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“Cowboy doctors,” Gen Ed, Corita Kent

November-December 2015

Base of the Pyramid

Thank you for the important article about impact investing (“Business for the Other Billions,” September-October, page 31), which offers perhaps the best hope for alleviating poverty, and should appeal to anyone at any point along the political and ideological spectrum. A friend involved and influential in impact investing gave me further examples of such entrepreneurial ventures: in one, purified water can be obtained at low cost by running an electric current though salt water (electrochlorination), and then distributed to rural villagers for a few pennies per gallon, generating a profit and solving a pervasive problem. Other enterprises provide low-cost solar-powered light and power products for people without access to reliable energy, generating profits and scaling up sales of over 10 million units in 62 countries.

Impact investing can be “doing well by doing good” at its best.

Evan Hoorneman, J.D. ’63
South Harwich, Mass.


I read the article with rising incredulity. After all, capitalism created and maintains the pyramid, without which it could not continue to function. A world in which the “bottom of the pyramid” was flourishing would not be capitalistic. Capitalism stole a large percentage of the adult workforce of Africa, and transported it to the American continents. Both the slave trade and slave labor created huge returns on investments, and according to many individuals then and now, was enormously beneficial to the Africans, at least the ones who survived.

Meanwhile, capitalism stole African land and resources, shattered traditional cultural patterns, and created a cash economy that forced the dispossessed and traumatized Africans to work the plantations and mines. Again, capitalism created hefty returns on investment, and proclaimed great benefit to the Africans, who were thereby introduced to “industrial discipline.”

I suppose it makes sense to send young students of capitalism to the ravaged source of so much of the world’s wealth. Yet I must ask the professors of capitalism, in the words of Joseph Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Lorraine Baber ’68
Oakland, Calif.


I enjoyed the article, but I suspect something was lost in translation. John Rosenberg’s categorization of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of innate human needs leaves a little to be desired. Since when is self-actualization reduced to “purchasing soft drinks”? Yes, physiological needs, safety, a sense of belonging, and self-esteem are essential before an individual can obtain a sense of fulfillment and creative self-growth, but where does soda come in? Or have we truly become the Pepsi generation?

Additionally, the sidebar “When Everything Goes Right Until” also left me confused. We read that “when management approached authorities about laying people off or closing stores, they were told, ‘If you do that you will go to jail.’” We are told that there are no provisions for bankruptcy reorganization, but are layoffs and store closures illegal in Venezuela? That is the implication, but I wish the author had been more clear.

Julie Reiff
Watertown, Conn.


“Business for the Other Billions” reports on the misuse of geometrical metaphor, which distracts from the deeper issues of global inequality. Citing the work of C.K. Prahalad, we are invited to “imagine a simple triangle diagram of the planet’s population” with a fortunate “couple of billion upper-income people…occupying the apex.”

“At the very bottom of the pyramid,” the metaphor continues, “a billion or more humans live in poverty (on less than $1.25 per person per day)…. In between [are] perhaps four billion people…with incomes up to $15 per day.”

A far more enlightening (although perhaps not as encouraging) visual would have been the champagne glass shape that thoughtful demographers have used for decades to illustrate wealth distribution. With income shown as distributed symmetrically on both sides of the X axis, the top 20 percent splash about in a wide but shallow puddle of bubbly­—roughly 80 percent of the world’s income (with the top 0.1 percent quaffing the majority). Along the bottom of the narrow, tapering stem, the bottom 60 percent (roughly four and a half billion people) scrape by (or not, tragically) on less than 10 percent of global income combined. That leaves the fourth quintile (roughly a billion and a half people) earning the remaining 10 percent of the world’s income, while also supporting a top-heavy glass that lacks a stable base.

Visualized that way, income distribution can perhaps more usefully be seen as call to fairness, not just a call to market. Efforts to increase incomes among the 80 percent (or even just the 20 percent to 40 percent) are of course laudable. But those of us in the 20 percent should also recognize that it will take more than entrepreneurialism to widen the glass, flatten the pyramid, build the pie higher…

Ken White, M.P.A. ’97
Richmond, Calif.

Editor’s note: The class as it is taught exhibits the income share of the world total by quartile, but the prevailing image is the pyramid—used throughout the course, and beyond Harvard, as in the foundational Prahalad book cited.


“Cowboy Doctors”

It was transparent to me why “  ‘Cowboy Doctors’ and Health Costs” (September-October, page 7) came to the conclusion that physicians are to blame for driving up healthcare costs. The author only referenced and gave the perspectives of analysts and business administrators: the people who are responsible for balance sheets—not clinical outcomes; the people who don’t get their hands dirty. The article suggests that it is a “lack of financial penalty” that causes doctors to “recommend unnecessary procedures.” I would have to disagree, however, as doctors have to consider malpractice and work within parameters that produce inefficiencies that are designed to protect the finances of third parties. Are healthcare analysts, hospital administrators, and health-insurance executives held accountable for each individual patient?

I question that someone who is going to be held accountable for an individual patient outcome would “draw an analogy to auto mechanics,” as was proposed in this article. Let the analysts and administrators have the bedside conversation with a patient about getting a new life and donating the one they have for scrap parts. It’s easy to tell the “cowboy” how to ride when you’ve never been on a horse. 

Dina D. Strachan ’88, M.D. 
Aglow Dermatology
New York City


I found the article’s unsubstantiated generalizations insulting, inaccurate, and not in the best interest of patient care or our society. It is very trendy to blame doctors for the escalating costs of patient care and to claim they just do as they wish without regard to patient wishes (as in the second-to-last paragraph). I’d suggest you actually talk to some front-line physicians who are practicing every day, making decisions with patients every day, and using their years of knowledge to help guide care that is in the best interest of the patient. I find it funny that your author and [Dartmouth health-policy professor Elliott] Fisher lament the “imbalance in the physician-patient relationship.” What exactly are you referencing? Is it the four years of medical school and three to nine years of postgraduate medical education that physicians pursue in order to become experts at caring for patients? Is it the responsibility that we have sworn to do no harm and do good? 

I know the point you’re trying to make is that healthcare is a team sport. Roger, got it. But what you are actually trying to do is turn healthcare into a consumer sport: “The customer is always right.” Sorry, guys, that ain’t the truth. The next line, “pay more attention to the patient’s preferences, instead of relying on their own experience” is comical. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has just determined that 1 percent of my pay (soon to be more) will be based on “patient satisfaction.” Every day I have patients who demand an MRI, who want expensive tests they don’t need. Every week, I care for patients at the end of their lives who have no chance of survival and whose families insist that I keep resuscitating. What is my mechanism to say no? There is none. So, should I just order them to improve my patient satisfaction scores and reduce my liability risk?

I’d look deeply at the true costs of healthcare. I’m paid the exact amount now that I was paid in 2008. It is about the same (adjusting for inflation) as my dad made in the 1980s. I can tell you that billions are spent on administrative costs, inappropriate transfers of patients, outdated EMS protocols, CMS compliance, billing, ridiculous coding, etc. All of which provide little actual benefit to the patient.

You should strongly consider editing the article to read “physicians surveyed” rather than “doctors” or “physicians.” That, and maybe get a doctor involved.

David W. Callaway, M.P.A. ’09, M.D.
Harvard Medical School instructor in medicine, 2008-2010
Charlotte, N.C.


Researchers David Cutler, Jon Skinner, and Ariel Stern respond: Physician behavior and the appropriateness of medical practices clearly strike a chord with practitioners and patients, as evidenced by the letters published above and several sent independently to us. It may be helpful to lay out what we know. First, in the United States there is enormous variation in medical practice across areas. This variation is not associated with sicker patients or better health outcomes. Second, when a large group of physicians are presented with a set of vignettes describing hypothetical patients, roughly 25 percent suggest treatments not recommended by professional society guidelines. In our paper, written with David Wennberg, M.D., we labeled these physicians “cowboys” not in the sense of being aberrant, but in the sense of being individualistic—much like John Wayne’s cowboy characters who make their own rules. Third, regions with a higher fraction of cowboys experience greater per capita spending, especially at the end of life. 

None of these facts implies that physicians are greedy or not subject to considerable (and growing) pressures from patients and management in today’s challenging healthcare environment. Many of the letter writers colorfully point out these other pressures. Nor do these facts speak in the least to stagnant physician salaries, another issue that clearly (and rightly) bothers some readers. 

What our results do show is that physician beliefs about treatments for chronically ill patients still strongly determine how aggressively such patients are treated. Some might argue that we should just let the cowboys be cowboys, without any financial incentives or patient-focused information. We disagree. To paraphrase a famous economist, the lives affected are our own, and the money is ours, too.


Let me congratulate you on your article (“  ‘Cowboy Doctors’ and Health Costs,” September-October, page 7). Unfortunately, medical education does not build character and the practice of medicine tends to harm it. The principle is summed up in “The natural one-upness of doctors.” When I served on a medical school admissions committee, my aim was to choose students who would not be corrupted by the often unjustified but psychologically understandable tendency of patients to admire their own doctors.

Part of my training was in a U.K. hospital. Their panel system, unlike our fee-for-service, tends not to favor “meddlesome medicine.”

John P. Blass ’58, M.D., Ph.D.
Burke professor of neurology and medicine emeritus,
Weill Cornell Medical College
New York City


Your caricature of a “cowboy doctor,” a bandit about to brand a patient with a dollar sign, sure surprised this alum who regularly wears a straw hat in the sunny Southwest. Your article concerned physicians who provide unnecessary and wasteful care. Why label them “cowboys”? The actual cowboys I know are generally hardworking, modest people, like most animal herders. We would not use the term “Indian giver.” Could we equally move on regarding this group of rural Americans?

David C. Stewart ’77


Some “cowboy” advice from the Upper Range to the Lower Range. Before you dump on an honorable profession, check out your own corral and remember the old cowboy saying, “Never squat with your spurs on.”

Ralph Stephens’ 56, M.D.


To avert “cowboy doctors” delivering costly, overaggressive critical-care interventions that ultimately prove futile, we need to embark early on difficult end-of-life planning in terminal illness, or if premorbid quality of life is already poor. However, unexpected critical illness and the possibility of death, if loved ones and relatives are unprepared, leads to upheaval and is destabilizing. In time-constrained settings where patients and their families have not had end-of-life discussions about the use of aggressive treatments, doctors face difficulties: it is difficult to raise the option of limited treatment in the first instance. After acquiescing to a decision against full resuscitation, families may feel their loved ones have been short-changed.

Partners and families should be told honestly about the prospects of meaningful recovery, even with maximal treatment. Life- and organ-support therapies involve invasive, painful procedures, are futile, and often require mind-fogging sedation to be tolerated. A calm rendition of realistic chances does not equate to paternalism or coercion toward a palliative treatment trajectory. We need to arrive at a decision together—one that is in the patient’s best interest as far as is possible—moderated by humanity, dignity, beneficence, and non-malfeasance.

There is no doubt that the ethical, moral, and legal quandaries of whether to withdraw ventilator and organ support are stressful for, indeed provoke strong emotions in, families and critical-care staff. Ongoing physiological support as decisions on treatment withdrawal are being deliberated in courts of law necessarily delay the availability of scarce intensive care beds to other seriously ill or injured patients with far better prospects of meaningful recovery. These patients cannot afford to wait for all-round resolution among families, clinicians, and courts. Surely the high cost of intensive care and the diversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars from other healthcare programs bears serious thought even in times of immense crisis. The health system cannot afford the thousands of dollars spent each day in the support of a patient for whom nonmeaningful survival, futility, and much delayed death is the eventual outcome.

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


General Education

I read with interest about the ongoing review of the College’s General Education program (“Tough Grading for Gen Ed,” July-August, page 32), Melanie Wang’s reflections on her own and her peers’ experience of Gen Ed (“The Scientists’ Daughter,” September-October, page 36), and the review committee’s Interim Report.

I was surprised, however, to see little discussion of what was most valuable and distinctive in my own experience of general education: learning to recognize connections among different disciplines, and how each discipline might be brought to bear on thoughtful, active engagement with the world at large.

My general education (within the Core framework then in place) yielded something not entirely captured by either the transdisciplinary values that are the stated goal of the current Gen Ed program or the interdisciplinary well-roundedness associated with distribution requirements.

What I learned over four years of fine courses on modern American poetry with Helen Vendler, on organic chemistry with Eric Jacobsen, on justice and medieval castles and civil infrastructure and the Vietnam War, was that the worlds of thought and of action—and of different forms of thought, and different kinds of action—can profitably be brought together in myriad ways. This is not so far from how Wang describes her experience: “I do earnestly believe that the values, skills, goals, and perspectives with which I approach the world have been shaped by my four years here.”

I don’t think that the integrating function these courses served for me was always consciously intended. But it could be, and I would argue should be, incorporated in the design of courses explicitly intended for general education. Such a requirement need not be onerous—it could take the form of one or two lectures in which a professor takes up subject matter usually associated with another discipline, or considers another discipline’s perspective on the subject matter of her own.

An ambitious program of general education should not be merely a bulwark against excessive focus on a chosen concentration, nor merely a prod to push “excellent sheep” (in the words of Bill Deresiewicz) out of their pens. It should be a key that unlocks the methods of particular disciplines to be applied and adapted across the whole range of challenges that constitute, as the committee puts it, ars vivendi in mundo.

Evan Hepler-Smith ’06
Ph.D. candidate in history of science, Princeton
Newark, N.J.


Terry Murphy’s letter, “Undergraduate Education” (September-October, page 5), which laments—rightfully—the loss of the undergraduate General Education requirements of the 1950s, has one small error: John Conway was the master of Leverett House, not Kirkland. (He was also the husband of the perhaps more widely known Jill Ker Conway.) A callow Leverett Englsh major, I was impressed that Conway, a history professor, had a copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems on a living room side table. 

Blair F. Bigelow ’60
Pelham, Mass.


I share the nostalgic sentiments expressed by Terry Murphy ’59 (“Undergraduate Education,” September-October, page 5) about Harvard faculty in the Fifties, but must correct his recollections. The master of Kirkland House from 1955 to 1965 was Charles Holt Taylor, Lea professor of medieval history, not John Conway, who became master of Leverett House in the late 1950s after serving as senior tutor in Eliot.

Fred Leventhal ’60, Ph.D. ’68


Your letters praising Harvard’s faculty got me so excited I had to write this, and if you don’t print it, I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue. Without a doubt George Wald (1906-1997) was the greatest teacher on earth. I offer my sympathy to those who didn’t take Nat. Sci. 5, subtitled “From Neutrons to Hamlet.” He explained the sobriquet as follows: “In this course we’ll begin with a universe composed of neutrons, which eventually formed atoms, then stars and planets, and finally, after billions of years, on one of those planets an author named Shakespeare wrote a play titled ‘Hamlet’.”

The Confi Guide claimed Nat. Sci. 5 “turned more scientists into poets, and more poets into scientists, than any course on the campus.” To assure an integrated curriculum, all the lecturers attended every class. Professor Wald’s tour de force, titled “The Origins of Death,” became so popular with the media, we had reporters sitting in the aisles.

For decades afterward I wondered why a world-class scientist—well on his way to a Nobel Prize for discovering the retinal pigments that give us vision—would squander his precious time on bone-headed undergrads. At last I realized the answer: George Wald cared for humanity, even those so young and foolish, we couldn’t find our glutei maximi with both hands. As noted by John Donne:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

John Gamel ’66
Louisville, Ken


"Education" or "Training"?

Let’s see, we educate our physicians to think and we train our teachers to do what exactly?

I read with great interest “Rethinking the Medical Curriculum” (September-October, page 17), which describes a significant revision of the Medical School’s curriculum, intended to prepare students to think. This four-year postgraduate curriculum will better integrate the basic, social, and clinical sciences with guided practical experiences so that students learn how to learn and can function effectively throughout their careers in an evolving environment. Sounds excellent.

In an unfortunate juxtaposition—occurring in a page break in this exciting article—your readers see a Brevia note titled “Teacher Training,” a regimen more appropriately associated with low cognitive-demand jobs and dogs. Good teaching is intellectually and physically demanding work that requires thorough content knowledge, teaching knowledge, social and emotional knowledge, and the ability to integrate these in hundreds of large and small decisions daily.

The Harvard Teacher Fellows Program is a step in the right direction, but it, too, is captive of a belief system that teacher preparation can be squeezed into an otherwise full undergraduate curriculum.
Words matter. So long as we convey the idea that physicians need to be educated while teachers need merely to be trained, public education will continue on its present uncertain course.

Arthur E. Wise ’63
Education policy consultant
Potomac, Md.


Pop-art Nun

I was interested and informed by “Nun with a Pop Art Habit” (September-October, page 48). I have loved Corita Kent’s beautiful Boston Gas Tank (Rainbow Tank) and always eagerly look for it when I am on that stretch of highway (which doesn’t have much else to recommend it).

But why didn’t your story mention the Ho Chi Minh profile Kent hid in the blue stripe? Surely it is an interesting wrinkle that Kent was a nun who became a major pop artist…and apparently admirer of the communist leader!

Jonathan Poritz ’85
Colorado Springs


Editor’s note: The exhibition curator says the Ho Chi Minh story is an urban legend, with no basis in fact, and that the artist herself consistently declined to discuss it.


In the article, Rainbow Tank is referred to as a “much beloved landmark.” The description in one of the informative texts posted by the Harvard Art Museums curators (which are wonderfully educational) gives much the same sense of the piece.

That’s the way I’ve long thought of it—and dismissed it—before seeing the tank in the context of Kent’s other works in the exhibition. Now I don’t see how one can overlook the religious irony of this work, given the pervasive spiritual irony Kent evidently conveyed in her other work. As the article and exhibition point out, Kent repeatedly jolted the viewer by juxtaposing words of consumerism with words freighted with religious or spiritual meaning. So in Boston Gas Tank, we have the rainbow, a symbol from the biblical story of Noah and the Flood, but also, as sung in the African-American spiritual, “no more water, be fire next time.” This on a natural-gas tank bearing, at the time of Kent’s commission, the logo of Boston Gas, complete with small flame. Did Kent seek to go beyond simply decorating a corporate icon, by imbuing the result with additional meaning? Or is this interpretation as fanciful as the one that found Ho Chi Minh’s profile in one of the swaths of color?

Jonathan Bockian, J.D. ’74
Watertown, Mass.


Thank you so much for your recent article. I did, however, want to contact you about a few errors. Corita entered the order in 1936, not 1938. The college was Immaculate Heart College; the order was the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The artist mentioned on page 50 is Aaron Rose (not Ross).

Corita did see the Warhol soup-cans show in 1962, the same year she made her first Pop print. However, I disagree with Susan Dackerman’s assertion that the juiciest tomato of all was a response to the soup-can paintings, as it was made over two years later and there were a number of other Pop prints in between. 

Ray Smith, Ph.D.
Director, Corita Art Center
Los Angeles


Exhibition curator Susan Dackerman replies: My apologies for the oversights that Ray Smith pointed out.

As for whether Kent’s tomato print was influenced by Warhol’s soup-can paintings, I stand by that interpretation. Yes, Kent’s print did appear two years after Warhol’s soup cans, but influence isn’t always immediate. Ideas grow as they are rehearsed and fed by related ideas.


I learned from “Nun with a Pop Art Habit” (September-October, page 48) about the relocation of Corita Kent, IHM, to Boston, as her new second home after Los Angeles—much like myself. I graduated in 1995 from the very progressive Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) nun-run-school: the Immaculate Heart High School. Even during my years, the IHHS art department was still extremely strong, emblazoned and strongly supported by Corita’s vision. She was revered at the school for decades—long after her move to Boston. When I first arrived in Boston for college, I was thrilled to see her iconic signature on the Boston Gas holding tank. I felt like I was the only one in town who recognized it! Thank you for sharing her recognition; I look forward to the exhibit.

Judy DiFonso McIntyre, D.M.D. ’03, M.S.
Franklin, Mass.


I appreciated the coverage of Sister Corita’s interest in Pop Art in relation to the exhibition now at the Harvard Art Museums. However, I was surprised that the article’s discussion about the well-known painted gas tank (which greets north-bound traffic to the city) made no mention of the controversy raised by her sweep of blue paint on the tank, which was thought intentionally to resemble the profile of Ho Chi Minh. That resemblance, at the time when the United States was fighting the brutal Vietnam War, caused something of a public uproar, with calls for the painting’s removal. Happily, however, Sister Corita’s painting—Ho Chi Minh or no—remains in place and has even been restored, as mentioned in Jonathan Shaw’s article. Check it out.

Baruch Kirschenbaum, Ph.D. ’66
Providence, R.I.



I am a big fan of the Harvard radio station: I would not make a decision on our move to a condo until I heard for myself that it had good reception of WHRB (“A Broadcast Cornucopia,” September-October, page 63). I am very grateful to the station for providing Boston with the Met opera broadcasts. However, I thought the article was a little hard on “the competition”—in Boston, WCRB, a 24-hour classical station that I’ve listened to since I was an undergraduate. It has its flaws, including a mysterious aversion to vocal music, but it shouldn’t be dismissed so condescendingly. It plays warhorses, but it also plays music of many lesser-known composers, like Antonio Rosetti and J.B. Vanhal, who have certainly enriched my musical experience. 

Stephanie Lang Martin ’59
Jamaica Plain, Mass.


I am one of the approximately 3,000 “ghosts “ of WHRB mentioned in “A Broadcast Cornucopia” (September-October, page 63), on the station’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

I attach a lot of significance to the anniversary festivities because my work at the station opened a door for me to the most profoundly satisfying experience I had at Harvard. The station folks made room in the 1946-47 program schedule for something I chose to call the “Harvard Radio Theater Workshop,” which was sponsored by Phillips Brooks House, where I was on the entertainment committee. The workshop included airing versions of some rarely heard pieces, such as e.e. cummings’s short play, Santa Claus, and Nicolai Gogol’s satire, The Inspector General. This in turn led to my being chosen to direct a Harvard Dramatic Club production in the fall of the following year. I had gathered the necessary credentials by directing the radio shows, and was strongly positioned to direct subsequent productions. All of which is why I hold WHRB in special reverence, since it opened the way for me to direct four HDC main-stage productions and to serve as its president.

Robert C. Seaver
Provincetown, Mass.


Harvard Astronomers

I am troubled by the comment (in Vita, “William Cranch Bond,” September-October, page 46), “The young nation was an astronomical wasteland.” Really? In Philadelphia, Penn faculty member David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) had observed the transit of Venus, determined the distance from earth to the sun, sighted Uranus, built his own telescopes, and constructed numerous orreries (models of the solar system), most of this before Bond was born. Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society sponsored various astronomy projects and published the results. Alan Hirshfeld’s article yet again suggests that if something did not happen at Harvard, it did not happen.

Edward W. Kane, M.B.A. ’75
Concord, Mass.


The author replies: Although there were several individual and civic efforts to bolster U.S. astronomy prior to the so-called “observatory movement” of the 1830s, these were generally short-lived or of limited scientific consequence. Rittenhouse’s observatory was shuttered upon his death; the American Philosophical Society leased space for an observatory in 1817, but failed to raise money to install a decent telescope. A comprehensive 1832 report on international astronomy did not mention the U.S. at all. Would-be American astronomers with means traveled to Europe for training. As a Princeton astronomy graduate (who almost daily passed a Rittenhouse orrery on my way to class), I don’t view the history of my field through Crimson-colored glasses. That said, post-1830s Harvard was indeed a major force in the rise of modern American astronomy. A fuller account appears in my book, Starlight Detectives.


The informative Vita is subtitled “Brief life of Harvard’s first astronomer: 1789-1859.” While I can have nothing but admiration for Professor Bond, the position of “Harvard’s first astronomer” was already taken, well before his birth. And that position belongs to Professor John Winthrop: 1714-1779.

James R. Rice
Mallinckrodt professor of engineering sciences and geophysics


Editor’s note:In the 1930 Quinquennial Catalogue of Harvard University, under “Officers of Government and Instruction,” John Winthrop, A.B. 1732, LL.D. ’73, is listed as “Hollis Prof. of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy 1738-1779; Fellow 1765-1779; Acting President of the University 1773-1774.” He was unquestionably an astronomer as well. William Cranch Bond, A.M. (hon.) 1842, appears as “Astronomer 1840-1845; Director (Astron. Observ.) 1845-1859; Phillips Prof. of Astronomy 1858-1859.” “Harvard’s first professor of astronomy” would have yielded a more precise, if more visually unwieldy, subtitle.


The Joys of Running

As a lifelong runner and fitness advocate, I want to thank you and Olivia Munk for the marvelous essay describing her “pet peeve”—running (The Undergraduate, “Running Over Murphy’s Law,” September-October, page 27). I am now both old (71) and slow, but still running after 60-plus years. Two of the very best: 1979-1981, when I spent more time running the Charles River and Commonwealth Ave. than I spent at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Munk’s essay describes beautifully how running can impact someone both physically and emotionally. She is very fortunate to have learned this at a young age, as it will continue to be a great positive for her for many years to come. She will also be a fine role model for many, young and old, women and men.

Stephen Soboroff, M.P.H.-S.M. ’81, M.D.
Marion, Ill.


“Why Can’t We Move?”

In the September-October letters section, John A. Simourian comments about the state of America’s transportation facilities. He characterizes the gasoline tax as “regressive” and advocates a national tax essentially based upon income. He is wrong about the gasoline tax; it has been for over 100 years a user fee based on the concept that those who use our streets, roads, and highways should pay for their construction and maintenance. The 40-year fad of using a truly regressive tax, the sales tax, to finance public transit and even, in some instances, roads, should be the object of his criticism. More relevantly, with the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles on streets paid for by motorists, a better user fee should be based upon miles traveled. The measuring technology exists.

Quentin L. Kopp, LL.B. ’52
San Francisco


Woman in a Box

I was fascinated by the work of Catherine Brekus, which appeared in a highlighted box (Harvard Portrait, page 18) in the September-October issue. Brekus notes that textbooks “have this little human interest thing in a box. That was where the women would appear. My goal as a historian is to get women out of those boxes and into the main texts.”

I wonder if Harvard Magazine recognizes the sad irony of placing Brekus in one of those boxes.

Lisa Chasan-Taber, Sc.D. ’95
Amherst, Mass.


Editor’s note: The Harvard Portrait has appeared in the magazine for decades; in each issue, it highlights the work and life of a member of the community, often a new faculty member. It is a typographical “box,” but it is also the spotlight!


Sexual Assault Survey

After publishing the recent sexual assault survey, President Faust has asked us alumni to respond. Here’s my response: the survey reports much about polled participants’ perceptions about sexual assault, but inquires little about myriad contexts and factors leading to it. Ought now we consider the causal connection of such campus factors as these?

  • No judicious sex separation in residences, e.g., completely co-ed dorms and bathrooms
  • “Gender neutral” policies and dictums which diminish respect for the differences between the sexes
  • Ideological insistence on equality of the sexes in all respects despite scientific reality of legitimate differences
  • The role of excess alcohol consumption in clouding judgment, discretion, and personal dignity
  • Extralegal adjudication of campus assault charges by university administrators that preempts regular legal process for offenders
  • Insufficient due process for those accused of assault, including the unjust presumption of guilt and the certitude of the accusers (consider UVa)
  • A nonsensical intellectualization of administration and faculty that denies the realities of human sexual nature
  • Overly therapeutic culture that in our students fosters narcissism and diminishes personal accountability and responsibility (e.g., “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings,” “safe zones,” etc.)
  • The prevalence of pornography freely available everywhere
  • The official acquiescence to Sex Week (

And how about this question: if one in three Harvard women report being sexually assaulted, why would any sane parents permit their daughters to attend as violent a place as Harvard?

Tom Pyle, M.B.A. ’80
Princeton, N.J.



President Faust and the Corporation continue to insist that divesting from fossil-fuel corporations is a political act. They are correct, but so is continuing to hold these assets, especially when 440 institutions, including other major universities whose mission is similar to ours, with $2.6 trillion in combined assets have now announced that they will not invest in fossil fuels or not in certain kinds of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, tar sands, oil and natural gas from Arctic drilling). The amount of assets now kept from such investment is about 50 times what it was a year ago. Meanwhile, the fossil-fuel lobby spends significant sums, for example, to defeat a California measure that would have targeted a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2030. The lobbying triumphed, further delaying a shift away from fossil fuels.

Derek Bok, President Faust’s predecessor, shared the present Administration’s disposition against divestment, but he recognized that “there are rare occasions when the very nature of a company’s business makes it inappropriate for a university to invest in the enterprise.” We regard fossil-fuel companies as fitting President Bok’s description of inappropriate investments for the University.

At the least, President Faust and the Corporation owe the Harvard community participation in an open forum—something we have requested now for 18 months. The purpose of the forum would be to have the decision-makers of Harvard University engage with faculty, students, and alumni critical of the Administration’s stance, and forthrightly debate the role of divestment in meeting the challenge articulated by countless scientists and most recently by Pope Francis: “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels…needs to be progressively replaced without delay.”

James Anderson, Janet Beizer, Joyce Chaplin,
Eric Seth Chivian, Harvey Cox, Norman Daniels,
James Engell, Bruce Hay, Alice Jardine, Nancy Krieger,
Jane Mansbridge, Stephen Marglin, Naomi Oreskes,
James Recht, Nancy Rosenblum, Richard Thomas,
Nicholas Watson, Daniel Wikler
The signatories, representative members of more than 250 University
faculty who signed an open letter urging divestment, are appointed at the Harvard Law School, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences



Energy Alternatives

“Altering Course: Why the United States may be on the cusp of an energy revolution” (May-June, page 46), about Professor Mara Prentiss, provides an interesting, but misleadingly narrow, perspective on energy needs and the implications of meeting them. As the title indicates, her perspective is American, whereas both energy needs and the implications of meeting them lie primarily outside the United States.

The vast majority of both the need for power and the CO2 emissions likely to follow its provision will come from the developing world. Economic growth and the birth-rate containment it generates will be largely unaffected by conservation and efficiency in the developed world. The U.S. contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions is presently ~20 percent, and will fall to ~10 percent by 2040. Thus, if the United States eliminates its CO2 emissions entirely, the benefit to global warming will be modest. As Professor Joseph Lassiter of the Business School indicates, in coming decades the power-generation increase in China alone will be twice that of the United States, which, in turn, will be twice that of Europe. As Lassiter observes, rich countries can do what they like, whereas poor countries do what they must. Unless China and India find a source of energy that is cheaper than coal, they plan to and will pump huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The Prentiss article fails to even mention the potential panacea offered by power production using a form of nuclear fission called molten-salt reactors (MSRs). MSRs are significantly cheaper, cleaner, and profoundly safer than the already statistically safe pressurized-water reactors (PWRs) used today. In particular, they preclude both phenomena comprising the Fukushima disaster: nuclear meltdown and hydrogen explosions. Note that “preclude” means more than “engineered to be less likely”; it means “rendered impossible.” In MSRs, the fuel is already melted; in an emergency it glides to a frozen halt—without human involvement. The hydrogen that exploded at Fukushima came from the water that cools a PWR. (There’s no water in an MSR.) Some MSRs even consume existing nuclear waste. They can be manufactured and sealed in factories, delivered to sites by truck or train, and removed for decommissioning. Hargraves estimates that MSRs will provide electricity at roughly half the price of burning coal (~$0.03/kWhr versus ~$0.06/kWhr).

The pervasive worldwide use of PWRs resulted from a struggle between two American heroes, Admiral Hyman Rickover and Dr. Alvin Weinberg, director of our nuclear lab at Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the time. Rickover wanted power for his submarines; Weinberg wanted safe civilian power. Rickover won, and the struggle produced one of the most ironic quotes in U.S. history. Congressman Chet Holifield said to Weinberg, “Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy.” Several privately funded startups including Terrestrial, Transatomic and Thorcon, are commercializing Weinberg’s vision (which ran successfully for several years at Oak Ridge). Lassiter predicts that China will make its fateful power-production choices in the mid 2020s. It’s a race against time to demonstrate MSR cost effectiveness soon enough to affect that choice. It’s a sad fact that the licensing and deployment of MSRs will almost certainly occur outside the United States, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is presently confined to PWR licensing.

This story is a wonderful mix of history, technology, politics, as well as contemporary policy relevance; it should have been part of the Prentiss article.

Arthur R. Williams, Ph.D. ’70
Princeton, Mass.


The Securities Exchange Act

A letter from Dan Blatt criticized Cass Sunstein for referring to the Securities Exchange Act, calling the reference a “novice error.” Blatt informed us that “[t]he New Deal provided us with a Securities Act and an Exchange Act and a Securities and Exchange Commission. It did not provide us with a Securities and Exchange Act” (March-April, page 10).

Whether one agrees with Profesor Sunstein or not, his work is hardly deserving of that accusation. Congress did, in fact, create a Securities Exchange Act in 1934 as part of Public Law 73-291 (48 Stat 881), secion 1 of which expressly states, “This Act may be cited as the ‘Securities Exchange Act of 1934.’ ” This provision is presently codified at Title 15 of the United States Code, section 78a. While I supose one can argue that Congress should not have chosen that particular name, power to name a statute rests with Congress, not Blatt.

Kirk McInnis ’82, LL.M. ’94
Piedmont, Calif.


Shared Governance

Before Harvard embarks upon a policy of so-called “shared governance” (7 Ware Street, September-October, page 2), it should examine the experience at other institutions, particularly City College of San Francisco, whose governing board of seven members is elected by San Francisco voters. That board was bullied into the political correctness of “Shared governance” almost a decade ago. The resulting financial and organizational tumult has almost caused the two-year community college to lose its accreditation.

Quentin L. Kopp, LL.B. ’52
San Francisco


Editor’s note: Harvard and most other similar institutions do operate under what they consider, and outside observers would consider, shared governance, with significant faculty involvement in governance. The forms of shared governance of course vary widely.


Sociology Skeptic

I was amused at President Drew Faust’s comment (“Shedding Light through Social Science,” September-October, page 3) that research in the social sciences is “expanding understanding, informing policy, and improving lives.” Several years ago, I was in a laundromat in the Midwest and saw a handwritten job-wanted notice. Since I needed some help washing glassware, I hired the fellow, who with his girlfriend and her baby were surviving on odd jobs and Salvation Army handouts. He drove an old car with a large sheet of plastic duct-taped where the rear window had been. Talking to him, I was surprised to learn he was a college graduate. What did you major in? Sociology.

More recently, I was at a local meeting of political activists, and as we were introducing ourselves, one man said he had a Ph.D. in sociology and was looking for work. Since I’d had good luck with the previous sociology major, I contacted him by e-mail and he sent a résumé. I arranged for him to visit my lab at any time Monday morning, since I had an appointment at 1:00. About 9:30 he called from the train station and asked if I could pick him up. I told him I had a business to run, and gave him the numbers of the two buses that went right by my lab. He called again about an hour later and asked for the address of the lab, which had been included in my e-mail. I left at noon and never saw him.

Perhaps students’ lives could be improved by preventing them from majoring in sociology unless they can show they are self-supporting.

David Mendenhall, Ph.D. ’71
Pomona, N.Y


Rock Rocks

The fascination Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962) had with the pictographic language of the Naxi, a minority nationality in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province in China, led him to collect manuscripts written in pictographs that the Naxi used for performing rituals. With the assistance of the Naxi dtombas (priests), he studied Naxi rituals and culture and published more than 20 articles and books on the Naxi; several appeared posthumously. (For a complete list of his publications, see Anthony Jackson, Na-khi Religion, an Analytical Appraisal of the Na-khi Ritual Text, The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979, pages 343-344.)

Rock collected more than 4,500 Naxi manuscripts, which have been preserved in the United States and Europe. The U.S. holdings, approximately 6,000, including about 1,860 collected by Quentin Roosevelt ’41, are largely in private hands, with the rest in the Library of Congress (2,465 manuscripts) and the Harvard-Yenching Library (598 manuscripts, including 88 from Quentin Roosevelt). In 1995, the Harvard-Yenching Library invited Professor Zhu Baotian, a Naxi expert from the Yunnan Provincial Museum, to prepare a catalog of the Library’s Naxi collection. The result is the 936-page Annotated Catalog of Naxi Pictograph Manuscripts in the Harvard-Yenching Library (Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Library, 1997); Harvard-Yenching Library Bibliographical Series, V.

Eugene W. Wu
Librarian Emeritus, Harvard-Yenching Library
Menlo Park, Calif.

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