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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Endowment taxes, final clubs, Chapter and Verse

March-April 2018

A Too-Political Madison?

In his review of a book about James Madison (“America’s Little Giant,” January-February, page 56), Lincoln Caplan makes the statement that the Electoral College is “obsolete.” I suggest that it is not. The United “States” is just that—a group of states bound together by agreement. The U. S. therefore is not a country, it’s a federation. The Electoral College is just one means of granting power to each state to assert its rights vis-à-vis the federal government. It’s up to each state to create its own mechanism for participating. If the States wish to change how they participate, it’s up to them, including an (unlikely) vote to amend the Constitution.

Richard Borgeson, J.D. ’69
Katonah, N.Y.

 

I have long admired Caplan’s writing, but even the best among us can let political leanings cloud historical judgment. Caplan used his book review to bemoan “big money,” voter ID laws, and Internet bots. Really?

A reviewer with libertarian, rather than progressive, instincts could just as easily (and perhaps more accurately) have identified the existential threat to Madisonian government as the inexorable expansion of centralized power, federal encroachment into citizens’ daily lives, the rise of the administrative state, and the permanence of stopgap measures meant to address transitory crises (2018 marks the country’s fortieth consecutive year under a multitude of presidentially declared emergencies). As the late Shattuck professor of government James Q. Wilson noted, the “legitimacy barrier” demarcating a given sphere in which the federal government may act has fallen almost entirely by the wayside: “Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do.” 

Better yet, we could resist the temptation on all sides to remake the founders in our own image. Historical inquiry tends to reveal that our current situation is not as unique, our predicament not as severe, and our indignation not as righteous as we imagine in the moment. It is no doubt comforting to claim the mantle of Madison’s constitutionalism, but self-justification is rarely the path to wisdom.

Charles G. Kels ’00
San Antonio

 

One would think a review of a new book on James Madison (“America’s Little Giant,” January-February 2018, page 56) would have at least mentioned Madison’s views on a limited central government, as reflected in the Tenth Amendment and in his Federalist #45 advice that the powers “delegated” to the new government were “few and defined.” The lack of such a discussion on such a major point surprised, and that is not the only obvious problem I have with this review.

The review appears to analyze Madison’s “constitutionalism” (described as based on freedom of speech and association, along with separation of powers) by reference to voter ID laws, by which, it is claimed, “Republicans have made it much harder to vote in much of the country.” Leaving aside the bewildering leap between theory and those laws, the reviewer nowhere mentions the example of Rhode Island, where a Democrat legislature introduced and passed a voter ID law, nor does the writer note that the people overwhemingly support voter-photo ID laws (80 percent of all respondents, including 63 percent Democrats per 2016 Gallup; 76 percent overall with 58 percent Democrats per 2015 Rasmussen). After the head-scratching, this reader is left with the conclusion that the new book was merely a handy vehicle for venting against laws the reviewer—as opposed to the public—doesn’t like.

George Vary ’70
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

 

Speak Up, Please

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by email to [email protected].

 

Endowment Taxes

I’d like to make a few comments about “Taxing Matters” (January-February, page 17).

Harvard is subject to a tax rate of 1.4 percent. This rate is considerably below the rate that the rest of us pay. In fact, most of us would kill for a tax rate of 1.4 percent.

Drew Faust worried about “weakening the nation’s strongest contributors to medical cures, economic innovation, job creation....” Leaving aside the grandiosity of this comment, it just means that Harvard will have to make the same choices that all the rest of us make. Many of us have had to postpone or eliminate purchases and expenditures we would like to have made because we had to pay taxes instead.

Finally, it does not seem that Harvard and other universities had many advocates arguing their side of the issue. Why were they so isolated? It could be that they have adopted and promulgated political correctness, which does disdain and disparage the beliefs that many of us have. If Harvard and other universities deliberately alienate a large part of the public, they should not be surprised when the public acts in ways other than what Harvard perceives as its own best interests.

As a last thought, it is amusing to be lectured about “conservative principles” by a liberal magazine representing a liberal institution. If two can play at this game, can I note that “liberal principles” are in favor of larger government and higher taxes—and so Harvard and Harvard Magazine should have been promoting these higher taxes long since?

Tom Neagle, M.B.A. ’72
Fort Mill, S.C.

 

To fully understand the impact of the tax reform on Harvard, one must examine all sides of the issue.

While the very slight increase in the tax on endowment income may have a modestly deleterious impact on the University community, that impact is offset by the dramatic capital gains in the stock market, since the election of Donald J. Trump. Using the S&P 500 as a proxy for the endowment, I estimate (without having the actual numbers at my fingertips) that the Harvard endowment has grown by $6 billion since the election of DJT.

Such capital gains dwarf, rather dramatically, the very slight tax imposed on the investment income, which amounts to an estimated $20 million per year. In other words, Harvard has already gained enough in capital gains to cover 300 years of that tax increase…and even more if future cash flows are discounted according to proper mathematical discounting rates. Future increases in donations can also be expected from a raging bull market with a low tax structure.

The tax-reform package is not the enemy of academia and innovation. Neither is capitalism itself. Quite the contrary, actually, Trumpian tax reform is a boon to academia and to innovators both within and without the university walls.

For Harvard to truly excel at innovation, it should begin by embracing the greatest innovation in the history of mankind, namely capitalism itself.

Jonathan L. Gal ’89
Provo, Utah

 

Editor’s note: The magazine does not have a political orientation; among the commentators cited were some conservatives who decried the imposition of federal taxation on formerly tax-exempt nonprofit institutions—an extension of the public sector into a formerly private realm. Given the diverse composition of the endowment, an index of publicly traded U.S. stocks, like the S&P 500, is an insufficient benchmark for investment performance. And it is possible, of course, that lower tax rates may discourage philanthropy.

 

Final Clubs, Continued

While at Harvard, I did not belong to a fraternity or a final club. So my ox is not being gored. What the President and Fellows sent out December 5 (News Briefs, January-February, page 20) is a megadose of condescending self-righteous simpering superiority. Big Brother knows best, and until the benighted come to recognize his truth, he will withhold “decanal endorsements and leadership positions supported by institutional resources.” So get with the program, you fraternities, sororities, and final clubs at Harvard. The telescreen is watching.

Bill Swann ’64
Knoxville, Tenn.

 

I would like to make the following modest proposal regarding the Harvard administration’s effort to punish single-sex clubs.

These clubs aren’t on the campus and they own their own real estate. They sit close to the College. I’m reminded here of another such institution: St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Harvard Square, which sits in proximity to some of these same clubs and whose sexism is of a piece with these organizations’. When did you last hear of a Catholic female priest, cardinal, or bishop? The power in this Church resides with the male sex. 

So I think any student who is seen entering St. Paul’s should be subjected to the same punishment being dished out to a single-sex club member: no Rhodes nor Marshall scholarship nor a team captaincy. To enforce this, the University should employ non-Catholic students to photograph anyone of student age seen entering the church at times of a mass. Using facial-recognition software, the administration could easily identify Harvard students. The tactic could also be applied to students attending Orthodox Jewish services in Cambridge. When did you last meet a female Orthodox rabbi ?

I am of course being facetious. But I’m deliberately invoking a spectre of a new McCarthyism, one that is likely to happen if the University’s sanctions against these clubs go into place. It is certain that the lists of club members will be kept secret. Will the College employ students to infiltrate these organizations and note who the members are and start “naming names” (as we said in the 1950s) to deans ?

The sanctions may be well intended. But there are certain problems that the College cannot solve. 

A. David Wunsch, Ph.D. ’69
Belmont, Mass. 

 

Harvard’s Nuremberg Laws: The appropriate title for President Faust’s efforts to ban USGSOs.

John Gamel ’66
Louisville, Ky.

In the “framework” for the Corporation’s policy decision regarding USGSOs (unrecognized single-gender-social organizations), it is stated:

“[USGSOs] stand in the way of our ability to provide a fully challenging and inclusive educational experience to the diverse students currently on our campus.”

Elsewhere, it concluded from an undergraduate survey that “the status quo is untenable. Final clubs are omnipresent and omnipotent….The stratification that many of these groups insert into our community is striking and their impact is widely felt.”

The extreme animus toward final clubs is clear, and apparently “it cannot be seriously disputed that the overall impact [of the USGSOs] is negative.” Yet, the policy states “students may decide to join an USGSO and remain in good standing.” Although the policy states that it does not discipline or punish the students who choose to join USGSOs (and exercise a constitutional right to associate and assemble with persons of their choice), the policy exacts sanctions from students who do commit the “mortal sin” of joining an USGSO.

I call this a “mortal sin” because there is no tolerance or forgiveness for a student who exercises a reasonable judgment to join a gender exclusive group of persons with whom he or she would like to associate. He or she is in effect “blackballed” by Harvard regardless of that student’s merits as a scholar, athlete, potential leader of student organizations, participant in arts programs, or participant in his or her House activity.

In my opinion, a participant in a USGSO is not per se a poor member of Harvard’s community. If he or she is well regarded by an athletic team or by one of 200 or so Harvard organizations, the members of those organizations should be able to vote for him or her as a leader. Harvard should not prevent those members from recognizing that student’s excellence.

I fear this policy’s obsession (with gender inclusivity and the lack of tolerance) may spread:

Does or would Harvard admissions policy include an inquiry into an applicant’s high school/prep school experience with same-gender organizations?

Does Harvard’s employment process inquire about participation in same-gender organizations?

Is participation in Harvard’s governance conditioned on current and prior abstinence from same-gender organizations?

Would each member of Harvard’s faculty be required to affirm that he or she is not and never has been a member of a gender-exclusive organization?

I consider these sanctions to be meanspirited, if not cruel and unusual punishment. One student’s membership in a USGSO cannot so damage the Harvard community that a student should be disabled from leadership or academic advancement regardless of his or her merit.

Telling us that the student has a choice is a cop out by a powerful Harvard.

The more appropriate way for Harvard to have proceeded was a straightforward attempt to forbid gender-exclusive organizations. But since there may be legal obstacles to this approach, Harvard chose to bear down on each student. That is an improper abuse of its power; it is a bullying tactic.

The policy says the student should weigh the consequences of choice. We see the problems and machinations the implementation of this policy entails: first investigation, then oaths, and then registration. Should we expect a registration fee, annually? Will we see publication of a list of “gender excluders” so that other organizations will not make the mistake of advancing these sinners into leadership positions? Will someone propose that these sinners wear a “GE” badge? Yes, I am imagining the extreme because Harvard’s approach is an extreme to begin with.

I foresee a bureaucratic swamp, the cost of which will simply be added on. Did the faculty/administration do a cost-benefit analysis? I bet not.

Another possible consequence is that Harvard’s manipulative approach will be held in disdain by many. I am one of the many and my support for Harvard will end.

In my opinion this USGSO policy is an “ugly” manipulation of a student’s choice. If the student decides to join an USGSO, can this choice be redeemed in any way, perhaps by later resignation (just prior to his/her election as the captain of a team or as the president of the Glee Club)? Or does the wrong choice cause an indelible “blacklisting” in the student’s record, making the student incapable of academic advancement by fellowship? Is there a way to be forgiven?

Giving the student choice and then sanctioning the student if he/she chooses “wrongly” is just plain ugly. I expected more from “fair” Harvard and it should reverse this crude attempt to socially engineer gender inclusivity in final clubs, sororities, and fraternities.

Fair Harvard, please rescind this policy quickly. Do not saddle a new president with the task of defending this ugly policy. Rescind now so I can look forward to my sixtieth reunion.

Full disclosure: Yes, I joined a final club 60 years ago and enjoyed the experience. However, I did witness one “blackballing” incident that disgusted me. I probably should have resigned, but did not. That memory has lasted through the years and is probably why I am so disgusted with Harvard’s “blackballing” maneuver against the students who choose to join a USGSO.

Richard H. (“John”) Pille ’59
Binghamton, N.Y.

 

Robobees

In “The RoboBee Collective”  (November-December 2017, page 56), you describe the sort of ambitious, cross-disciplinary and multi-pronged project that is a hallmark of Harvard engineering. The article chronicles in detail the contributions of Professors Robert Wood, Gu-Yeon Wei, and David Brooks, and refers briefly to a critical co-leader of the RoboBee project, Professor Radhika Nagpal. Your readers may enjoy learning more about her important role in this work.

While Wood, Wei, and Brooks helped the RoboBee take flight and control its aerial maneuvers, Nagpal’s expertise in collective artificial intelligence provided the theoretical basis for a swarm of RoboBees to communicate and function as a colony. Her research on self-organizing multi-agent systems takes bio-inspiration from social insects such as termites and ants. In her Kilobot project, with its 1,024 golf ball-sized microbots, she pioneered an understanding of how to program large-scale autonomous swarms. Not only was Nagpal’s work a cornerstone of the RoboBee vision, it was chosen as one of the top 10 breakthroughs by the journals Science and Nature. 

 She has furthered the exploration of embodied intelligence of autonomous robot collectives in her Termes project. How is it, she asks, that individual termites cooperate to build stunningly complex mounds, or legions of army ants coordinate efforts to transport materials and build dynamic structures? And how can we use insight into such collective behavior to get large swarms of robots—whether they crawl, fly, or swim under water—to carry out useful tasks, from plant pollination to construction to search and rescue operations? Her Self-Organizing Systems Research Group is breaking new ground on these foundational questions.

Along the way, Nagpal has forged a role as tenacious champion of the next generation of engineers and scientists and serves as a role model for young women interested in STEM. 

Frank  Doyle
Dean, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Salil Vadhan
Area Chair, Computer Science, SEAS

 

Chapter and Verse Lives On

I was sorry to see that Chapter & Verse  (January-February, page 58) has been largely replaced by the Internet and will become “an occasional item only.” I spent a long time trying to track down a story via the Internet, but it was a C&V reader who recognized the plot and told me the name of “The Shanrahan Strad,” as well as the book where it was published. I enjoyed getting reacquainted with stories I remember from high school, and I’ve used “The Shanrahan Strad” frequently since in remedial reading classes. I was also pleased to be able twice to help other seekers of lost words.

I always look for C&V in my Harvard Magazine, and I still will look for the occasional posting. Another small bright pleasure crushed by the power of the computer.

Jane Arnold, A.L.B.’85, M.T.S. ’92
Queensbury, N.Y.

 

I was disappointed to learn that you intend to discontinue Chapter and Verse except as “an occasional item only.” In my view, it has been one of the features that distinguish Harvard Magazine from other alumni magazines that I receive. It certainly has not been superseded by the World Wide Web, as the farewell notice maintains.

There are often connections in memory that cannot yet be fully duplicated by artificial intelligence. About 15 or 20 years ago, at a time when Google searches were already available, I was able to supply the answer to a “Chapter and Verse” question because I remembered reading a short story many years earlier in an O.Henry Prize anthology; this information allowed me then to find the full citation on the Internet through the O.Henry Prize listings. Clearly it had not been found there by the questioner or by Harvard Magazine, since the editor subsequently wrote to me to ask what type of search strategy I had used to locate the citation. 

I hope that you will reconsider the magazine’s decision, and that you will keep “Chapter and Verse” as one of your regular features.

Edward Tabor ’69
Bethesda, Md.

 

Editor’s note: We are not killing off the department; it will appear occasionally, depending on when we receive queries, or answers. The volume of queries has declined, likely because of the power of contemporary online searches (the favorable interpretation), or because there are fewer readers (the unfavorable one). Happily, we have received a new query, and C&V appears on page 58.

 

Ship’s Fate

The ship mentioned in “American Studies” (The College Pump, January-February, page 68) did in fact sink. The S.S. Harvard and its sister ship, the S.S. Yale, sailed between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On May 30, 1931, while steaming south, the Harvard made what was termed an improper course correction and ran aground on some rocks about four miles north of Point Arguello. All the passengers were taken off in the lifeboats, but the ship could not be freed from the rocks. It broke up and sank two weeks later.

Paul McCormick, LL.B. ’65
Bloomfield, Conn.

 

The life preserver from S.S. Harvard recalls the century-old scandal involving the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, its attempt to monopolize all forms of transportation in southern New England, and its running battle with Boston’s “people’s attorney,” Louis D. Brandeis, LL.B. 1877.

Harvard and her sister ship, Yale, were built in 1907 for the Metropolitan Steamship Company, which intended to use them in competition with the New Haven’s own steamship lines on Long Island Sound (including the legendary Fall River Line). In a set of devious transactions motivated by the New Haven, in 1910 Harvard and Yale were transferred to a Pacific Coast steamship operator for service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, to get them out of New England.

John Reading, Ed.M. ’72
Brookline, Mass.

 

More on Mercer

Two thoughts concerning Henry Chapman Mercer (Vita, by Nancy Freudenthal, January-February, page 40).

When I was an architecture student at Penn in the mid ’60s, Mercer’s astonishing buildings were a pilgrimage objective to those of us less prone to orthodoxies. The photos accompanying the article brought back a vivid memory of being admitted to Fonthill by a fussy, tiny old lady who was said to have been his housekeeper. We had the astonishing house and glorious museum to ourselves—the norm then, I suspect.

The article does not mention Edmund March (Ned) Wheelwright’s use of Mercer’s Moravian tiles in the Harvard Lampoon building, where his name appears immediately below those of Ned and his brother Jack in a memorial window. Although Mercer, unlike the Wheelwrights, was not a Lampoon member, they did overlap at Harvard and were all involved in College theatrics. Later both Ned and Mercer were inscribed as “Masters” of the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts. And J.T. Coolidge (as noted, the author of a Mercer obituary) was an “India Wharf Rat,” along with the Wheelwrights.

Dennis J. De Witt, M.Arch. ’74
Brookline, Mass.

 

We were delighted to read the Vita on ceramicist Henry Chapman Mercer, and noted with interest the mention of his floor tiles at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Unmentioned and gone—but not forgotten—were the Mercer tiles at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. They were originally laid on the ambulatory floor that ran (and still runs) around the courtyard at the second-floor level. But the tiles were unable to survive the demolition and reconstruction necessary to bring the museum into the twenty-first century, in terms of climate control, functional flexibility, and, perhaps, the aesthetic of the renovation’s architect. Yet we still cherish our memory of the tiles’ warm rose color, handcrafted irregularity, and harmonious union with the stucco walls and gold ground paintings usually hanging above them. 

Marjorie Benedict Cohn, A.M. ’61
Weyerhaeuser curator of prints emerita
Arlington, Mass.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer, A.M. ’63
Former chair, Art Museums Visiting Committee
St. Louis

 

Nancy Freudenthal responds: I appreciate the comments of all three writers who seem to share my joy in Mercer’s work—whether the warmth of his tiles or the imagination of his architecture. I wrote the Vita to pass along my enthusiasm and am so pleased to receive enthusiasm, and information, in return. It is satisfying to imagine I might have encountered his tiles at the Fogg long before I became aware of Mercer, and intriguing to learn of tiles not in the published (not necessarily complete) records of the Tileworks. Those records do include the Lampoon Castle, but as images don’t seem to be had, I was delighted to see the window honoring Mercer’s role in the building. He reported that in 1909 he was made an honorary Lampoon editor. Now I understand why.

 

The Lord’s Work

The story on Father Columba Stewart (“From Here to Timbuktu,” January-February, page 62) rings close to home to me. I was a member of the Harvard staff in 1975 when we admitted this somewhat unusual kid from a public high school in Texas. Fast forward some 30 plus years, and Father Stewart and I found ourselves in rural, central Minnesota “working” for the monks and nuns of St. Benedict.

The article documented well his incredible journey and contributions. I remained in higher education as associate director of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe until 1981, when I left to finish my doctoral studies at the Graduate School of Education.

Father Columba and I sit on the President’s Cabinet at St. John’s University with another Harvard guy, President Michael Hemesath; needless to say, with his academic credentials and his personal courage, when Columba speaks, we all listen intently. I am so pleased that the magazine chose to do this story. He is the best possible example of wisdom, passion, faith, and commitment. He is, indeed, doing the Lord’s work.

Cal Ryan-Mosley, Ed.D. ’81
Minnetonka, Minn.

 

Up a Tree

I was delighted about the article publicizing the Arnold Arboretum’s efforts to collect living material from remote Sichuan, China (“Botanizing in the ‘Mother of Gardens,’” January-February, page 32).

Dedicated botanists like Michael Dosmann and Andrew Gapinski are safekeepers of our planet’s vanishing natural wealth. I’ve studied trees for more 30 years in forests across tropical East Asia and I understand their motivations and joys. And their frustrations!

Their struggles to collect specimens from trees were all too familiar. Despite loads of tantalizing seeds overhead, often they didn’t even attempt the fruitless effort. The one major limitation in my career has been the inaccessibility of a tree’s branches. My most effective tool has often been a “wrist rocket” and a rock, yielding a leaf or two for DNA analysis.

We need creative tools to study trees, like an autonomous rover to explore the forest’s “outer space.” The tangled mass of life in the forest canopy is unbelievably dynamic and alive and can be destroyed in a few hours with a chainsaw. We need the focused engineering ingenuity and sense of urgency that put astronauts on the moon. We spend billions to measure Jupiter’s magnetic fields while botany’s “cutting-edge” tool is a long pruning pole! The misplaced priorities are astounding.

As director of the Center for Tree Science at the Morton Arboretum, I engage engineers, students, and businesspeople to invent and develop new tree-science tools. We’re designing drone-based leaf-harvesters, canopy robotics for 24/7 observation, and a “tree observatory” to integrate simultaneous streams of data for a holistic view of tree response to our rapidly changing world.

If you are a cutting-edge engineer tired of the cold, abstract, dead world of outer space, join us! Help us revolutionize our ability to explore life on Earth. Think of the technology that can successfully navigate the branches of a tree! Endless possibilities await!

Chuck Cannon ’88
Lisle, Ill.

 

Energy Issues

The article about Professor O’Sullivan’s work, “A Geopolitical Windfall” (January-February, page 8)—promoting fracking with little attention to its environmental impact—would have better been titled “Building a Bridge to Fracture the Climate.”

I do not see mention in Harvard Magazine’s description of her book Windfall that she has a geopolitical vision or strategy that promotes clean energy. Natural gas is sometimes justified as a bridge to clean energy. But fracking is at least a bridge to disaster, and it can also be described as a one-way gangplank off the side of a pirate ship at sea. Already in Boston and all coastal areas, the sea is rising and the climate is getting weird. Human-influenced “natural” disasters will be arriving more intensely and sooner because of fracking.

The reason is that about 2 percent to 7 percent of natural gas (mostly methane) inevitably leaks from the fracking wells and fissures, from cross-country pipes into cities like Boston where local pipes are often decrepit, and from there into homes. Gas industry’s engineering estimates dispute this, and it is impossible system-wide to measure directly the rate of leakage, but we do have this range of estimates. Undisputed is that methane is a very potent “greenhouse” gas—on average over 20 or 25 years, one methane molecule is about 70 times more climate-changing than one molecule of CO2 emitted after combustion. Now we can do the math by multiplying methane’s potency of 70 times between 2 percent to 7 percent leaking methane. The product is climate-destruction at a rate between 1.5 to 5 times faster than emitting CO2 from burning coal or any other fossil fuel. To this must be added the damage from CO2 emitted when unleaked natural gas is burned.

To take us safely from here to eternity, a comprehensive geopolitical energy strategy will include nuclear power, but not the “business-as-usual” kind. Advanced-design reactors are the only clean technology to make enough “base-load” electricity—needed when the sun does not shine on our imported Chinese solar panels and the wind does not blow to turn our Danish wind turbines. Advanced nuclear-power reactors cannot melt down, can be made proliferation-resistant, and will consume as fuel the radioactive waste stockpiled at today’s nuclear-power plants.

O’Sulllivan would do well to contemplate this geopolitical question: will the coming advanced reactors be “made in USA”? Not if we continue with a vision limited to fracking. Official U.S. geopolitical inattention is about to allow another major industry to be lost to China and other countries that are perfecting advanced nuclear designs. As with solar panels, the Chinese in the next decade likely will manufacture and export advanced nuclear reactors to the waiting world, even as the U.S. persists in fracturing the climate with the fuels of the nineteenth century.

Richard W. Emory Jr., LL.B. ’67
Boynton Beach, Fla.

Knee Pain

One factor not covered in “The New Rub on Knee Pain” (January-February, page 10) is the first-world abdication of bending in the hip.

Whether it is the use of chairs, modern toilets, or some other aspect of modern life (traveling in cars?), people have forgotten how to sink first in the hip and then bend the knee when doing any weight-bearing activity. We have surrendered our ability to squat.

There is also the tendency to let the knee get out of alignment with its respective foot and hip. When all are aligned and activity takes place in this plane, knee pain disappears or is greatly reduced.

Over a decade of teaching tai chi has shown me over and over again how effective these guidelines are. People have not lost the ability to bend in their hips…it happens easily, without pain, when I show them…but they have lost the concept of that bending. People need to reconnect to the body knowledge they had when they were four-year-olds.

We cannot analyze a body part in isolation from the whole. Stepping back to look at the whole body should benefit Professor Lieberman and Ian Wallace in their ongoing research.

Elizabeth B. Perry ’70
Philadelphia

Chronic knee problems affect more and more of us as we age, incur injuries, maybe gain some weight and ride more and walk less.

One doctor, a distinguished professor of orthopedics who studied the knee anf came to believe that knee function could often be maintained without surgery, was Robert S. Siffert.

He was a physician first and a surgeon second. Brooklyn-born, he earned medals in World War II while serving in Southeast Asia, studied bone physiology while head of orthopedics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, taught orthopedics to countless doctors all over the world while volunteering for CARE, carved hundreds of excellent woodcuts while in retirement, and was, all in all, a “mensch.”

While one case doesn’t “make the case,” his advice was invaluable to me, and to subsequent countless knee patients with whom I’ve shared it. So here it is:

When I was first seen, I was about 50 and had had knee pain and swelling since childhood, having had my left knee operated on at age 10 after a penetrating injury incurred in Central Park while playing roller-skate hockey. At age 40, my right knee was repaired at Columbia Presbyterian after I tore the cartilage skiing.

Both knees would periodically swell up and hurt after two sets of tennis or four of squash; I thought I needed knee replacements, but Siffert told me that: inflammation of the knee often results from repetitive sudden stops on hard surfaces, with consequent slippage of the distal femur on the tibial head, without adequate cartilage cushioning; this slippage could be minimized by maximal tightening of the knee joint; this tightening could be achieved and maintained by daily exercises for the rest of my life; if I could do that, I could continue to play tennis without pain or swelling; and that knee replacement was not needed.

He was right; I’m now eighty-nine and a half, still play three sets of tennis weekly, and only get knee pain or swelling when I neglect the exercises.

OK—so what are the exercises? The answer is very simple: straight leg raising with weights, as follows:

Every day, I take an old shoe, with a hook screwed into its heel, out from under the bed or couch; I then hang three old window sash-weights (lashed together and weighing 20 pounds), on the screw hook, put my foot in the shoe, extend my leg, and raise the shoe and weights up for six seconds, put it down, and repeat this 10 times. Then I do the same with the other foot and shoe, never bending either leg (which, with the weight, would put undue stress on the joint).

It takes less than 10 minutes for both leg exercises, which keep the vastus muscles, tendons, and ligaments (which support the knee) strong and the knee joint tight. When starting out, it’s wise to use an old Clorox bottle and add water gradually so as to avoid tendonitis from excess weight too soon, until the muscles are strengthened.

Until the habit is established, the exercises need to be made as convenient as possible, hence the shoes and hooks; swelling and pain serve as reminders when we’re careless. These exercises have the potential to help all those whose knees cry out “Help!”—and constitute an active memorial thank you to a very wise doctor, the late Robert S. Siffert!

Nicholas Cunningham ’50, M.D., Dr. P.H.
Emeritus professor of clinical pediatrics and public health
Columbia University
Springfield Center, N.Y.

It is always a pleasure to receive and read Harvard Magazine. I invariably learn new things.

I am writing to you as I have in the past. When I see something that needs clarification, it is my wish and obligation to remark on this item. The last time I contacted you was to point out the left-handed DNA helix on the cover of the magazine some months ago.

The most recent edition has an article about exciting work demonstrating the dramatic increase in osteoarthritis in recent man. As discussed by Jonathan Shaw, the reason for this recent increase is not known, but Lieberman and Wallace postulate that it may be “physical inactivity, which increased with the mid-twentieth century shift to service-sector employment…is an important factor.” However Shaw goes on to suggest that such an explanation might be counterintuitive.

I’d like to point out a few things about the cell biology of cartilage, which Shaw may not know. My suspicion is that Lieberman and/or Wallace know this, but perhaps it bears a reminder.

Cartilage is unique among the connective tissues in the body because it is avascular (has no blood vessels). It is made up mostly of extracellular material secreted by cartilage cells, which wall themselves into cavities (like a painter painting herself into a corner) know as lacunae. Even after they surround themselves with the extracellular matrix, they continue to be active, metabolizing and maintaining the health of the cartilage. To do this, they must get oxygen and glucose and get rid of carbon dioxide just like all other metabolically active cells. How can they do this in the absence of capillaries (indeed any blood vessels at all)?

The answer lies in the unique nature of the extracellular matrix in cartilage. It is made up largely of proteoglycans, which are polymers of glycosaminoglycans (saccharides) covalent attached to a protein backbone. Because the GAG chains are highly negatively charged, they repel each other and form a large space-filling molecule that is highly hydrated (absorbs a lot of water). Within the connective tissue that surrounds the cartilage in a synovial joint, there are lots of blood vessels, and gases, nutrients, and waste products are exchanged between the blood in the perichondrial capillaries and the interstitial space. These dissolved components then slosh through the extracellular matrix of the cartilage to nourish the chondrocytes. The “sloshing” is like squeezing and releasing a sponge—it requires alternating compression and relaxation of pressure on the cartilage. Of course, this periodic compression and release normally occur when using the joints to bear weight, to walk, to move our hands, etc. Absent this exercise-induced “sloshing,” the chondrocytes become starved and unhealthy, and therefore unable to adequately maintain the cartilage tissue.

The nature of the highly hydrated proteoglycans in cartilage tissue is the reason astronauts get taller in space—the normal body weight does not press out water, and intervertebral discs (the “sponge”) fills up, increasing the distance between spinal vertebrae. This increase in heigh rapidly reverses when an astronaut returns to earth, as the water is squeezed out by gravity. I would also expect that long-stay astronauts would also experience accelerated osteoarthritis because of the lack of fluid exchange and the resulting ill-health of the chondrocytes.

I wasn’t able to find any data on this question, but it seems to be the subject of a recently proposed study, though the authors also seem to be confused about the cell biology of chondrocytes and cartilage, since the authors predict an increase in osteoarthritis accompanied by a thinning of the cartilage. I would predict that, although the chondrocytes would become unhealthy in space, the cartilage would actually get thicker (over the short term) because of the lack of periodic compressions, resulting in increased hydration of the ECM (see this schematic diagram of a proteoglycan).

I hope you find these comments illuminating and useful. Do not hesitate to contact me for further information or discussion.

Erik Schweitzer ’75, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate research neuroscientist
Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences
Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA
Los Angeles

Fred Moten

As one who has, in the words of Jesse McCarthy’s beautifully written piece on Fred Moten ’84 (“The Low End Theory,” January-February, page 42), “little or no knowledge of black studies” (and who had hoped to be educated by the article), I was left after reading it several times with the sense that Moten is to a considerable extent a creature of McCarthy’s imagination. We are told that Moten commands wide respect “in...the academy,” but we are not shown why this is the case. Certainly not by exposure to such quotes as “I got something that makes me want to shout”; or “I got soul, and I’m super bad”; or (Moten on Derrida) “This is for the people who want to tear shit up....”

McCarthy has the dazzling skill, so it seems to me, to have written a piece similar to this one celebrating in equally convincing fashion the author of that fifties rock-’n’-roll classic which contained as I recall about a dozen words, most of them endless repeats of “Sha na na na, sha na na na na, boop boop”; and (listen closely now) “Get a job.”

John Thorndike ’64, J.D. ’68
Palm Beach

Prodigies

Prodigies’ Progress,” by Ann Hulbert (January-February, page 46) was fascinating. I look forward to reading her new book, Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies. This topic is of particular interest because I interviewed more than 150 “music parents” several years ago to report on their experiences raising musical youngsters in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide: A Parent-to-Parent Conversation (Oxford, 2014), a book designed to help other parents walk the music parenting tightrope and find ways to be supportive without being overbearing. Some offspring of the parents featured in the book, as well as some of the more than two dozen professional musicians I also interviewed, definitely fit into the “prodigy” category when they were young children; others had a less precocious beginning but still managed to blossom musically.

I found that a range of parenting styles proved successful in allowing youngsters to develop into accomplished musicians, whether or not they started as prodigies. A few parents used a strict oversight parenting style, similar to what lawyer Amy Chua describes in the memoir that Hulbert cites. Other parents took a laissez-faire approach. Many used a combination of those methods. Often parents didn’t use the same approach with each of their children—different kids, different problems. In addition, over the course of raising their children, many parents modified their approach, especially as youngsters approached early adolescence, turbulent years that can lead to a practice slowdown among musical youngsters, threats of quitting, or a shift in musical tastes. One particularly effective strategy used by many families was to hit the pause button, so everyone could take a step back and ease up on expectations for a while, in order to give parents, child, and the child’s music teachers a chance to figure out what was going on and how to set a new course. As Mark Churchill, former dean of New England Conservatory’s Preparatory School, notes in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide, “There is absolutely no formula. It’s a step-by-step, trial-and-error process. Of course, you map out a plan, but it needs to be a very flexible plan.”

Amy Nathan ’67, M.A.T. ’68
Larchmont, N.Y.

Systemic Weakness

On the occasion of selecting a new president for Harvard, a reminder of the fundamental weakness in Harvard’s governance—the Corporation’s autocratic rights of self-renewal and selection of Harvard’s top leadership. As everyone is aware, these powers derive from the original 1650 act of incorporation by the Massachusetts General Court, to which the Corporation was answerable until the mid-nineteenth century. Since then the Corporation has been left to guide itself and set University policy with token supervision by the Overseers. The basic problem is the incompatibility of this system of governance with our modern world. Think what you will about Harvard’s long and storied history, and the comparative drawbacks of democracy as a social and political system; for better or worse it is the system we have, and whatever the Harvard Corporation’s original necessity to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and its purpose in the minds of its Puritan progenitors, in practice it is now an anachronism, a superannuated relic of dogmas and canards that the overwhelming majority of Harvard’s alumni now categorically reject. We don’t agree that the Bible is the final authority and arbiter of human conduct—specifically in this case the Geneva Bible transported to the New World by the English Puritans—nor do we agree that the purpose of public literacy is to read Scripture and rightly interpret the Holy Word, nor that God has somehow appointed us the Elect, the ones exclusively predestined for salvation and entrusted with reminding the remainder of humanity of its hopeless consignment to Hell; nor do we believe that women should be subordinate to men in law and custom as the Bible decrees, or that slavery is God’s will, or that belief in adult baptism merits death or exile, or that higher education is meant for young white Protestant males of English descent—to name just some of the pre-Enlightenment canons of Puritan thinking we now find repugnant. Today we view these precepts as impossibly narrow, obsolete, and wrongheaded—the conceits of a God-intoxicated band of zealots, thankfully consigned to the dustbin of history by the wise hand of fate—and yet these are the beliefs that led to the creation of Harvard College, charged with inculcating Reformed Calvinism in the tiny band of the Elect and the reprobate mass of humanity. And therefore, in spite of the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of liberal democracy, it should not surprise us to know this unbending Calvinist faith in the inveterate rightness of its actions still hangs on tenaciously at the place where it all began in the New World—in the rights and powers still exercised by the Corporation of Harvard College.

To be fair to the Puritans, we must grant that American democracy derives not merely from English-style Congregationalism but from a number of sources, and that the Puritans were not the only group to settle in the New World that ascribed to democratic ideas of self-governance. However, there is no evidence to suggest the Puritan founders of Harvard believed in egalitarian democracy as we now define it; theirs was a theocracy within a strict social framework of white male property-holders and freemen, not for any liberal egalitarian aim but to insure rigid uniformity of belief and right conduct within the Colony. Even after the passage of 385 years we can safely assume all who sat at the Puritan table sincerely believed in universal depravity, the eternity of sainthood for the Elect, the necessity of infant baptism, and other fundamental Calvinist tenets; and to challenge the sincerity of their beliefs, because we find them so distasteful to our modern palate, is a disingenuous, tendentious rewriting of history for the purpose of sanitizing our past. So at least we can square with the Puritan founders of this country, and concede the College was created to transmit their bleak theology and inflexible social order to the New World, and not to impart learning in the broad sense we now take it to mean. Indeed, theirs was learning of an impossibly narrow order—the mastery of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew for the exclusive purpose of transmitting the nuances of the Old and New Testaments as contained in the Geneva Bible. Nor were the pagan Classics taught for love of the Ancients and to command language and expression, as taught to European schoolchildren since the sixteenth century; to the medieval Puritan mind, Plato, Aristotle, and Ovid mattered only insofar as they contributed to a Christian reading of history, and held no value as objects of study except as they added to the students’ grasp of the Bible in its original Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. And, as the evidence suggests, what was true of language and literature to the Puritan founders of Harvard was equally true of science; it counted for nothing except as it conformed to the Word—the literal Word of the Bible and the divinely inspired Word of the Elect, which served as final arbiter of mankind’s acts and guide to determining humanity’s place in the natural order—and science without divine moral guidance from the Word was not only heretical but mortally dangerous to the prospect of salvation, however uncertain this was even to the Elect.

So in truth it is not on account of the Puritans but in spite of them that Harvard has evolved into the progressive institution we see today; for incontrovertible evidence of this, we need look no further than the fact that it took 380 years for the Corporation to agree to a woman president, only slightly longer than it took to appoint the first Jewish president, and that to date there has never been a person of Oriental or African origin to occupy this chair. These are not anomalies or accidents of history but the result of how Harvard came to be. It is compelling evidence, for those of us in need, of the tenacity of the strain of Calvinism the English Puritans brought with them to the New World—the self-generated faith in divine mission, the parallel belief that wealth and prosperity are signs of God’s favor, and an egalitarian disposition among the Elect—to the exclusion of women and persons of non-European origin, especially Africans whom God had earmarked for servility, as confirmed by the Bible and the sages of Classical Antiquity. It is no accident that the same Calvinist preachers that dominated the General Court were the first Englishmen in the New World to legalize slavery—in 1640, a full 10 years before the Harvard Corporation even existed—a confirmation, fortuitously echoed in Scripture, of the inveterate racism the Europeans transported to the New World, and the insatiable English appetite for conquest and accumulation of wealth. If this sounds familiar to us, it should, since these are core attributes not only of Harvard’s founding but of the nation as a whole. As Harvard goes, so goes the nation—it seems this saying is not mere narcissism and hollow conceit, given how inextricably Puritanism is woven into the fabric of American identity. And if we are honest with our past, and nonetheless reject the racist, exclusionist vision the Puritans had of higher education and society, we must seek a new definition of democracy for ourselves, conditioned by our post-medieval experience of the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the rise of liberal idealism. Not democracy as practiced by the Puritans, or even as articulated by the Founding Fathers, but the potentialities of democracy should concern us—not what democracy is, or what it has been, but what it is capable of becoming. And, in my view, only when we embrace this definition will we be able to realize the full measure of egalitarian democracy for higher education that so many in academics are so anxious to achieve—that is, complete and equal academic opportunity without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. Not that these are inconsequential to higher learning, because they are an indelible part of who and what we are; nonetheless they are irrelevant to the realization of individual potential, and of value only insofar as they illuminate the path to self-discovery. Nor does democratization necessitate lowering intellectual standards to match those of society as a whole; by design, institutions like Harvard, Penn, and Yale are meant to serve as places where human intellect can flourish at its highest possible level. Democracy in academics simply means equal access to resources, and a check upon any assumption of inveterate truth or rightness of conduct; we are all prone to error, and vulnerable to challenge and cross-examination, all the more so on account of the name we happen to carry as Harvard graduates and affiliates.

It is high time, therefore, to eliminate the last vestiges of Puritanism in Harvard’s governance—the Corporation’s autonomous powers of self-regeneration and selection of Harvard’s top leadership—and broaden the decision-making process to include the entire Harvard community. It is not enough to merely increase the number of Fellows and broaden the process of advice and consent that President Faust initiated, since the ancient autocratic power of the Corporation has remained effectively intact. Nor is it acceptable to point to the widespread use of Harvard’s type of governance to justify its continuance, because as it happens Harvard’s original model was the one copied around the country. To live in our modern world, and comply with the inexorable demands of history, it is necessary to step up and embrace pluralist democracy in all its messy detail, and adopt a model of governance to fit. In my view, this does not mean jettisoning the Corporation, or otherwise re-doing the basic structure—this simply means making procedural adjustments to distribute powers more broadly. A direct up-down vote by alumni and persons in good standing to confirm the Corporation’s choice of president might serve as an example; another would be for the Overseers to nominate new Fellows as terms expire, and for the alumni to confirm the choices by majority vote. There are any number of possibilities for democratizing and distributing powers consistent with American political ideals and experience that will not damage Harvard’s core purposes; the first step is to recognize the need for change, and from there proceed to a plan consistent with the world we now inhabit.

Frank Morgan ’73, Ds ’79
Wrightsville, Pa.

Errata and Amplifications

In “The Low End Theory,” Jesse McCarthy’s profile of Fred Moten (January-February, page 42), the text should have noted that Moten’s mother, who attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, eventually transferred to, and graduated from, the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College. To clarify her relationships with members of the community, the text has been edited online to read, “Moten’s mother knew a number of musicians, dancers, and singers; when jazz singer Sarah Vaughan came to town, they would gather at a friend’s house to cook greens, listen to music, and gossip.” And the radio station that figured in Moten’s youth was KVOV.

Information in the account of the interview with Harvard Medical School dean George Q. Daley (“Cheaper, Faster, Better,” January-February, page 18) has been corrected: he started his lab in the mid 1990s rather than in the early 1990s. In addition, the annual cost of medical education was said to be nearing $90,000, when in fact, it has already exceeded that sum (the school provided incorrect data earlier). 

NCAA swim races are measured in yards, not meters, as we erroneously reported (“No Secrets about How to Get Faster,” January-February, page 29). 

The family name of Rhodes Scholar-designate Harold Xavier Gonzalez was misspelled in University People ( January -February, page 19).

In “A Composed Response” (January-February, page 52), composer Jonathan Bailey Holland was described as commuting to the Berklee College of Music in 2015, and currently being on the faculty there. The school officially became the Boston Conservatory at Berklee in 2016.

And a photo caption in Harvard Squared (“A Wintry Jaunt to Newport, Rhode Island,” January-February, page 12A) mistakenly relocated the billiards room from The Breakers to Rosecliff.

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