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Letters

Cambridge 02138

"Shoddy," maskupmanship, American exceptionalism

May-June 2021

With Thanks

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14 joined the editorial staff in November 2015. As associate editor, she wrote penetrating features on subjects ranging from linguistics research to new interpretations of race in America. She directed, and significantly enhanced, Harvard Magazine’s online news coverage—making it possible for us to serve readers far better during the past crucial year-plus of intensive reporting amid the pandemic. And she supervised a similar strengthening of our social-media capabilities, with colleague Kristina DeMichele. Having relocated to the Midwest for personal reasons, Marina concluded her service as an employee at the end of January and began working as an independent journalist; “Jobs and Jail,” beginning on page 32, is her final feature as a staff member. We are grateful for her superb work on readers’ behalf, delighted that she will continue to contribute in a freelance capacity, and pleased to extend our very best wishes to an esteemed colleague.

~The Editors

 

Representative Stefanik and Speech

I enjoy President Bacow’s opening message in each issue of Harvard Magazine, known as The View From Mass Hall, but especially the one from the March-April issue (“Resolve,” page 3). In this issue, he talked about the insurrection and attack on our Capitol. He spoke of appointments to advisory boards and the expectations that come with them. Brevia (page 19) then mentioned the case of Representative Elise Stefanik’s removal from the advisory committee of the Institute of Politics.

Stefanik’s district is NY 21, where I have lived for most of my life. I consider myself to be a moderate Democrat and totally support bipartisanship and working across the aisle. At present Stefanik has taken the tack of demonizing anyone or any group that does not agree with her. She constantly complains when the press or constituents point out contradictions in her policies and has multiple times told the press that she is owed an apology. In my opinion most of today’s politicians are guilty of this, on both sides of the aisle. I cannot, however, overlook her heinous behavior in promoting a stolen election and widespread cheating throughout our country—without presenting any evidence that was acceptable to a court of law. The end result was an attack on the heart and soul of our republic and the creation of faults between us that may take generations to heal.

Harvard did the right thing in replacing her and has shown there is no place for elected officials who are more concerned about their next election and fundraising than facts and the truth.

Benson Kelly ’79
Fort Covington, N.Y.

 

I was very pleased to read President Bacow’s letter in the March-April issue resisting demands by many in the Harvard community to punish those possessing political philosophies different from their own.

The call to bar speakers, prevent appointments, and remove degrees is reckless. It has always amazed me how hatred can distort otherwise brilliant minds.

Ron Dugan, M.B.A. ’67
Spokane, Wash.

 

I commend President Bacow for his column. Harvard indeed is a place where all voices need to be heard. I learned the concept and value of “a marketplace of ideas” in my constitutional law class with Professor Larry Tribe. Cancel culture and national mainstream traditional and electronic media silencing views they disagree with are as much a threat to our democracy as the atrocious assault on the Capitol on January 6. Bacow’s position is not popular within the Harvard community and I commend him for taking a long-term view in being consistent and resolute.

Dele Akinla II, LL.M. ’83, S.J.D. ’87
Bedford, N.Y.

 

I read with puzzlement and dismay President Bacow’s approval of the dismissal of Elise Stefanik from the Institute of Politics Senior Advisory Committee. I don’t particularly like the politics of Representative Stefanik, but I thought the role of an open and free university was to allow and encourage differing points of view. Apparently not where Harvard is concerned. Tell us, did Dean Elmendorf dismiss any appointees who supported the endless and expensive efforts on the part of Congress to invalidate the election of Donald Trump based on allegations that he colluded with Russia? Or did none of that “bear on the foundations of the electoral process through which this country’s leaders are chosen”? If the representative’s views are not to be allowed, what about similar views in the books and journals at the school?

I recently resigned from the Kirkland House Senior Common Room after decades of being a member because I was asked, perhaps required, to “attest” that I would not discriminate against nor use my “power differential” to molest any member of the university community. The very language gags on itself. It also reminds me of the third grade, when Mrs. Mills would tell us to be nice to each other in the classroom and in the schoolyard during recess.

I believe I will also leave off interviewing applicants for admission to Harvard. Because, in all honesty, I would have to tell them that the money and the time would be better spent traveling, digging a well in Africa, getting drunk in Dublin, taking a lover in Paris, learning a trade, talking to real people, and reading. Better that than four years of grade grubbing amidst careful careerists in an atmosphere where, as Seamus Heaney once put it, when you have to say something, say nothing.

Finally, if the University continues on this course, you might also appoint a committee to consider changing Harvard’s motto from Veritas to Virtus. Virtue, after all, is malleable and so satisfying to proclaim while truth can be both elusive and difficult.

Alfred Alcorn ’64
Shelburne Falls, Mass.

 

In “Resolve,” President Bacow writes: “One of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of our community feel empowered to speak their minds freely, to listen to others generously, and to expand their thinking regularly.”

Hear, hear!

Dan Kelly ’75
Hopkins, Minn.

 

I’m sure most of us can recall a moment at Harvard where we paused to appreciate where we were. One such moment for me was driving back to Cambridge on a Saturday afternoon from an out-of-town club rugby match. Those in the car with myself grew up in France, Iran, Kenya, and New York. While the global reach is an irreplaceable part of the Harvard experience, ultimately having people from all over the world does not alone ensure the diversity that makes the Harvard experience unique. True diversity comes from diversity of thought, not superficial characteristics. To quote the diversity and inclusion page on the College’s website, “Harvard’s commitment to diversity in all forms is rooted in our fundamental belief that engaging with unfamiliar ideas, perspectives, cultures, and people creates the conditions for dramatic and meaningful growth.”

I commend President Bacow’s commitment to free speech in “Resolve,” a critically important memo given the recent resurgence in popularity of censorship in the United States. Civil discourse underpins a free society and the longstanding commitment of Harvard to allowing speech of all kinds is the cornerstone of what makes it such a special place. We must be careful to not take this principle for granted because it is a truly rare thing, possibly our greatest gift from our forebears.

Growing up in Arkansas, I regularly saw active attempts to stifle politically unpopular ideas. I was surprised when moving to the highly educated state of Massachusetts to see the exact same behavior, with the only difference being which ideas were blacklisted. While my own political views are far more popular where I grew up than in Cambridge, I never once had a moment at Harvard where I felt uncomfortable truly speaking my mind. Rather, differences in opinion were met with an intellectual curiosity, one that tried to understand how we could come to such different conclusions from the same information. There was never a single time when someone treated my dissenting views as less valid than their own. I cherish this since it has often not been my experience outside the Harvard community, nor for some even at Harvard’s peer institutions.

The university has been and should always remain a safe space. This does not mean a bubble where one can hide from opposing ideas, rather a space where all ideas can freely be discussed, no matter how unpopular they might be. Ultimately, my own experiences in Cambridge and President Bacow’s timely letter give me hope that Harvard’s next generation of leaders will continue valuing intellectual freedom as our most sacred principle.

Andrew Barnett, A.L.M. ’17
Dallas

Shoddy Song?

I’m sure I’m not the only Gilbert & Sullivanian who enjoyed the Open Book column “ ‘Shoddy’: The Noun” (March-April, page 45). The Gondoliers includes the song “There Lived A King” about a king who “wished all men as rich as he,” and the perils of promoting everybody “to the top of every tree.” The end of verse three reads:

“When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care—
Up goes the price of shoddy.”

W.S. Gilbert was a superb wordsmith; if you want to expand your vocabulary in a state of delight, just listen to G&S.

Peter Brandes ’66
Oakland, Calif.

 

Author Hanna Rose Shell responds: Thank you for bringing attention to this wonderful verse from The Gondoliers, which I had pinned to a cork board while writing Shoddy: From Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags. Gilbert’s use of “shoddy” has a fascinating history. In the late nineteenth century, after the American Civil War (during which the noun “shoddy” first gained its negative connotations due to its usage in its basest possible form in Union army uniforms produced by New England firms then branded as treasonous “shoddy contractors”), “shoddy” became used derisively to refer to the nouveaux riches, and groups or individuals seen as social climbers or greedy industrialists—often immigrants and ethnic minorities. Stock characters like “Miss Shoddy” and “Mr. Shoddy” even appeared in political cartoons. When Gilbert gave these words to Grand Inquisitor Don Alhambra in The Gondoliers, shoddy had already been transformed into a material stand-in, and symbol, for the crassness and perceived idiocy of industrial capitalism and its erosion of class distinctions. Don Alhambra responds to the gondolier-courtiers Marco and Giuseppe, “When every one is somebodee [sic], then no one’s anybody,” to which all agree.

 

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 yourturn@harvard.edu.

 

DNA Data: The Lyric

DNA Data Storage, by Steve Nadis (March-April, page 11) is an interesting example of how the digital and organic worlds are converging. As a sophomore in 1966, I had a part-time job with IBM installing engineering changes on System 360 mainframes and was suitably impressed by the myriad tiny circuits that I had to contend with. Years later, as a biologist, it occurred to me that computer circuits might become so tiny they would require protective sheaths similar to what we see around animal nerve fibers. I envisioned digital circuits bathed in organic mucus-like substances. More recently, as a songwriter (a skill I picked up at the Club 47, where I often hung out instead of studying for Bill Bossert’s “Population Genetics” exams), I wrote:

Ones and zeros
Ooze from chips down to the floor
Mix with bug parts
And flow underneath the door
Down the hallway
And out into the street
Down the sewer pipe
To the engines dark and deep.

The “engines” are, I guess, those that grind out man’s fate. Whether we fear or applaud the confluence of the digital and the organic, we’re way too far down that path to stop now.

Frank F. Perron ’68
Bradenton, Fla.

From Griswold to Ginsburg?

As a graduate of the Law School and College, I found two items in the January-February issue of special interest: news of the creation of a Committee to Articulate Principles on Renaming (News Briefs, page 26) and the sobering book review about the Law School, “Grinding Out Lawyers—by Grinding Down Students” (page 54). In light of the unflattering description of Dean Erwin Griswold’s misogynistic tenure, I would suggest that the building now bearing his name be renamed either “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hall,” in honor of a target of his misogyny, or “Bryan Stevenson Hall,” in honor of the magnificent civil-rights lawyer and graduate [J.D.-M.P.A. ’85, LL.D. ’15], whose untiring efforts to make our society more humane represent the antithesis of Griswold’s parochialism.

Peter M. Onek ’65, Ed.M. ’67, J.D. ’88
Jonesboro, Ark.

Maskupmanship


Photograph courtesy of David Schlakman

Not that we’re trying to compete with the class of 1956 (The College Pump, March-April, page 56), but for the class of 1976’s forty-fifth (virtual) reunion, we created a mask for all 1,500 classmates. The project, funded by four anonymous classmates, utilized a logo designed by classmate Peter Armstrong.

David Schlakman ’76
Forty-fifth Reunion Co-chair
New Orleans

The Power of Advertising

Your readers might be interested to know that the Radcliffe junior and one of the men who responded to the prank classified ad (Yesterday’s News, March-April, page 16) recently celebrated their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary.

Beth Luey ’67, A.M. ’68
(Mrs. Michael Luey, LL.B. ’68)
Fairhaven, Mass.

American Exceptionalism

As a former Harvard chaplain, I greatly appreciate the respectful tone of Benjamin Friedman’s article about people of faith (“The American Exception,” January-February, page 43). However, I rarely, if ever, see other groups that consistently vote liberal subjected to the same scrutiny of world-view and belief. The subtext is that if you vote liberal you are “just rational.” But the article begs a huge question: Why do millions of black and Hispanic Christians who hold the same beliefs as white evangelicals vote overwhelmingly for liberal politicians with promises of liberal safety nets? If this is true, it is a severe blow to the entire thesis.

Eldon Eric Johnson ’91
Sarasota, Fla.

 

I was amused by a sentence at the end of Benjamin Friedman’s article: “No one in a democratic society is going to tell citizens that their religious presumptions are wrong, or that the implications that follow from them for economic policy are flawed.”

Indeed. But somehow the message makes its way from the ivory tower to the deplorables, and they react as might be expected. This is one factor in the extremely complex issue of anti-intellectualism in American life.

Richard Smoley ’78
Winfield, Ill.

Loneliness

Jacob Sweet’s commendable article (“The Loneliness Pandemic,” January-February, page 31) overlooks the harsh impact, economic as well as social, of state and local lockdowns on individuals of lesser means. Job losses and the inability to attend religious ceremonies and social events have contributed to the Loneliness Pandemic and have been resistant to traditional fiscal stimulus measures.

Stephen T. Whelan, J.D. ’71
New York City

 

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” This quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald so well describes the circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. I am grateful for the timely article on loneliness by Jacob Sweet. For me it hit several important points. It also made me think about my own situation as a practicing neuro-oncologist at a large academic center. Since the pandemic started almost a year ago, I have observed several interesting and concerning changes in my professional life.

Mandatory social distancing in the hospital created a new set of rules, and human coexistence patterns have dramatically changed. We were no longer having in-person meetings like tumor boards, journal clubs, division and department meetings. These were all converted to Zoom. While attendance at some meetings improved, the level of isolation, in my opinion, had increased. Not being able to have an in-person discussion, to see people and their facial expressions and gestures, while trying to participate in the meeting and multitask at the same time, contributed to “Zoom fatigue,” a phenomenon so well described in the April 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review. We are now dreading another Zoom meeting and prefer to be alone and isolated. A true paradox of the pandemic!

Another drastic change for me was the way we practice medicine now. You are basically alone seeing patients, frequently using telemedicine (more Zoom), and then you are alone in your office the rest of the time and you don’t see other human beings in flesh most of the day. When you see an occasional patient in person, he or she is also alone, as visitors and family members are not allowed in the building. You must communicate frequently very serious news to the person seating in front of you, but you can’t show emotion as your face is covered by the mask and you can’t hug them as this is also forbidden. You feel dehumanized and lonely, as do your patients who just heard the worst news in their lives and their whole world is falling apart while you watch. This, for me is one of the worst aspects of practicing medicine during the pandemic. I hope we can quickly find better ways to help us deal with this loneliness crisis. Pandemic-related social costs of isolation in medical practice are probably underestimated and should be addressed systematically.

Maciej M Mrugala, M.P.H. ’06, M.D., Ph.D.
Scottsdale, Ariz.

An Inclusive HAA

It’s time for the Harvard Alumni Association to become the Harvard Alumni/ae Association. “Harvard Alumni Association” fails to acknowledge that not everyone who attends the College is male. In fact, the current classes are roughtly 50-50. Those who never studied Latin may be untroubled by the inaccuracy of the current name—but that’s not sufficient reason to keep it. I hope that the leaders of our Harvard organization for male and female graduates will make the name of the association reflect all its members.

Carol Wilson Garvey ’63
Potomac, Md.

The Activist 1930s

I was fascinated by Alona Bach’s article on the cautious and even reticent exhibit on women in science that was a deliberately marginalized feature of Harvard’s tercentenary celebration (“Conservative Curation,” Treasure, January-February, page 68). I wish, however, that the editors might have prevented a glaring historical error in the article’s third paragraph, which identifies the “mid 1930s” as “the low point of the post-Depression labor movement.” Of course in the mid 1930s the United States was still firmly in the grip of the Great Depression, and those years were a high point of successful labor militancy and organizing.

Vincent Tompkins, Ph.D. ’91
Brooklyn

The Changing Coop

I am dismayed to read that the current renovation of the main Coop store will see a reduction, apparently a major one, of its principal merchandise, books [“Harvard COOP’s Major Makeover,” 3/2/21 news post]. And Mr. Ciancio’s expression of all that will disappear or change, “That’s life,” is hardly an encouraging sign.

So here we have yet another indication of a fabled Harvard institution dumbing down. It is impossible now, for example, to know all that the Harvard University Press is publishing or has published, because the Coop does not carry it all, or even a reasonably generous selection, and the Press showroom, in a Philistine fit, was eliminated some years ago.

As the good book says, “How the mighty have fallen!”

Peter Machinist ’66
Hancock Research Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages
Cambridge

Hail, No. 2s!

Adulting, Interrupted (The Undergraduate, March-April, page 22) was a lovely look into the life of a Harvard senior during COVID-19. But I highly disagree with the sentiment that yellow pencils are “now obsolete.” And I know that because I see my 17-year-old daughter using a pencil to journal. There are still young folk using No. 2s!

Rachel Loonin
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Sistine Chapel

RegardingAttention to Detail,” in the March-April issue (page 44), it is worthwhile to observe that the digital perfection of Sistine reproductions was made possible by quite an analog process—namely the huge restoration effort in the years 1980-1994. The dedicated and meticulous work of conservators not only helped in preserving fragile images but also restored the original colors and delicate lines of the Sistine frescoes. Without this effort we would not be able to enjoy the real perfection of the Sistine in any shape or form.

The Calloway book’s digital mastery and its sheer size will bring the lucky owners probably as close to the real experience as possible. And in this case the “real experience” would mean accompanying Michelangelo on the scaffolding just after he finished a giornata. We were able to enjoy an immersive visual journey during the Denver segment of “Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition” at Stanley Marketplace in 2019. While the quality of the photographs was probably not equal to the ones used in Calloway’s book, the exhibition had a spatial advantage. Many of the nearly life-size photographic reproductions were distributed in accordance with their original Sistine locations (ceiling, walls) giving the viewer the impression of spatial authenticity. The experience of enjoying the view of Michelangelo masterpiece while lying on one’s back (on strategically placed benches) or coming almost face-to-face with the life-size figures was a unique and memorable one, indeed. Our guess is that rushing through the real Sistine Chapel in a crowd of tourists would hardly allow for such a subtle visual experience as provided by the exhibition we saw or the meticulously published book of splendid digital photography. Of course, there is always genius loci to consider. But that can only be experienced at the sacred site itself.

Piotr Zlomanczuk, Ph.D.
Toruń, Poland 
Maciej M Mrugala, M.P.H. ’06, M.D., Ph.D.
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Financial Crises

Can Financial Crises Be Predicted” (January-February, page 10) cited banking crises in 42 countries from 1950 to 2016. The United States had 47 recessions from its inception to the present. From 1937 to 2020 there were 14 recessions and depressions within 83 years, but their frequency was reduced by governmental regulations lately. Now they are easier to predict: the last recession before the pandemic was 13 years ago, prior to that 7 years ago, before that 10 years ago, before that 9 years ago.

 So, because of the U.S. government’s modern-day intervention, we can expect the Wall Street bankers to drive themselves into bankruptcy, so we, the people can bail them out with our tax money about every decade. Who said that financial crises are hard to predict?

Anatol Zukerman, M.Arch. ’75
Plymouth, Mass.

Nuclear-Power Problems

Paul Baudisch makes a pitch for using nuclear power to help control climate change (Letters, January-February, page 2). Of course, there are a lot of unknowns with nuclear, including how much time, energy, and materials will be needed to store its waste fuels for tens or hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

But there is a much more pressing problem with nuclear power. Every nuclear reaction produces plutonium, the stuff of nuclear weapons. Even a small nuclear reactor (viz. the Bushehr plant in Iran) can produce enough plutonium for a weapon. And the so-called ‘fourth generation’ designs to which Baudisch refers produce U233, also a fissionable material that can be (and has been) used in a nuclear weapon.

Do we really need to create this dangerous material, and export the means to make it around the world as the nuclear industry envisions? Why even bother, when the solar technologies are so well developed, economical, and equitably distributed around the world?

William W. Smith III ’69
Jamestown, R.I.

First-Gen Inclusion

The article onFirst-Gen Inclusion and Belonging” (January-February, page 22) took me back in time 40-plus years. At that time, I was working part time and taking premed classes at my local state university while commuting from my childhood home. I was thrilled to be accepted to the Health Careers summer program at Harvard. What followed were many firsts including first airplane ride, first dorm room, first living away from parents, and, worst of all, the first bad case of homesickness. It was a wonderful opportunity.

Did I take full advantage of the academic opportunities available? Not quite. I recall a C and a D—ouch! I tried to study the best I could but there was so much to do, see, and experience! Walking the cobblestone streets of Cambridge, hanging out by the Coop, being available for late-night conversation and bagels with members of our cohort, several of whom were in the same boat.

Regrets? Yes and no. But I applaud and thank Rachel L Gable for her work. The challenges FLI (first-generation low-income) students may face, be they academic or social, cannot be overstated. Understanding these and implementing safety nets will help bridge the gaps for folks like me.

Lourdes Rondan Reynolds, M.D.
Tarzana, Calif.

Education of a Harvard Lawyer

Nancy Tepper was admitted to Harvard Law School “but not exactly welcomed” (“The Education of a Harvard Lawyer,” January-February, page 38). I was welcomed but not admitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Tepper experienced Harvard after Harvard officially let women register. I was there (A.M. ’50) before Radcliffe and/or Harvard made that seemingly momentous decision. I entered as a Radcliffe graduate student and left with my master’s in physical chemistry as a joint degree.

Nancy is correct. The key to female success at Harvard was literally the key—the key to a woman’s restroom. I had one for the single ladies’ room that served all four chemistry buildings.

Professors Kistiakowsky, Doty, Lingane, and Fieser were uniformly kind and thoughtful to me. We did not experience competition in GSAS.

I did have housing—more or less. We female grad students lived in Founders House on Appian Way across from Radcliffe, but had to walk up Brattle Street for dinner at the Episcopal Theological Seminary. Why they would take us when Harvard would not, I have no idea. Chemistry was next door to the cavernous World War II building repurposed as the Graduate Dining Room reserved for the male students. One day, rather than hike back to my housing, let alone the distant Seminary, I was tired enough to brave the men’s domain. I walked in, carried a tray through the line, then walked over to the empty place at Richard Lyman’s table and was graciously invited to join him; he later was president of Stanford. (I was dating his brother-in-law.) The building did not implode then or on subsequent visits. My classes in physical chemistry were all at Harvard—no more sending a professor over to Radcliffe. However, it was extremely unnerving to take a physics final by myself at Radcliffe.

I had an invigorating experience as a Harvard student followed by a career as a home-based research consultant that led to my pioneering telework. (That story you’ll find in my papers, housed in the Radcliffe Institute.) I founded Joanne H. Pratt Associates, a virtual company that conducted research and helped organizations implement telework for their employees. Major projects included the first classification of teleworkers using microcomputers at home for major private corporate and public agency clients. As a futurist, I developed and tested the criteria for successful work in a home office applying the new and envisioned technologies. That work has led to the proliferation of home-based businesses, no longer undervalued as “mom and pop,” but recognized as cutting-edge enterprises adding significantly to the economy. It has become the current way to work during the pandemic.

Joanne Henderson Pratt, A.M. ’50
Santa Fe

 

I read Nancy Tepper’s memories with great interest. Her story of the women law students having to use the janitor’s room in the law school basement reminded me of a Radcliffe singing night. One of the songs composed for the occasion was “Oh we’ll build a ladies’ restroom in the basement of Lamont, when the Radcliffe Revolution comes!” (to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”).

The only time I set foot in Lamont was when, as a history major, one of my courses included, on the optional reading list, a book chapter that I thought sounded interesting. Unfortunately, the Radcliffe library did not own the book. So the Radcliffe librarian called the Lamont librarian, I bicycled over, and he met me at the door, escorted me to his private office, and I sat in the corner and read the chapter. Then he escorted me back to the front door. I cannot remember what the chapter was about, but I remember the incident!

Whenever we had both morning and afternoon classes in Harvard Yard, we ate brown bag lunches from our own dorm kitchens in the Memorial Church basement, the only place we could, (which also had one of the few ladies’ restrooms, and old couches we could sit on to study). We had to wear skirts, unless snow was actually falling, then we could wear ski pants. Even with ballet tights, two pairs of thick knee socks, a thick tweed skirt, and a thick tweed coat, it was a mile walk from the Radcliffe to the Harvard Yard. Luckily there were two hotels, the Continental and the Commander, dividing the mile into thirds, and I used to stand in their lobbies for a few minutes to thaw out.

We wore ski turtlenecks under blouses and cardigans. (I still do all winter in Illinois.) This was a fashion that started at Radcliffe in 1960, when Kathleen Emmett appeared on the cover of Mademoiselle, inaugurating “The Layered Look.” I knew her slightly from helping scrape dishes (Cabot Hall where I lived shared a kitchen with her dorm).

 All the girls had to take turns as dish scrapers or waitresses, wearing hairnets, for five sit-down dinners each week (“Gracious Living”). Eleanor Roosevelt used to come to dinner at Cabot Hall once a year, and I was very proud to put a plate down in front of her. Someone asked me out that evening, and I turned him down, because I wanted to see her. He said “She comes every year.” but that was her last year, because she died.

Margery (Marny) Ennis Elliott ’64
Champaign, Ill.

 

Reading the two articles [by Nancy Tepper and Lincoln Caplan] in the January-February issue on the past days of Harvard Law School (HLS) alongside the letters in the March-April issue reminded me of my childhood as an HLS “faculty brat.” My father, Detlev Vagts, joined the faculty in 1959 and I would occasionally visit him at his office, hidden away among the stacks of Langdell Library. To get to the office, I would walk down a seemingly endless corridor which doubled as a portrait gallery of past professors and legal notables. The stern gaze of these conservatively dressed men (I don’t recollect seeing any females), combined with the thick legal volumes stored in bookshelves outside Dad’s office door, presented the place as unwelcoming and dull.

I would also study the class seating diagrams that my father brought home so that he could match his students’ names with their faces. Long before I’d ever heard of any movements for civil rights or equality, I couldn’t help noticing the paltry number of female students as well as of persons of color; indeed, it was a fun game to identify members of these underrepresented groups among a sea of males sporting suits and crewcuts.

These experiences undoubtedly shaped my lack of interest in a legal education, whether at HLS or elsewhere. Then decades later, I found myself wandering through HLS’s Wasserstein Hall to attend an event that was introduced by the then dean (a woman). I passed through the two-floor gallery of faculty portraits, which seemed organized chronologically, and noticed how increasingly diverse the faculty appeared over the years and how their facial expressions were much more welcoming than those of their predecessors in Langdell. The difference made me wonder how this more inclusive picture gallery makes today’s young ones feel about studying the law.

Karen A. Vagts ’79
Cambridge

Admissions Controversy

Recently, Harvard won the last in a series of lawsuits over whether its admissions process discriminates against Asian American students. The fact remains that if admissions were determined based purely on academic performance, the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard and other top-ranked colleges would be much higher—perhaps three times the percentage currently admitted. We know this, because it is exactly what happened in the University of California after it dropped race-based quotas. Ironically, the losses fell mainly on white students (surprise!), some of whom, in a case of buyers’ remorse, are trying to reinstate those quotas.

In the Harvard case, Harvard held, and the courts agreed, that admissions can be based on “the whole person” and that academics are just one facet of this. Unfortunately, in prior generations, this “whole person” argument was used as a cover for the prejudices of the admissions officers, allowing them to exclude Jews, southern Europeans, and other groups they didn’t like. There is no reason to believe the same thing is not happening to Asians. After all, many whites continue to hold stereotypes of Asians as nerds who aren’t any fun.

The original conception of the University was as a sanctuary for academic pursuits. If that remains the case, then academic performance should be overwhelmingly the basis for admissions choices. If academics are not Harvard’s primary mission, then let’s simply be honest about it. There has always been a slimy underside to the admissions process, particularly with regard to legacy admissions. Harvard’s pretenses regarding diversity obscure the fact that it is still a powerful engine for conserving privilege within a small elite. Let’s just make it official: this is still a fancy club, with some token brown and yellow people allowed in for show.

As recent events have shown, anti-Asian racism, long dismissed as a thing, is widespread and deadly. And so we come to President Bacow’s recent letter to us all, expressing solidarity and sorrow over the Atlanta shootings. His letter rings hollow, and I reject it. Harvard implements policies that surgically target the one minority who have managed to beat the odds in a racist society. Pretending to stand with us, after some of us have been massacred, just adds insult to the pain.

Charles Hsu ’79
San Francisco

On Lowell House and Its Namesake

In an era of questioning how we represent the past in our communities and institutions, a critical gaze has now fallen upon Lowell House. As such, the faculty deans of Lowell House have recently announced a working group to examine Lowell House’s history in relation to its namesake. Likewise Harvard at the university level is taking steps to formally wrestle with the legacies of many individuals whose names adorn the university’s buildings, schools, professorships, and more. In October President Bacow kicked off this process by announcing a Committee on Renaming to determine principles which can guide this question of legacies and, where appropriate, renaming. Although their recommendations have yet to be delivered, the letter with which President Bacow commissioned the committee suggests a promising beginning. As a Lowell House alumnus I am interested in how Harvard navigates this territory and how these developments affect Lowell House in particular. Alongside these formal investigations I here present my own reflection on Lowell House and its namesake.

Lowell House is named for the entire Lowell family, an influential Boston Brahmin clan whose members did much to shape the city, our nation, and our university, but the strongest association is with Abbot Lawrence Lowell, 22nd president of Harvard. This association, complicated for some time, has now grown quite fraught.

The reasons for this are well-known problematic aspects of Mr. Lowell’s tenure as president. Many are concerned that featuring him and his family so prominently either poorly reflects the community as it is today or even inflicts harm on the community, especially certain members.

We are right to condemn Mr. Lowell’s sins. Most notable among them: he segregated black freshmen from living in Harvard Yard. In this is he acted out of a self-declared accommodationist impulse which, even if genuine, we today recognize as racist. Indeed, many of his contemporaries recognized it as racist and the policy was overturned eight years later by the Board of Overseers. He also for years sought to reduce the number of Jewish students admitted to Harvard by manipulating entrance criteria, initially with limited success but eventually to the detriment of large numbers of Jewish applicants who were unfairly excluded. In 1920, in the aftermath of a student’s suicide, he convened a secret tribunal to sanction several students accused of homosexuality and expelled eight of them, an incident that was kept secret until as late as 2002. It is no wonder Mr. Lowell’s name gives pause to many.

Any judgment on the fitness of Lowell House’s name, and the association with Mr. Lowell, must take these wrongs into account. It must also situate them within a comprehensive account of his legacy, both the good and the bad. This is no insignificant challenge, and President Bacow’s commissioning statement for the Committee on Renaming clearly states the importance of such a comprehensive assessment. In it he asks the committee to develop a framework that can answer how “judgments about removing names or artifacts take into account not only the individual’s failings and flaws but also the individual’s positive contributions to the University and to society” (as reported in Harvard Magazine in October). This seems to me the most honest and just way of interpreting our university’s past.

There is another reason beyond just historical accuracy that Mr. Lowell’s legacy deserves a balanced assessment from us: we owe a debt to Mr. Lowell. We owe a debt to him because of his contributions to building Harvard into the preeminent university as we found it when we first entered.We owe a debt to all those that came before us, all those whose vision and labors formed this great institution, but Mr. Lowell is rather unique. It is almost difficult to summarize his influence on Harvard as it is so vast and enduring. The privilege of a Harvard education and the privilege of having been educated at Harvard is enormous. Mr. Lowell is one of the chief architects of that privilege. I believe this obligates all of us to, as President Bacow describes, come to terms with his entire legacy.

That Harvard continues to possess a foremost place in the American academy is arguably due more to Mr. Lowell than any other individual in the university’s history. The physical and institutional expansion of Harvard under Lowell was greater than under any other president. His academic reforms were more influential to the course of the university and the experience of today’s graduates than any undertaken before or since. When we speak of a Harvard education today, in many ways we are speaking of Mr. Lowell’s legacy.

It was Mr. Lowell’s innovation to structure undergraduate education around a concentration, or area of specialization, within a comprehensive liberal arts education. This reflected a change from the “all elective” course structure that had allowed the rigor of curriculum to degrade over time. This innovation proved widely admired and was taken up by colleges nationally in the form of “majors.” Thus Mr. Lowell’s legacy continues to influence the training and skill sets of all college-educated Americans.

Beyond growing the scope and excellence of the university’s academics, Mr. Lowell was a deeply committed reformer of class-based segregation and antagonism. By the time he was inaugurated, a physical and cultural separation had hardened between the very wealthy students, who lived in private dorms along the “gold coast,” as Mount Auburn Street was called, and the rest of the college’s students, who mostly boarded in less sumptuous Harvard dorms or rented rooms and apartments around Cambridge. To socially integrate the campus he required all freshmen to live in the Harvard dormitories and, in one of his most ambitious and far-sighted projects, built the upperclassmen houses with the help of a large gift from Edward Harkness. The creation of these tight-knit residential communities, intended to continue the social integration from freshman year through the rest of the undergraduate term, remains one of the richest and most cherished parts of Mr. Lowell’s legacy among Harvard students. His expansive views on who in society was worthy of a quality education led him to start the Harvard Extension School. This allowed many members of the public to enrich themselves and eventually obtain a bachelor’s degree through the Extension. In the early years of the program about two-thirds of the students were women, many of them teachers, for whom the benefits of the extension school were especially intended by Mr. Lowell.

Further accomplishments of Mr. Lowell’s include his defense of freedom of expression and the free intellectual foundations of the university and academia in general. These ideas remain essential to the mission of the university.

One must look with concern on the failings of Mr. Lowell, on the sins which today provoke justified anger and censure. There is no ethical alternative. That these acts and their legacies have long since been overturned is something that inspires gratitude and pride. But an accounting of wrongs does not erase an accounting of debts, and our debt is great.

As we seek to express just such a comprehensive, honest account of Mr. Lowell’s legacy, we would be wise to learn from communities that have faced similar challenges relating to historical figures and how these communities have formulated values and guidelines for interpreting those relationships. When Yale was considering removing John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges (as similar a situation to the one Lowell House faces as I can think of), the university appointed a committee of scholars who decided that in any matter of recognition or renaming of buildings the “principal legacy” of the person in question should be pivotal in determining the outcome. This inherently implies a balancing of merits and transgressions and their historical consequences, deciphering the net outcome. In the case of John C. Calhoun, Yale felt his principal legacy was defense of the institution of slavery and contributing to political thought (especially regarding states’ rights) that led to the Civil War. Given this, they decided to remove his name from the college and provided a thorough justification for the decision that was intelligible to all members of the community.

Were we to apply a similar rubric to Mr. Lowell, we would weigh his vast contributions to the strength and excellence of Harvard, contributions that all living students and graduates benefit from, against the wrongs I have described, noting that the precedents which they represent were overturned both in his own day and in the years since his administration. I believe we would determine a principal legacy for Mr. Lowell of ambitious and innovative administration that continues to redound to all our benefit. And by all I truly mean all of us living Harvard students and graduates, it being an oft noted irony that the Harvard cohorts of recent decades, who have benefited so much from Mr. Lowell’s influence on the university, have in substantial part been made up of students from backgrounds Mr. Lowell would have excluded in his own time. We have all benefited. This great influence on the quality and stature of our education is Mr. Lowell’s “principal legacy” and forms the great debt that I have described. Seeing his principal legacy thus, the continued use of his family’s name for Lowell House would be justified in spite of the problematic elements of his tenure. Indeed, retaining the name under these criteria would in no way limit our awareness of or ability to critique these wrongs.

The Yale example illustrates not just the value of a comprehensive accounting in cases of problematic historical figures, but also the necessity of being guided by coherent, transparent principles to both make the best decision and clearly justify that decision to the larger community. I’m glad that there is a Harvard Committee on Renaming working to develop such principles. I am also glad that in establishing the committee President Bacow described a framework similar to the Yale model for addressing these concerns at Harvard.

One reason I am optimistic such a model will be brought to bear on the question of Lowell House is that none other than David Laibson, faculty dean of Lowell House, is a member of the Harvard Committee on Renaming. But I am also cautious, given that faculty deans Zipser and Laibson’s initial announcement of the group to reconsider the Lowell House name included possible alternatives to Lowell which, at least to me, suggested a prejudgment. Surely a determination on the fitness of the Lowell name ought to precede the consideration of alternatives, but I don’t want to imply an intent that may not have been present.

We are right to question the legacies of those who hold places of honor in the university. The judgements we make must be grounded on fair, widely subscribed to principles.Whatever form this takes with Mr. Lowell, some things are certain: he must be held to account for his wrongs, but to forget that he is one of the chief architects of our community and our privilege, to deny or shortchange our debt, would be our failing.

It is likely that as an alumnus of Lowell House I feel this debt more acutely than most. I know that Mr. Lowell was a frustratingly complex man: a man whose judgment was clouded by prejudice but also a proponent of social reform and a brilliant educator and administrator. He was all these things, and to this complex man I am in debt. All of us living Harvard students and alumni, we who are tasked with interpreting the past, are in Mr. Lowell’s debt. We do not always choose our creditors, but he is ours. That is his principal legacy. For this reason I believe Lowell House ought to retain the Lowell family name and its association with Abbott Lawrence Lowell.

Christopher Wood ’12
Cincinnati

Erratum

A Life in Tai Chi (November-December 2020) inadvertently assigned an incorrect class year to Andy Green ’99, A.M. ’03. We apologize for our error.

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A group photo of the four Harvard undergraduates, including the author, with their project adviser and two local, older mentors

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