read feature articles on him. He is well deserving of the positive press he gets not only for himself but for his faith.
Catherine Martines Mortensen, M.P.A. ’08
Craig Lambert suggests Christensen’s company, Ceramics Process Systems, “succeeded,” outsmarting DuPont, Alcoa, and Hoechst. Not so. I invested in CPS’s IPO, and so watched as the company promptly cratered, despite having been promoted to investors as can’t-miss technology with leadership by a Rhodes Scholar, Baker Scholar, White House Fellow, a tall man with youth on his side. CPS is gone. DuPont and Alcoa live on, while Hoechst became part of what is now Sanofi.
Dundas I. Flaherty, M.B.A. ’62
Clayton Christensen replies: CPS, located in Norton, Massachusetts, has become quite successful in the niche market of advanced ceramics. The other companies, while they continue to have success, no longer are in the advanced ceramics space. We didn’t have the theory of disruption when we created CPS. If we had, the advanced ceramics that CPS created would have been a sustaining innovation and the theory would say that it would have failed. So that fact that it survived was a miracle!
I’ve long enjoyed Christensen’s writings, especially on innovation and on how to measure one’s self, but thought his dismissal of the disruptive power of online learning for K-12 public education surprising. Initiatives such as Salman Khan’s [M.B.A. ’03] Khan Academy demonstrate technology’s power to “Flip the Classroom,” and the logic is being extended: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is exploring how to “Flip the Clinic” and transform primary healthcare. I wonder if entrenched special interests are the biggest barrier to innovation in these fields?
Andy Arends ’92
I enjoyed but am apprehensive about Craig Lambert’s optimistic article on Clayton Christensen’s analysis of innovation. Understanding how businesses manage innovation is an excellent example of an important benefit of an education in business or liberal arts, namely to provide useful concepts for succeeding in wildly diverse careers.
Fifty years ago, Thomas Kuhn [’44, Ph.D. ’49, JF ’51] taught us about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when he labeled disruptive ideas in science “paradigm shifts.” Just as Kuhn’s ideas help us understand the evolving nature of science and technology, Christensen’s ideas will help us understand the evolving nature of business and technology.
Unfortunately, just as clever hucksters abused the idea of paradigms, I am concerned that contemporary gurus will misuse the ideas of disruptive innovation. Disruptiveness, novelty, or absurdity (think quantum mechanics, the flying car, the VW Bug, and the Ford Edsel) are not predictors of either success or failure. While the concept of disruptive innovation can help us develop a variety of options, it is up to us to use our intelligence to pick the option we think will work best and not base our decision on a single simple idea. Slogans can encourage creativity and motivation but are not a substitute for good old-fashioned hard thinking.
South Portland, Me.
Is having the breast-pocket handkerchief [on the cover illustration of Clayton Christensen] on the right a new innovation—or just a reversed image?
Henry Vaillant ’58, M.D. ’62, S.M. ’69
My July-August Harvard Magazine arrived on the same day that I had read The New Yorker’s June 23 essay, “The Disruption Machine,” by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. In “Disruptive Genius” (July-August, 2014), the usually astute Craig Lambert is totally uncritical of the theorizing of Harvard’s Clark professor of business administration’s “innovation guru” Clayton Christensen. Lepore, by contrast, finds fault with the whole notion of disruption and its spinoffs (consultants, conferences, seminars). She calls disruption “a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.” She cites numerous examples of counter-evidence and argues that “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable.” She especially questions the claimed predictive value of his theory.
I am an amateur in these matters. But I urge readers to consider Lepore’s arguments.
Forest Hansen ’53
I am not persuaded by Christensen’s argument. I do not agree that a new technology must necessarily produce a cheaper, lesser product as a challenge to a high quality, well-accepted product (vide “good” Detroit vs “cheap” foreign cars). A better and current example is Google’s entry into satellite communications. Cell-phone towers provide uneven coverage in a very cumbersome, brute-force fashion because of hills and other line-of-sight obstacles. Satellite technology will eliminate all such problems, totally obsoleting those ugly towers and adding marine and, indeed, worldwide capability. This is a disruptive, i.e. preemptive, technology—it bypasses technical barriers in the present method and creates new capabilities with minimum impact on installed equipment.
T. H. Stearns ’53
Clay Christensen concludes that Android devices “…are killing Apple now [with] about 80 percent of the market.” Say what? Fortune says the iPhone “took home 87.4 percent of mobile-phone profits” in 2013. Forbes says Apple earned “about 60 percent of all smartphone profits” globally in 2013.
Arkie Koehl ’61
Editor’s note: The open Android system has a larger market share; the closed Apple system has captured a larger share of profits. The interesting test, Christensen might say, will come over time, particularly as lower-cost, high-powered smartphones are deployed in large markets, like China’s.
The old proverb, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” seems to apply pretty well to Clayton Christensen’s ideas, as Craig Lambert describes them. I get it that Christensen is joking when he says the early Christian church “went on a merger and acquisition spree,” and that “there’s an enormous amount of non-consumption in understanding God.” But he is evidently serious in suggesting that introduction of a low-cost, low-quality electric car for a niche market—suburban parents of teenagers—could be a major step toward ending our “worry about carbon dioxide and the atmosphere,” one of the “business riddles that have baffled capitalism for decades [Lambert’s words].”
Saving the atmosphere and Earth’s habitability has hardly been a goal of capitalism. Capitalist firms have on the contrary tried mightily to solve the riddle of how best to keep their pollution of the atmosphere an externality, to the enrichment of shareholders. A good beginning for the project of saving Earth’s habitability could be to drop Christensen’s homogenizing use of the pronoun “we,” as if the interests of capitalists were the interests of everyone.
I find many of his concepts unhelpfully vague. What would consumption of understanding God even be? Or, in another of his examples, how do buyers consume art? By continuing to notice and delight in it on the living room wall three weeks after its purchase? That’s not much like what we mean when we speak of consuming a chocolate bar or a BMW. And if Christensen knows what “the product” of higher education is, such that it can be sold more cheaply to non-consumers online, he has solved a riddle that seems to baffle everyone who’s crying for education “reform” these days. His article, “Colleges in Crisis” (July-August 2011, page 40) referred to the entire hodgepodge of U.S. higher education as a “business.” More scrupulous thinking would be welcome.
Richard Ohmann, Ph.D. ’60
Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christiansen is lauded in a cover story in the July-August issue of Harvard Magazine. It arrived just after I finished reading Jill Lepore’s article in the June 23, 2014, issue of The New Yorker. Lepore excoriates Christiansen and his theory of disruptive innovation as “founded on anxiety, fear, and shaky evidence.” One by one, Lepore shreds the examples Professor Christiansen gives in his writings and obliterates the conclusions he reaches. From my reading, Lepore delivered knockout blows. Has Christiansen responded? If and when he does, please print his response.
Thomas Ehrlich ’56
Craig Lambert’s article fails to ask hard questions about his subject. A more penetrating view of Christensen’s work is provided by Jill Lepore’s recent article, “The Disruption Machine,” in The New Yorker (June 23). Lepore shows that “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable.”
To illustrate Christensen’s self-serving logic, take a look at his 180-degree shift about using technology to “disrupt” elementary and secondary schools. In his 2008 book, Disrupting Class, Christensen and his coauthors predicted, “by 2019 about 50 percent of high school classes will be delivered online,” specifically meaning classes taught by computers instead of human teachers. Now, according to your article, Christensen claims online learning is not disruptive for K-12 public education because “our education system isn’t good enough to be disrupted technologically.”
However, on the 2012 PISA mathematics exam Massachusetts’s students scored about the same as their counterparts in Germany, and higher than students in the United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, France, and dozens of other nations; moreover, many of Christensen’s colleagues, and readers of this magazine, send their children to excellent public schools. Christensen wrote in Disrupting Class that “I’m not an ‘expert’ in education,” and yet wrote the book as if he were. As I documented in a 2008 review, Disrupting Class was poorly researched and made incredible predictions. Now Christensen agrees that the book was wrong, but without accepting responsibility for its errors, which were apparent years ago.
Andy Zucker ’67, Ed.D. ’78
Author of Transforming Schools with Technology (Harvard Education Press)
While Clayton Christensen’s “theory” of disruptive innovation claims great insight into business practice, it seems to me his Mormonism is an essential facet of his work. The history of disk drives, minicomputers, motorcycles, transistors, discount retailing, drones, digital photography, etc., are cited as if these histories lacked any moral content. However, prostitution, 9/11, aggressive war, lying in advertsing, American politics might just as well be cited as prime examples of disruptive innovation. Christensen appears personally to have asssumed a moral framework which saves him from the more tawdry applications of his theory.
Objectively, his theory seems to be motived by a simple, absolute principle of money. The dignity of the human person escapes the theory.
Only the stupid or those blinded by ideology would deny that every person has an immortal destiny. Destructive innovation clearly impinges on that destiny beyond simple commercial success. Love of money, the ancients learned, is the root of all evil. And a great sage taught us that the meek are the fortunate ones among us. Are these doctrines examples of disruptive innovation at a more profound level?
To put matters more immediately, Harvard is criticized for its money-grubbing. No doubt, the University would find Christensen’s theory comfortable. How then would it find its more profound extension. Uncomfortable?
J.R. Breton ’59
Clayton Christensen’s early work, which documented the disruption of the steel industry by mini-mills, emphasized the importance of cost advantage in entrepreneurship. Cost advantage has also proven critical in the fast-changing and price-declining computer industry of the past 40 years, which is chock full of stories of successful disruption by cost advantage. Wal-Mart, and other big-box retailers, appear to cement the case for the importance of cost advantage to entrepreneurship and disruption.
Yet, here we see Christensen cheering on a new car company that has entered at the top of the market, without a cost advantage and with many cost disadvantages, like the dearth of electric charging stations, just to name one.
Has Christensen changed his tune about the importance of cost advantage? Or, has he been pressured by the high priests of the “Church of Climate Change” into becoming a cheerleader for a company that doesn’t fit his carefully documented model of disruption by cost advantage? Will misguided investments based on political goals, instead of sound business judgment, cause devastating financial losses to pension funds, government, and others who invest based on environmental goals instead of sound business judgment?
When consumers find out that the electric machinery within an electric-powered automobile emits high levels of Electro-Magnetic Radiation, which may increase cancer risk, then they will think twice about joining this short-lived electric-car fad.
Electric cars are more likely to be on their way out than on the cusp of hyper-growth, as so many hope.
Jonathan L. Gal ’89
“Rebooting Social Science,” by Elizabeth Gudrais (July-August, page 54), was a very interesting and important article. Of particular challenge is the observation, “There is no consensus on the consequences of inequality.” In this regard, she cites Professor David A. Moss as saying, “[W]e may eventually be able to say with some confidence whether inequality actually causes certain societal outcomes.”
Since the state of public health is a societal outcome, I believe one can answer the question at least in part, definitively, not eventually, but almost immediately by examining the data on the BMI and dental conditions of the people in the lower-income groups as compared with those in the upper-income groups.
Frank R. Tangherlini ’48
While I congratulate Moss on his intent to generate theory that bridges the gap between action and theory in the social sciences, if the article is any indication, his selection of examples appears to be significantly biased.
All examples of capture listed in the article were capture of a regulatory agency by private corporations. What his studies apparently omit are capture of regulatory agencies by political interests.
What about capture of the EPA by conservation interests that ignore national interests such as productivity and employment? Capture of the IRS by politically motivated interests? Capture of the Justice Department by people interested in protecting the administration, not citizens? Capture of the FDA—not by pharmaceuticals but by interests demanding overly stringent testing that prevents development of new antibiotics?
It seems these examples of capture are perhaps more worthy of study than those that Moss and his team currently address.
Wallace Judd, Ed.M. ’67
Better research that focuses on overlooked problems and utilizes the wisdom of different social sciences can only be welcomed. While all problems are probably better understood upon closer examination, and research can help us in formulating remedies, the suggestion that research on inequality can lead to a conclusion as to its merits seems wrong and reminds us of the Southern position on the advantages of slavery in plantation agriculture. We do not need research on the “consequences of inequality” to be shocked by the huge and growing wealth of the American super-rich while many go hungry.
Francis Dummer Fisher ’47, LL.B. ’51, IOP ’71
The Tobin Project strikes me as nothing more than a make-work project for academics and consultants who cannot or will not engage in productive, private-sector activities. In other words, the Tobin Project is a bunch of people who want to extend their easy years in academia by claiming a new angle on issues that are already being studied ad nauseam. Nothing that they propose to study is not already being studied by at least a dozen think tanks in Washington, most of whom also fit this same description as “eternal students.”
Furthermore, it seems likely to me that the only answer they will come up with, after five years of expensive study of the issues, is that “further study is needed,” an answer that, not-so-coincidentally, will keep them all in salary for another five years.
The truth is that we already know the answers to these questions. They were known by Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith in the 1700s and expounded upon by Ludwig von Mises a century later.
Jonathan L. Gal ’89
I’m sure Jim Tobin is turning over in his grave at the way research in his name is missing the boat. He spent a sabbatical in Ann Arbor at the Institute for Social Research looking at the diversity in microdata behind the aggregates. He would remind you that most people, except the very affluent, did little or no discretionary saving; only their contractual saving remained. So increases in inequality would reduce most people’s income, forcing them to cut their expenditures, with a negative multiplier enlarging the effect, while the affluent would not increase their expenditure, a zero positive multiplier.
Tobin realized that it was aggregate demand that determined employment or inflation, inflation if it was larger than the GPP, unemployment if it was less.
There were three leakages: An import surplus exports jobs, and it takes a long time for the resulting decline in the exchange value of the dollar to change that. Any attempt to force a change would lead to retribution. The billions of undistributed corporate profits are an exacerbating result of inadequate demand, not its cause.
The role of massive inequality should be obvious: the top 1 percent have incomes so high they cannot possibly spend more than a small fraction of it, [and] so dump funds into the stock market. The incentive and allocation effects of income inequality serve a useful purpose, but an increase in the progressivity of the income tax can convert a massively unequal distribution of earnings into a much less unequal distribution of purchasing power. The very affluent will not have to reduce their expenditure, while the beneficiaries of the resulting expenditure by states given the proceeds would have a large multiplier and the healthier markets would induce corporations to start new real investments.
James Morgan, Ph.D. ’47
Michael Bloomberg reports that 96 percent of political contributions from Ivy League faculty in 2012 went to Barack Obama (“Talks, and a Text,” July-August, page 19). I’m sure the Harvard faculty is shocked by this revelation and they are all asking themselves the same question—who are those 4 percent and how can we get rid of them? Even Clinton- and Obama-appointee Larry Summers couldn’t pass Harvard’s ideological purity test. An outright Republican on the faculty? Intolerable.
In other exciting news, the Tobin Project will use Harvard’s objective and nonpartisan faculty to evaluate which government policies work best. We can be sure they’ll be nonpartisan because Senator Elizabeth Warren was a founding member of the Project. I can’t wait for their objective public-policy research. I was especially impressed by the professors’ enlightening medical analogy: repealing a government regulation is like a barbaric doctor cutting off a patient’s limb. No statist agenda there.
Eugene Kusmiak ’81
New York City
Regarding “Rebooting Social Science” and its statement that “scholars have achieved little agreement” about the effects of increasing inequality of wealth:
Years ago, I would have taken such lack of agreement at face value. But nowadays, on matters with important political implications, interests and ideologies seem consistently to trump the honest pursuit of the truth. And the issue of widening inequalities between the richest and the rest is surely fraught with political implications.
The Supreme Court routinely gives us 5-to-4 decisions with the position of each justice predictable according to whether they were appointed by a Republican or Democratic president. Rarely, if ever, has it seemed so clear that the court’s decisions are dictated by a partisan agenda, rather than what the Constitution or the law requires.
On climate change, expert opinion apparently remains uncontaminated: the scientists in the field are nearly unanimous. But politicians who have the responsibility to act on scientific warnings show a schism based on party and interest. Indeed, one of our two major political parties has made it dogma to deny what the scientists say.
A reader of Paul Krugman’s column inThe New York Times is regularly informed that economics is beset by “zombie ideas”—notions that never die, no matter how often the evidence proves them wrong. Even when stark predictions of runaway inflation and soaring interests rates prove false, Krugman reports, a cadre of his colleagues on the right refuses to question its failed models or the policy positions derived from them.
In that context, I wonder about the lack of agreement on questions concerning income and wealth inequality. Is it a true reflection of social scientific knowledge, or yet another manifestation of current political pathologies interfering with the honest pursuit of truth?
Andrew Bard Schmookler ’67
Thank you, Mindy Kaling (“Laugh Lines,” July-August, page 20), for omitting the Ed School from your lampoon at Harvard Law School Class Day, recognizing that HGSE graduates are truly noble.
Aleza Beauvais, Ed.M. ’99
President Faust on Diversity
As a Black American alumnus, I was quite moved by Faust’s powerful and poignant comments in “To Sit at the Welcome Table” (July-August, page 3). I too agree that Harvard University has done much to challenge racism, sexism, and classism at the interpersonal and institutional levels both within the university as well as domestically and globally. And, as the president so profoundly states, much work still needs to be done around these issues. President Faust’s leadership is exemplary and role-models what many of us can do with our Harvard education and credentials along with courage to make this world more tolerant and inclusive.
Joe Steele ’79, M.B.A. ’83
I found President Faust’s letter to be more of the politically correct party-line pandering that has infiltrated and threatens to profoundly alter our institutions of higher learning—of which, I might add, Harvard is supposed to represent the pinnacle. In my view, admission to Harvard should be based on past demonstrations of academic effort and achievement which hopefully insure future demonstrations of academic excellence and a continuing pursuit of learning that lasts a lifetime. Admission should not be based on race, religion, or gender. Harvard’s faculty should be selected from the world’s most illustrious scholars, who are also people devoted to the notion of communicating with a younger generation.
If Harvard or any other great educational institution focuses on these goals, its population will be diverse.
Dr. Faust’s View from Mass Hall (“To Sit at the Welcome Table,” July-August, page 3) is timely and well-drawn in addressing inclusion broadly. But, as she notes, financial aid, increases in women as tenured faculty, performance pieces, and a focus on sexual assault are not enough. What is required, from the Harvard community writ large, is a sustained, experiential initiative to catalyze individual understanding of the continuing racism, classism, and sexism that pervade American society. While this should be integrated into all that Harvard teaches, I suggest beginning with a freshman orientation exercise involving the class of 2018, the Privilege Walk. This activity, widely used by colleges and community anti-racist educators, is based on “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” an essay written by Wellesley professor Peggy McIntosh in 1988. It revolves around a series of questions designed to elucidate the often invisible societal barriers that prevent people of color, lower-income folks, and women from inclusion and moving ahead: Can you walk into a department store without being followed? Can you use your African name on a résumé and assume you will be hired? Can your family buy a house wherever you choose? Are you the first in your family to attend college? Are you verbally harassed on the street? As participants answer by walking forward or back, they separate into two or three groups, thereby revealing to themselves and others the privilege of some, the exclusion of others. If the freshman Privilege Walk were institutionalized as the cornerstone of a university-wide commitment to activist inclusion, Harvard would serve as model in this arena as it does in so many others, laying just claim to ensuring that all have a place at the table.
Priscilla Mendenhall ’74
Principal and co-founder, Dishes & Stories L3C and anti-racist educator
While the topic of “Addressing Sexual Assaults” (July-August, page 23) is clear-cut, the conclusion is flatly wrong. The author writes: “The challenge in addressing sexual assault is that the University is populated by imperfect human beings, not angels.”
To be clear: The challenge in addressing sexual assault is preventing Harvard undergraduates from sexually assaulting other undergraduates because sexual assault is a harmful criminal act.
Any other interpretation is muddy and in fact part of the problem.
Nancy Pagan, M.Ed. ’93
Editor’s note: For an update on Harvard’s sexual-assault policy, see harvardmag.com/assault-14.
Who knew Hubbard was created by Harvard alums (Treasure, “Harpsichords Extraordinaire,” July-August, page 88)? Not that it would have made any difference, but I certainly did not when I ordered an “English Spinet” kit back in the 1980s as a project for my wife and me to undertake. We had built a small boat from a kit, so why not a harpsichord? Talk about enthusiastic ineptitude! Building the cabinet was not so terribly hard, once we got the hang of the veneering process. But that only produced a reasonably good looking piece of furniture. After reading the voicing instructions any number of times and examining the implied tolerances between the wires to be plucked and the little pluckers, I realized that without serious help, all we would have would be furniture. To make a long story short, I begged and pleaded with a local expert here in midcoast Maine, and he eventually agreed to do the voicing job. It was finished roughly 20 years after the kit was purchased, and apparently that’s about par for the course. The result looks fine and plays well, but is very sensitive to temperature and humidity, which tends to reduce its use. Who wants to tune every time before playing?
Cliff Russell, Ph.D. ’68
Kudos to Mariana Quinn and Piano Technical Services (PTS) for any efforts to restore the Chickering-Dolmetsch harpsichords. Such restoration will enhance Harvard’s musical-instrument collection, as well as providing a nice footnote to the history of the “Early Music Revival.” I hope further that PTS will restore—versus rebuild—any premier pianos of 1920-1950 vintage Harvard may acquire in the future.
As many serious pianists have observed, post-1950 pianos generally favor sonic power over refinement. Just compare Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings of the 1960s to those of the 1930s!
Ira Braus, Ph.D. ’88
West Hartford, Conn.
The July-August issue quotes Michael Bloomberg noting that 96 percent of faculty donors contributed to Barack Obama and suggesting a lack of diverse political views in the University (“Talks, and a Text,” page 19). But the same issue notes that, on October 3, President Drew Faust called climate change “one of the world’s most consequential challenges” (“The Divestment Debate,” page 22). Perhaps the Republican Party’s refusal to acknowledge the impact of climate change explains the absence of faculty support.
Richard A. Newmark ’61
In light of reporting in the July-August issue on Harvard’s position on fossil fuel divestment, we wrote Messrs. Paul J. Finnegan and James F. Rothenberg [members of the Harvard Corporation, and Treasurer and past Treasurer, respectively], expressing the perspective summarized below.
Harvard currently holds substantial investments in fossil fuel. The past is no longer prologue for this asset class.
The scientific community—including Harvard’s distinguished climate-related faculty—assert the world must hold global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees C above the preindustrial figure. Governments agree. And, yet, we have already gone half the distance to this ceiling, and are actually accelerating our rapid approach to it. We face an existential planetary threat.
By investing in fossil fuel companies that cling to the outdated business model of measuring success by discovery of new reserves, Harvard is encouraging (and expecting to profit from) the search for more fossil fuel—which will become unburnable if we stabilize global temperatures at levels necessary to sustain life as we know it. When the lid is put on, and carbon emissions are severely limited—as they must be—Harvard will be left holding stranded and devalued assets that can never be burned. (Proven reserves are three to four times what’s needed to transition to renewables by 2050.)
Across the country, hundreds of student organizations work to persuade their institutions’ endowments to divest. Sooner or later, as in the case of companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, divestment from fossil fuel companies will occur. Harvard should be among the first to do so. There are strong, independently sufficient arguments beyond the financial one of stranding to justify divestment. They include the moral (it is repugnant to profit from enterprises directly responsible for carbon emissions or to allow shareholder funds to be deployed in searching for more fossil fuel), the practical (a well-led institution should not wound itself by permitting endowment holdings to demoralize faculty and students, with adverse effects on quality of education, enrollment, and campus environment) and, in Harvard’s case, the unique opportunity (and corresponding duty) it has, as one of a handful of world leaders in education, to lead on this planetary issue.
We support these other arguments for divestment. However, we wanted to bring the financial argument, in particular, to Harvard’s attention. Over the past three years, equities in the coal industry declined by over 60 percent while the S&P 500 rose by some 47 percent. Coal, we submit, is the “canary in the oil well.” Disinvestment now, before this opinion becomes commonplace, is just sound, risk-averse investment judgment, fitting well within the duties of a fiduciary.
Bevis Longstreth, J.D. ’61
Retired partner, Debevoise & Plimpton; former member, Securities and Exchange Commission
Timothy E. Wirth ’61
Former U.S. Senator, president of the United Nations Foundation, and Harvard Overseer
Congratulations to President Drew Faust for dealing successfully with the “divesters,” who demanded that the endowment dump its fossil-fuel investments. Unfortunately a sister college president did not fare so well when she tangled with protesters. Mary Jane Saunders, president of Florida Atlantic University, was criticized when the university accepted a $6-million pledge from the GEO Group to name the new football stadium. GEO Group is the country’s largest private-prison operator, with a sometimes questionable human-rights record. Students quickly nicknamed the new stadium Owlcatraz, honoring the team’s mascot, and Saunders finally had to resign on May 15, 2013, in order to quell the uproar. She remains at the university as a tenured full professor, however, with an annual salary of $276,000—undoubtedly making her one of the highest-paid professors in academe.
Donald W. Lovejoy ’53
West Palm Beach
THEY Eat Hemlock
“A Hemlock Farewell” (Right Now, July-August, page 8) calls attention to the danger to certain species of hemlock caused by the woolly adelgid insect. But a correction is in order. The article says that “within the next 10 years, hemlocks in forests across the United States are projected to die off completely.” Later, the article specifies what “across the United States” means: “from North Carolina to southern Vermont, southern New Hampshire, and southern Maine.”
Harvard Magazine editors should be aware that for a long time now the United States has extended far to the west of the original 13 colonies. As owner of 420 acres of forest land in the Pacific Northwest, I can assure you that our western hemlocks are doing well and will not die out in 10 years.
Neal Koblitz ’69
Providence, Then and Now
First off, many thanks for an excellent and engaging article on Jean McGarry’s writings (Montage, “Rhode Island Blues,” July-August, page 71): you’ve given me someone new to go look up at the Providence Athenaeum!
The point of my e-mail is a somewhat nitpicky correction on the captioning of the city photo accompanying the article, which reads: “Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, today, with its Roman Catholic churches.”
That photo, far from being from today, is from closer to when I graduated Harvard nearly a quarter-century ago: it cannot have been taken any later than the early fall of 1991, as the large Victorian Gothic church looming over the middle ground (center of the three churches readily visible in the picture) is the former Irish Catholic parish of St. John on Atwells Avenue, which was torn down, in the main, in early February 1992. The tower remained for some years as a hulk, but was gone by 1995.
St. John’s was the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s chilling tale “The Haunter of the Dark,” though Lovecraft fudged on its date of construction, perhaps conflating it with the East Side’s earlier St. John, Episcopal (now shuttered and decayed/threatened by neglect, also), saying it dated circa 1810-15, when it’s patently the late Victorian Gothic of 1871.
Perhaps relevant to McGarry’s tales of Irish Providence, I note that this was one of the two most imposing Irish parishes in Providence, the other being St. Patrick’s on Smith Hill near the State House, and both have been demolished in the past 35 years, whereas their somewhat later, perhaps grander, Italian counterparts (such as the two flanking St. John’s in your photograph), have not. I’m not sure what conclusions could be drawn from this, but it might be interesting fodder for one of Professor Stilgoe’s students.
The St. John’s site is now a small park at the corner of Sutton Street and Atwells Avenue.
Fred Atherton ’90
Honorands: An Opposing View
Let me add my expression of outrage to the hopefully many thousands you will have received at the university awarding an honorary degree to a man with Central American blood on his hands and who gave us Clarence Thomas.
Rudolf Dankwort ’62
The depiction in Yesterday’s News of the events of 1969 at Harvard (July-August, page 25) is stunningly narrow. I remember the flavor more succinctly as follows, from a silk-screened poster I saved that was printed on a torn page of The Harvard Crimson, April, 17, 1969:
STRIKE FOR THE EIGHT
DEMANDS STRIKE BE
CAUSE YOU HATE COPS
STRIKE BECAUSE YOUR
ROOMMATE WAS CLUBBED
STRIKE TO STOP EXPANSION
STRIKE TO SEIZE CONTROL
OF YOUR LIFE STRIKE TO
BECOME MORE HUMAN STR
IKE TO RETURN PAINE HALL
SCHOLARSHIPS STRIKE BE
CAUSE THERE’S NO POETRY
IN YOUR LECTURES
STRIKE BECAUSE CLASSES
ARE A BORE STRIKE FOR
POWER STRIKE TO SMASH THE
CORPORATION STRIKE TO MAKE
YOURSELF FREE STRIKE TO
ABOLISH ROTC STRIKE BECAUSE
THEY ARE TRYING TO SQUEEZE
THE LIFE OUT OF YOU STRIKE
“Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” African Proverb
John Gillis ’71, B ’78
Farmington Hills, Mich.
Amplifications and Errata
When he retired from the army last November, Jonathan Newmark ’74, M.D., thought he was the oldest Harvard College graduate on active duty (The College Pump, July-August, page 80). Jim Bayley ’73, M.D., reports that he retired from the army last December, after his fifth deployment to southwest Asia.
“The Divestment Debate” (July-August, page 22) reported that President Drew Faust “announced an initial $1 million in innovation grants…for faculty and student projects at the iLab” [italics added]. The grants, intended to be the first element in a $20-million program, are for research on innovations, but are not tied to the iLab. We regret our reporting error.
An editing error caused the misidentification of the Harvard degree earned by the late Geoffrey Searle, M.B.A. ’65 (“Playing Together, Staying Together,” July-August, page 74). We regret the mistake.