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Letters

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Imposter syndrome, AI and authoritarianism, shopping week.

July-August 2022

Economic Mobility

I applaud members of the Workforce team (“Making It in America,” May-June, page 29) for the “research- and impact-based” nature of their project. Potentially, the project has greater impact than disclosed in the article, however. If community college programs were expanded as the Workforce intends, thousands, yes thousands, of job-insecure university graduates could be gainfully employed. Such employment would benefit these graduates and the Gary Joneses alike, who share the struggle to “make it” in a gig economy.

To teach the range of vocational skills enumerated in the article—computer programming to music instruction—requires academic specialization as varied as that found in typical university graduating classes. Several of my former doctoral students (I am a retired prof) now teach full-time at community colleges. I remember the excitement with which they spoke of their students’ gumption and of their own remuneration, competitive with that of many private institutions.

Clearly, the Workforce team would do well to explore and implement means to increase the number of full-time community college faculty across the country. This would boost the impact of their project, while helping to revitalize our national infrastructure.

Ira Braus, Ph.D. ’88
Pembroke, Mass.

 

I applaud your article on community colleges. They are an overlooked but vital part of our education system and society. However, with respect to your question “Can community colleges solve the upward mobility problem?” I think the answer is “yes” for some and “no” for most. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that project employment for 2030 show that 60 percent of all jobs will require a high school diploma or less (https://www.bls.gov/emp/tables/emp-by-detailed-occupation.htm).Upward mobility of people in these occupations will happen only if other measures are in place such as an increased minimum wage, stronger labor unions, family subsidies, or an enhanced earned income credit.

Steven Schreiber ’63
Voorheesville, N.Y.

 

Serving as board chair of the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Foundation has been a deeply fulfilling experience for me. I commend the experts at Harvard for exploring the transformative impact that community colleges have on individuals, families, and communities.

At our community college, we see students overcome profound challenges such as housing and food insecurity, job and parenting commitments, and limited access to computers. Witnessing their achievements has changed how I define “academic success.”

An MCCC student was admitted to Harvard College in 2021. When I thanked President Bacow, he wrote “I hope that other students at Mercer County Community College will find inspiration in [this student’s] example.” I agree whole-heartedly, and believe that Harvard College students will likewise find inspiration in the achievements of community college learners.

Aamir A. Rehman ’99, A.M. ’99, M.B.A. ’04
Princeton Junction, N.J.

 

The article “Making It in America” presented personal stories and individual perspectives on how workforce programs create upward mobility. But for workforce programs to succeed in a community college setting, they must also find institutional alignment with the host college bound to its own societal functions. Observations suggest the community college’s missions of educational access and general education do not always align with corporate goals and styles. Not long ago, the community college system of Chicago, one of the nation’s largest, abandoned a multiyear effort to specialize its campuses under economic engine-motivated themes, after stakeholders demanded preserving the community-distributed, general education characters of their colleges. That’s a lesson worth learning.

Although community colleges have a long tradition of hosting technical programs, from nursing to automotive mechanics, these are profession-feeding (rather than company-driven) programs under the governance of professional accreditation, which ensures their alignment with the college’s overall educational missions. Lacking formal governance, workforce programs need careful design. Surely, “integrating local employer needs into...curriculum” makes sense if they provide “6,000 family-sustaining jobs,” but that is not the realistic scenario for most communities. For most workforce programs, seeking to align with the college’s overall educational portfolio, rather than to transform it, is likely the more realistic approach for success.

Likwan Cheng, A.L.M. ’11
Chicago

 

I was very much enjoying “Making It in America” until I came across the following comment, “Strawberry-blonde, with a business -professional wardrobe to rival Ann Taylor’s…” in reference to one of the women in the article.

In an otherwise well-written five-plus page article that mentioned or quoted at least a dozen people, I’m confused as to the relevance of that one woman’s hair color or wardrobe. And if in fact there was some relevance, why was there no mention of the hair (color or lack of) or the fashion choices of any of the men in the article?

I look forward to the clarification, as this “relatively old, relatively conservative white guy” remains curious and confused.

Larry Roshfeld, Ed.M. ’82
Bethesda, Md.

 

Thanks for the discussion of this important topic. However, it’s unclear what Macaulay Whitakers’s “strawberry blond” hair and “wardrobe to rival Ann Taylor’s” have to do with her insights on this topic. As far as I can tell we have no info on hair color or wardrobe of any of the other individuals quoted in the article. Only a coincidence that she is a young female, I assume.

Ruth Schwartz ’76, Ed.M. 78
Riverdale, N.Y.

 

Author Nancy Walecki responds: Point taken, but this “relatively young” female reporter thought Macaulay Whitaker had cool clothes. As a writer, I like to provide some details; in this case the apparent sexism reflects nothing more than that all my other interviews in Mississippi were via telephone and Whitaker’s was via Zoom.

 

Imposter Syndrome

I would like to thank and congratulate Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead ‘24 for her exemplary article, “The Truth about Imposter Syndrome” (The Undergraduate, May-June, page 26).

I was a poor public high school educated kid from New Hampshire in 1965 and didn’t have a name for what I suffered from but am willing to have it called Imposter Syndrome. All I know was that the Financial Aid Office contributed heavily to my feelings of inadequacy and not belonging by assigning me a Work Study job cleaning the bathrooms of my rich, preppy classmates. Imagine the sense of embarrassment and humiliation I felt. But the Financial Aid office still to this day defends the “Dorm Crew” as the most popular Work Study job (because it pays more than jobs in the library, or another college office).

Harvard, shame on you…

William Sherwood ‘69
Ossining, N.Y.

Editor’s note: Ledecky Fellow John A. La Rue ’07 wrote about dorm crew in “The (Other) Crew Captain” (January-February 2006, page 71), one of the most-real Undergraduate columns in recent decades; it merits revisiting.

 

The article on imposter syndrome in the latest issue reminds me of a joke that was current on campus in the 1960s: Your first year at Harvard you think you’re a computer error. Your second year you are convinced everyone else is.

Laurence Senelick, A.M. ’65, Ph.D. ’72
Medford, Mass.

 

Rebecca Cadenhead’s frank and self-effacing article “The Truth About Imposter Syndrome“ is certainly worthwhile reading not only for current Harvard students, but for those of us who know that only fate (and legacy) allowed us to walk those hallowed halls and self-effacingly casually mention where we went to college for the rest of our lives.

But I would have expected that the current editors would have kindly not allowed her to make the common error of “better writer than me” (pg. 27).

Edward J Hart ’59
Cambridge

 

AI and Authoritarianism

InAuthoritarian Regimes’ AI Innovation Advantage” (May-Jun, page 9) researcher John Yang worries that “A lot of privacy protection policies could have anti-industrial consequences because it hurts industries that rely on that data.”

The article implies that, to compete with China, we should consider allowing more data-gathering, i.e. surveillance, in order to feed AI algorithms and thus boost growth.

We face a planetary crisis due to unbridled growth and political collapse due not least to political actors’ manipulations of the psyche using AI and techniques from advertising and social science. To govern by “the numbers” is to govern amorally. The results are anti-social. Let’s stand up for principles.

Sarah Brownsberger, M.T.S. ’85
Bellingham, Wash

 

“I’m just saying…” What assistant professor of economics Yang is “just saying” is that authoritarian governments such as China have an “Innovation Advantage” because their police can collect endless data without concern for the rights or privacy of their citizens. Despite American businesses’ far-from-solid respect for consumers’ privacy—their tendency to make customers opt-out rather than opt-in, for example—they are evidently still missing out on opportunities such as provided by China’s Orwellian surveillance through which AI companies develop facial recognition algorithms for the police that can then be adapted and used by commercial businesses.

I’m not a fan of authoritarianism, surveillance, or most AI for that matter. But, to be fair, what could such data bring businesses? “Customer identification” and “personalized ads.” Spooky to hear Harvard Magazine echoing Yang that we should even consider the “tradeoffs” that bring such questionable benefits. Yes, values can get in the way of profits. But most shoppers already know who they are when they walk into a store. And most people find personalized ads rather creepy, and recognize that sellers aim to benefit themselves, not customers. Do “civil-liberty costs outweigh the economic potential of these innovations”? How does Harvard not recognize that they do?

Christina Albers ’79
New Orleans

 

The May-June 2022 edition of the magazine had a shockingly tone-deaf article (“Authoritarian Regimes’ AI Innovation Advantage”) in which the author, Daniel Oberhaus, and his primary source, Assistant Professor of Economics David Yang, bemoan China’s advantage in developing facial-recognition software because it is unencumbered by our petty Western concerns with privacy and fundamental human rights. “Unless these tensions are addressed soon,” the author writes, “the United States may find itself far behind in the race to build one of the most important technologies of the twenty-first century.”

 It does not speak well of either the Magazine’s editorial policies or the ethical standards of Harvard’s curriculum that surveillance technology would be so blithely passed off as “one of the most important technologies” today without a single sentence dedicated to enumerating this technology’s many downsides. “Once the economic value is taken into consideration,” Yang is quoted as saying, “we can start to think about whether the civil-liberty costs outweigh the economic potential.”

 I’ve got another idea, Prof. Yang: how about we not weigh the civil liberties of our citizens—their privacy, and the intimate details of their lives that can be gathered by violating that privacy—against the profits some businesses might find in exploiting their privacy as raw material? How about we not get all excited about the economic potential of a technology that is already being deployed to locate dissidents abroad and put their very lives in danger? Maybe we can find some higher purpose in life than simply chasing after stakeholder value? Or perhaps that runs counter to Harvard’s teachings. If so, I will expect little from its graduates going forward.

Mark Diller, M.T.S. ’89
Seattle

 

Slavery’s Legacy

What is wrong with a school like Harvard that it cannot put slavery in perspective [see John Harvard’s Journal]? My other alma mater (Brown) has gone through the same exercise, and I fully expected to see a call to change the name of that university. Get a grip!

Slavery was rampant in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. So were a lot of other things we classify as abuses and atrocities today. We cannot wind back those clocks. Exposing them, understanding them, and re-educating people today is all fine and good, and long overdue. But what on earth is Harvard going to accomplish by allocating $100 million to some undefined “atonement” program? Thank goodness at least the administration has determined reparations are not part of atonement, although definitions of atonement do include reparations. Brown’s version of slavery atonement was to launch an endowment to benefit the Providence public school system. Are African Americans supposed to feel better about Brown’s slave past because it is now supporting Rhode Island’s public schools? I expect Harvard will execute some equally pointless use of $100 million so it can brag about it in a future issue of this publication.

My response to Harvard is the same one that was in my letter to Brown several years go: If you’ve got this kind of money to spend on atonement, you don’t need mine.

Brian Barbata, M.B.A. ’75
Kailua, Hawaii

 

Shopping Week

“96 percent of undergraduates reportedly wished to retain the existing [shopping week] system.” The faculty voted 3 to 2 to abolish shopping period (see harvardmag.com/shop-denouement-22). As retired CEO of a successful private company, the most important lesson I learned was unabashed customer-centric focus. Yet this faculty expressly ignored its customers. It is a big, inexcusable, and unforced error.

During the 1967 fall shopping week, I “sampled” Edward Banfield’s first-time course on urban studies (affectionately known among students as “Trash Cans”) that ultimately led to his book, The Unheavenly City. I was curious, but would not have enrolled under the new system. The first course meeting was in a tiny classroom in Harvard Hall. After multiple moves, the roughly 500 students who ultimately took the course moved en masse to Sanders Theater. The course was the college’s second largest that semester after Economics 1.

Administratively and otherwise inconvenient for the professor, the College, and everyone? Of course! However, Banfield not only lectured but (despite the class size) routinely took challenging questions and graciously debated all. Ultimately, he became my mentor and I, his summer research assistant. For me and many others, it was the “best course at Harvard.”

On and off over 50 years, I have interviewed Harvard College applicants. Often they ask about Harvard’s size and bureaucracy (including how people sign up for courses). Their faces light up in disbelief and excitement when I talk about shopping week. I guess I’ll have to stop telling them.

Mark Petri ’69, J.D. ‘75
Nashotah, Wisc.

 

Double Concentrations

I read on page 23 of the May-June issue that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has approved “double concentrations.” I have been serving as an academic dean in the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley (Berkeley) for the last seven years and can pass along some real-world reflections on what is likely to happen as a result of authorizing this change, and why. Berkeley has allowed double majors (with a maximum of two shared courses) for at least the past 40 years. Graduation requirements are roughly the same as Harvard’s. Multiple majors were not common before 2004, when the numbers began to rise rapidly, going from about 3 percent to 7 percent of upper-division undergraduates by 2010. The figure is now about 14.7 percent.

Some students choose wisely; many do not. Two of the chief values of attending a comprehensive research institution as an undergraduate are to take advantage of the unusual breadth and depth of course offerings and of the opportunity to be instructed by faculty members at the leading edge of their own fields. For many students who pursue double majors, these opportunities are sharply reduced. Although ideally a double concentration would allow a student to study in depth more than one field of knowledge, say, astronomy and Chinese literature, the majority of students at Cal choose closely related majors, mathematics and statistics, or comparative literature and French. This overlap is comfortable for many students who expect only good grades in their favorite disciplines. But it is ruinous to their gaining knowledge outside those fields. A major in economics and statistics, for instance, will have to take 23 courses to complete both majors which, with the required nine general education and breadth courses, will use up all 32 courses in their undergraduate career. Worse, if the fields are closely related, most of the four or five lower-division courses required for each major will involve heavily overlapping intellectual material delivered via large lecture courses. Such a student will have no opportunity to take a course in theater or astronomy, no opportunity to participate in education abroad, and little opportunity to get to know other students in areas outside their own fields.

Comprehensive arts and science institutions, as Berkeley and Harvard see themselves to be, give in to the pressure to evolve into trade schools at their peril. The irony is that students operate on a folkloric basis, believing that there is some intrinsic value to having two fields stamped on one’s diploma. Were I in charge of the universe, double majors would be allowable only if they were in different intellectual areas: French and economics or physics, OK, French and Spanish, NO. My impression from dealing with students who have fallen into academic trouble of some kind while pursuing double (or triple, or more) majors is that the intellectual and educational costs to the student for pursuing closely related double majors at a place like Berkeley or Harvard are likely to be far higher than the benefits, although the students are unlikely to take those costs into account.

Daniel F. Melia ’66, Ph.D. ‘72
Professor emeritus rhetoric and Celtic studies
Assistant dean, College of Letters and Science
University of California, Berkeley

 

Climate Change and Stanford’s School

The announcement of Harvard alum John Doerr’s [M.B.A. ’76] $1.1-billion gift to Stanford—the second-largest gift ever given to a university, enabling it to establish a climate school—should be seen as writing on the wall, and a message to Harvard. Quoting Doerr, “Climate and Sustainability is going to be the new computer science.” It’s also an area that will attract the world’s best and brightest faculty and students. Who was it who said that Harvard doesn’t want to have a climate school? Why not?

As an aside, and a note to fundraisers, the largest single gift ever given to a university was the $1.8 billion given by Doerr’s fellow Harvard alum, Mike Bloomberg, M.B.A. ’66, LL.D. ’14. Although Bloomberg has also been a generous donor to Harvard, he has given far more to climate causes, such as his pledge a few years ago to spend an additional $500 million to reduce climate impacts by shutting coal-fired power plants via his new “Beyond Carbon” initiative. Is there a trend emerging here? My MBA analytical eye detects one.

I congratulate Larry Bacow and Jim Stock for the work they have initiated via Jim’s critical role as Harvard’s first vice provost of climate and sustainability. This is an important stepping up of Harvard’s heretofore (with some exceptions) nonchalant response to climate, and an important move towards strengthening Harvard’s climate and sustainability stance. A growing number of Harvard alumni are increasingly concerned: they smell the smoke, dread the droughts, and feel the flooding accompanying climate change.

Larry Bacow has said, “Climate change is the most consequential threat facing humanity.” Now we need to act that way—by responding to that threat, and also by responding to the many opportunities presented by the threat.

Recently, Harvard earned a spot in the national news for pledging $100 million to research and atone for its past role in slavery. And, I must point out the immense irony that emerges when one compares this admitted historical wrong with the Harvard community’s treatment of the climate crisis. For a continuing education final exam, I think every member of the Harvard community should be asked to write a “compare and contrast” essay, examining 1722 slavery attitudes, and 2022 climate-change attitudes.

Roger Shamel, M.B.A. ’74
Hillsborough, N.H.

 

Henry Hobson Richardson

The review of Architects of an American Landscape (“Off the Shelf,” March-April, page 48) mentions the effort to save the Brookline home of Henry Hobson Richardson, A.B. 1859.

The good news is that the house is now part of Brookline’s new Olmsted-Richardson Historic District. The bad news is that its interior is not protected, the house belongs to a developer, and its most important Richardson space, his unique Studio-Bedroom, will be lost unless an institution steps forward to preserve it.

The room has an unusual layered Moorish inspired ceiling (with rings in it used to assist the ill Richardson in bed). It has a cork floor and patterned cork-lined walls, to which drawings were pinned, with a plate rail below where mounted photos were propped. Angled in one corner is a chimney stack, tiled like a central European stove. The monastic alcove-like east wall consists of two built-in paneled cabinets (one with file drawers for drawings) flanking a pair of inglenook-like facing bench seats, of a Richardson scale, with a twin window between them. From there, at that time, HHR could see the tower of Trinity Church rising in the distance in Boston’s Back Bay.

And, as James O’Gorman, Ph.D. ’66, recently noted:

“There are two aspects of HHR’s bedroom that give it special character: derived from its location on the second-floor front of the house….[That pair of windows] looks out AND DOWN from the room so that he could, when not bedridden, espy visitors coming through the gate at the road. Once the visitor(s)/client(s) had entered the front door, HHR, when able, could swoop down the stairway to greet him/her/they. One must keep these two features in mind as one thinks of how to interpret the relocated room.”

Dennis DeWitt, M.Arch. ’74
Brookline, Mass.

Errata

In a doleful hat trick of errors, we managed to misspell two words and the name of architect Rem Koolhaas in the brief Open Book on Joseph Giovannini’s monumental Architecture Unbound (“Architectural Upheaval,” May-June, page 52). Our profound apologies.

And confirming that we are innumerate, too, we transposed the date of King Philip’s War. The right date, 1675, was rendered as 1765 in “Parklands and Wastewater” (May-June, page 8N).

 

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