The energy transition, football greats, legacy admissions
Harvard, Hamas, and Israel
My reaction to President Gay’s video message to alumni, clarifying Harvard’s position on the terrorist attacks in Israel:
Is it really so difficult to utter the words: “We support Israel in its attempt to defend itself from barbaric terrorist attacks”? (The word “Israel” was not even mentioned once in the message!)
As to the anti-Israel letter signed by various student groups: In an academic atmosphere in which designating someone by a non-preferred pronoun may result in dismissal or expulsion, are there no consequences for blaming the victims of savage brutality for their own suffering and supporting the perpetrators of those horrific crimes?
Michael A. Shmidman, Ph.D. ’80
Editor’s note: For news coverage in the days after October 7, see https://www.harvardmag.com/respond-israel-23. See further coverage in this issue, and commentary here. Additional letters appear online with this issue’s correspondence column.
Dear President Gay,
Respectfully, I have waited patiently to hear you resolutely address the letter written by members of 34 pro-Palestinian student groups who held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” that was brought upon them by the inhuman terrorists who have “governed” in Gaza since 1987.
Thank you for providing your video and transcript.
I hold three things above all others in my life: my son, Nicholas, my Catholic faith, and Harvard. While completing my bachelor’s degree, I used the same “safe words” as you, believing in my heart that keeping dialogues and minds open—even with people whose views were abhorrent or racist or violent—would somehow lead to a better discourse and more mutual understanding.
Three things changed my mind: remembering the events of 9/11, the efforts by Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 election, and the slaughter of the innocents in Israel on October 7. Sadly, I now believe that negotiation is never an option with extremists. Look at the current chaos within the Republican faction of our own House of Representatives!
But I believe in you. Can you please let us know what plans you and the University have to bridge these differences with the student groups who blame Israel for this atrocity?
My kindest regards and support for “the good fight” you will fight for Harvard.
Kathleen Massimilian ’91
As we are all aware, American college campuses have erupted in waves of anti-Israel and often anti-Jewish hostility after the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, and Israel’s own overwhelming response to it. University faculty and administrators have been drawn into the fray.
I have been out of academia for twenty-plus years now, except that I get alumni mags from all my alma maters, the schools I have attended, and the other schools I have taught at, and I sort of keep up with the currents of opinion there. With, of course, an extra dose of attention to Harvard, for multiple reasons.
Last weekend, I abandoned my usual abstracted demeanor in this conflict, and threw myself into full-throated schadenfreude about President Gay’s embarrassment, the never-to-be forgotten “It depends on the context,” and the rumors about the questionable origins of her dissertation research.
Now I’m reconsidering. Because, whether we like it or not, it really does depend on the context. Aside from being a superannuated academic, I’m also a practicing attorney, and have had to deal with lots of issues involving the free speech of people I passionately loathe. The Nazis had every right to march in Skokie (though I enjoyed watching them chicken out). I enjoyed being able to help the ACLU rehabilitate itself with the Jewish community (of which I am a proud member) by representing me in suing the Chicago police department for arresting me for demonstrating against the local Nazis.
The context in this case is a vein of ignorance that has barely been tapped. We academics and former academics need to keep reminding ourselves that the real enemy here is ignorance. “From the river to the sea,” to a student body that is almost entirely ignorant of the geography in question—what river? What sea?—is a meaninglessly abstract slogan. Who was Herzl? What was the Balfour Declaration? Who lives between the river and the sea, wherever they are? How did they get there? And, above all, what was the Holocaust? Many of the students who identify Hamas with anti-imperialist resistance have no idea of the answer to any of these questions. They may not even know such questions have ever been asked.
When I was at Harvard, it was absorbed in two major questions: How had the most cultured and learned society in the world of the early 20th century turned into a bunch of howling savages intent on bureaucratically organized murder of their own best and brightest? and: How close is the racism of American society to repeating that transformation? The opening class of my Social Sciences course was a movie—actually, a double feature: Triumph of the Will, and Night and Fog. The Harvard of the 1960s gave me a ringside seat at that inquiry, with the guidance of Tillich, Niebuhr, Fromm, Erickson, and classmates who became the leading lights of the New Left a decade later. Thanks to Sputnik, we were the best-educated generation ever. Unfortunately, we still are.
President Gay was right. And the Overseers were right to keep her on. It really does depend on the context. It is unduly cynical to view the context as a duel between rich Republican and/or Jewish donors and rich Middle Eastern oil monarchs bent on buying out Western civilization if they cannot intellectually overcome it. It is unduly transactional to view the context for academic governance as maintaining leverage over this duel to the point of making money off both sides. Now that I have regained my lawyerly sanity, I hope we can work out a win-win for free speech and free inquiry, on both sides.
Marian Henriquez Neudel ’63
When children are abducted, the abductors have no moral standing. That the University should remain quiet about the terrorist activity in Israel is unconscionable. That student organizations are permitted to air grievances without an emphatic response from the administration is unbelievable. That it takes someone of the standing of Larry Summers to point out the cowardice of the current administration is only somewhat heartening. Harvard and its students are guilty of moral turpitude. I am ashamed that I am a graduate in the face of such a response. I am sure these same students would have been dancing in the streets in the wake of 9/11. I no longer wish to be affiliated with the University, and if I could somehow erase my affiliation with it, I would do so. The University should be ashamed that it allows for the recrudescence of such crude antisemitism.
Frank Hacklander ’82
Following President Gay’s announcement of an advisory group on antisemitism, over a hundred faculty members signed onto a letter that recommended, among other steps meant to “present a balanced commitment to the support of intellectual freedom at Harvard,” that the University create “an advisory group on Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism” [see “Academic Freedom—for All,” published online November 16, 2023, at harvardmag.com/faculty-expression-23].
Here’s a thought: rather than have two dueling committees, let’s create a single advisory group tasked with addressing both antisemitism and Islamophobia, staffed by people from a variety of backgrounds and offering a variety of perspectives. If members of such a group were to prove willing to debate forthrightly, and to actually listen to other points of view, it might actually end up producing more light than heat.
Philip Kosnett ’82
Black Mountain, N.C.
Universities are supposed to be marketplaces for free speech. Instead, we see students blacklisted from future job opportunities for expressing perspectives that do not align with those of wealthy donors or corporate CEOs. Is the essence of a Harvard education “Money talks” and “Big money talks the loudest”? Better for students to evolve their views through discourse and life experiences than to be bullied into submission by the rich and powerful.
Ted Tsomides ’82, M.D. ’09
Dear Dr. Gay,
Perhaps the worst part of your congressional testimony was not that you didn’t give an unequivocal yes when asked if calling for the genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s bullying and harrassment policy—it was that you responded to Elise Stefanik as if she had asked an honest question.
The same would go for telling Muslims to go back to their shithole countries, it should be noted, or saying they should all be treated like terrorists. The only real conceivable exception in either case would seem to be a satirical utterance in the vein of A Modest Proposal. But the congresswoman wasn’t interested in having a good faith conversation about the line between free speech and bullying and harassment, or the line that leads from rhetoric to action…or even about whether anyone at Harvard had actually leveled this particular charge, or was it merely a hypothetical. She wanted to use you as a political prop, and you let her.
If you’re going to apologize for anything, you should be apologizing for that.
If it’s any consolation, at least you’re not alone in this matter. It seems to be a recurring problem lately in academia and in the progressive and liberal democratic traditions more broadly—this treating of the authoritarian right as faithful opposition—a seeming lack of recognition that they are playing by a different set of rules, if not a different game entirely.
This is a woman who would not say that, at the very least, Donald Trump should be barred from holding office again after his speech and behavior between the 2020 election and the events of January 6. For anyone who puts our Constitution and our country above their partisan loyalties and personal ambitions, that should have been an easy call. But she didn’t make it. Instead, she decided Trump should not be held accountable for fomenting political violence and perpetrating fraud as part of his attempt to hold on to power.
She doesn’t take her oath of office seriously, and you shouldn’t either.
Perhaps you shouldn’t have shown up at all. Remember what happened when the January 6 Committee issued a subpoena to Rudy Giuliani? Absolutely nothing. All you did by going was allow people like her to act as if they have some sort of moral authority.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about antisemitism, or Islamophobia for that matter; you absolutely should. We can talk about the plight of the Palestinians and be critical of Israel’s occupation and settlement policies while also condemning kidnaping, rape, torture, indiscriminate bombing and other acts of terrorism committed by Hamas—and we can do all of that while ensuring students and the broader Harvard community remain free to express themselves and are free from bullying and harrassment.
That is what we do at Harvard: tackle difficult problems, work toward a greater understanding, seek truth. For nearly 400 years now, that single word has been our guiding principle. So by all means, have deep, nuanced, serious conversations about serious issues with other serious people. But if you’re going to engage with someone who is looking to create a gotcha moment—to raise money and elevate their status within an authoritarian movement by furthering the partisan divide in our country—and you’re going to do it on their turf, you’d better know what game you’re playing, and you’d better be fearless in speaking the truth.
Michael Gentilucci ’03
The essence of antisemitism was laid bare to me not by what Hamas did in Israel on October 7, as barbaric as its acts were. Instead, the essence of antisemitism was laid bare to me by what has transpired every day since elsewhere. And that includes here at Harvard.
It was laid bare to me as President Gay testified before Congress that “it depends on the context” whether calling for the genocide of Jews is bullying or harassment, as if she would answer the same if the question was instead asked about African Americans, LGBTQ individuals, or undocumented migrants.
It was laid bare to me by Harvard, which holds lectures on “microaggressions” but then allows protesters to chant “kill the Jews” at campus rallies.
It was laid bare to me as students chanted from “the river to the sea” at campus rallies, yet can’t name the river or the sea and couldn’t pass a basic history test about what they are protesting.
It was laid bare to me after Jewish women were gang raped and publicly defiled by terrorists, yet in two months since, not one campus women’s group said a word.
In short, it was laid bare to me not by Hamas, but by much of the world’s response – or lack of response – to Hamas, including right in Cambridge. Frankly, Hamas is easier to eradicate than antisemitism.
Long before there was a state of Israel, antisemitism thrived. And long after Hamas is gone, antisemitism will still be here.
Antisemitism—the oldest ism in the book—is a special form of hypocrisy. It has no equal. But at least lean in, recognize it, and own it.
Looking away is like ignoring the pink elephant in the corner of the room. Or worse, trying to rationalize it, justify it, or apologize for it further fans its flames. If silence is violence, then only by owning it might we actually then eradicate it.
All said, October 7 in Israel was sick and obvious, but it didn’t teach much about antisemitism. October 8, and every day since at Harvard, does.
William Choslovsky, J.D. ’94
To read the inaugural speech of Harvard’s new President, Claudine Gay, after reading her initial comments on the barbaric invasion of Israel by Hamas terrorists, met by more than 30 Harvard student groups blaming Israel, is the greatest embarrassment any alumna/us can imagine for the university. “Let us be courageous together?” President Gay has now set the gold standard for evasion, pusillanimity, and cowardice for virtually all U.S. university presidents. She is a national disgrace. Why not ask the governing boards to admit their amazing error and begin to look elsewhere for a leader who indeed has the moral courage to remind students that such sadistic and beastly acts are indefensible?
Paul Meo ’61
President Gay’s video statement on October 12th in response to the controversies surrounding the reactions at Harvard to the awful events and news from Israel and Gaza was an eloquent argument for the virtues of and need for free speech within Harvard and elsewhere. Indeed, fostering free expression, mutual respect and empathy should be an essential component of a college’s mission and curriculum.
Unfortunately, the reality regarding speech and expression at Harvard has been very different. In extensive surveys over the past four years the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has ranked Harvard near or at the bottom in respect to free expression. These surveys reveal many students believe that disruptive and even violent forms of protest to stop speech are acceptable and that Harvard has one of the highest rates of deplatforming speakers (effectively rewarding and encouraging disruption).
Such challenges to healthy debate are not new but have become much more troubling in the context of a society where there is a general decline of empathy. Many schools have recognized this trend and have responded. In 2015, the University of Chicago established clear principles on free speech and over 100 schools have since either endorsed the “Chicago Statement” or adopted similar guidelines. A coalition of thirteen schools recently formed The Campus Call for Free Expression: a plan to take real actions to proactively rebuild a culture of free expression and mutual respect.
Harvard is soon becoming the exception with inconsistent statements and actions that only embolden challengers to free expression and undermine any official statements. Harvard needs to turn its statements into more concrete action. To encourage this, I have started a Change.org petition (https://chng.it/sFrZ24KS8b) asking that Harvard both join The Campus Call for Free Expression and endorse the Chicago Statement.
Paul Wickboldt, Ph.D, ’93
Walnut Creek, Cal.
You do not need to be an Israeli or a Jew—just a decent human being—to understand that there can be no justification for the brutal slaughter of Israeli civilians by the Hamas terrorist organization.
One cannot but remember September 11th when 3,000 human beings were incinerated in the U.S. Of course, Israel is much smaller: the equivalent death count in America would have been 50,000!
One similarity between September 11th and Hamas’s appalling actions is striking: the glee that the attacks were greeted with by supporters of militant Islam and extremists who eschew any compromise with “the Zionist entity.”
The Hamas Charter does not attempt to disguise its genocidal ideology and its chilling theories about the “control of the world by Jews,” whom it blames for all humankind’s ills. Hamas —like Hitler and the Nazis—must be defeated. As Churchill so astutely observed, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile-hoping it will eat him last.”
Alex Bruner, M.B.A. ’76
Boca Raton, Fla.
The current installment of the Israeli–Arab war provides a clear litmus test to detect antisemitism in American universities. There are many trying to sniff out Arab suffering at Israeli hands and scream “Geneva Convention.” The instances they choose to decry betray their total ignorance of the content of these conventions. Just as all cries for humanitarian aid seem to ignore the plight of those held hostage. Don’t they merit release as humanitarian aid?
How many bullet holes can one put into a baby without violating the Geneva Convention? How many unarmed concertgoers can one massacre before provoking the displeasure of the antisemite?
To the oft cited adage “in a conflict both sides must be at fault,” let us consider this example: on one side is Booth on the other Lincoln—it takes two to make an assassination therefore they must both be at fault.
What did Israel do to Iran to provoke this conflict? They were about to make peace with Saudi Arabia. All but antisemites would applaud that.
Prof. Daniel I. A. Cohen, Ph.D. ’75
New York City
As it relates to the recent events on the Harvard campus following the Hamas attacks in Israel and by President Gay’s video remarks upon them, it is incomprehensible to those of us who once proudly wore Harvard symbols that a president of Harvard would be obliged to reaffirm such basic beliefs.
That such a sizable gathering of Harvard students and faculty has so little moral clarity demeans the very values that form the foundations of the United States and most democratic societies, and presumably Harvard.
In the aftermath of these astonishing eruptions exposing the shallowness of eternal truths being promoted to, among, and by the Harvard community, I would hope that those who have been so greatly privileged to guide this once great institution will re-evaluate whether what they are now reaping is what they really want to sow.
With the presumed rapid advent of AI into our universities, what Harvard may now be graduating into our society are too many adolescents carrying a Harvard degree but with minds filled with nothing beyond artificial intelligence.
John W. Jenkins M.B.A. ’63
Dear President Gay,
I fully support your plan to combat antisemitism in Harvard University. As an emigrant from Russia and an alumnus of Harvard University, I am especially concerned about the resurgent antisemitism in the world in general and at Harvard in particular. I escaped from the traditional Russian antisemitism, but have encountered some of this medieval hatred in the United States also.
The current war in Israel triggered that hatred with calls to eliminate the state of Israel “from the river to the sea.” This example of “free speech” is incitement to violence, which is prohibited by the U.S. judicial doctrine, and cannot be tolerated in Harvard community. The terrible violence in Israel must be stopped by international interference, and American leaning institutions including Harvard University must find a solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I suggest to organize a public forum at Harvard to discuss this issue and to report the resulting proposals to President Biden and Congress. Please let me know how I can help your effort to eradicate antisemitism at Harvard University.
Anatol Zukerman, M.Arch. ’75
The Energy Transition
“Preparing for the Energy Transition” (November-December 2023, page 11) does not solve the worker re-employment problem. With only the most highly educated 1 percent of the unemployed leaving the local communities to find work elsewhere, retraining the 99 percent of remaining workers is a waste of time and money without new employers relocating to the community. A viable energy transition program must include both new employers and the retraining of workers to meet the needs of new employers. Bringing new employers to the community—with their arrival timed to match local re-skilling—will likely be far more challenging than implementing government-funded unemployment relief and retraining programs.
Peter Drake ’64
The article quotes Harvard economist Gordon Hanson on the challenge of the energy transition, which will bring 1.7 million workers into the unemployment ranks. Wow! Hanson apparently has a viable forecast of the timing and makeup of the “energy transition” data, which the U.S. government seeks today. Does Hanson have similar concern with the further implementation of artificial intelligence, also covered in the November-December issue (page 13)? Of interest, U.S. employment grew by about 20 million from 2000 to 2023.
Yes, the market works.
Robert C. Baker, M.B.A. ’57
I enjoyed the selection of Harvard’s All-Time 150-year team (November-December 2023, page 40), and was pleased to see three players named from my hometown of Natick, Massachusetts: Ned Mahan, 1916; Eddie Casey, 1919; and Dick Clasby, 1954. There is one Natick boy your selection committee overlooked: David Ignacio, 1972, who was the captain and Crocker Award recipient for the 1971 team. He was first team All-Ivy and in 1973 voted to an all-time All-Ivy team as a defensive back. Surely he warrants at least an honorable mention?
That said, I was gratified to see three of my former teammates on the 1974 Ivy League co-championship team recognized: Pat McNally, 1975; Dan Jiggetts, 1976; and Billy Emper, 1977. With that much all-time talent on one team (plus Milt Holt), it begs the question of how we managed to lose to Brown!
John Bennett ’75
Bethany Beach, Del.
I enjoyed the football sesquicentennial article very much. However, I was astonished and disappointed not to find my friend, classmate, and teammate, Chester Boulris, honored on the All-Crimson Team, not even as an Honorable Mention running back.
I would not presume to try to list all his achievements. So here are just a few: All-Ivy three times; All-Academic Ivy ’59; Bulger and Crocker Awards ’59; All-New England twice; All-East; All-Ivy 1950-60 Decade Team. And of course the Harvard Hall of Fame. Naturally, the selection panel knew all that, and yet…
Chauncey L. Walker ’60
Football Varsity “H” ’57
Football correspondent Dick Friedman responds: Chauncey Walker has a point. The problem is that the running back and linebacker positions are especially stacked with superb and worthy candidates.
I found Aden Barton’s Undergraduate column, “What Work Means” (November-December 2023, page 60), laden with an angst that most of us in the class of 1957 did not experience. We were subject to the draft. No grand decisions needed to be made. In my case, I rushed down to the Office of Naval Procurement in downtown Boston as soon as my notice arrived in early May.
The U.S. Navy provided prestige, money (just enough), purpose, flexibility (a different duty station every two to three years), and care—the criteria Barton fears no employer can provide. After 31 years of both active and reserve duty, my wife and I enjoy a substantial retirement and full, free healthcare.
One needn’t make the military a career, but just a few years of such exposure can serve as a meaningful foundation for future endeavors. As a previous letter writer suggested, the Peace Corps would also provide an attractive alternative with much the same satisfactions as military service.
James S. Eilberg, Captain, SC, USN, Ret.
Reading Aden Barton’s essay “What Work Means,” I vowed to discourage my son from applying to Harvard when the time comes, despite the outstanding faculty and resources. The College was a pressure cooker when I was there, and this sentence reveals how damaging its atmosphere has become: “If I had to pick one factor that weighs most on seniors’ minds in picking their first job, it would be prestige.” I did manage to find several likeminded close friends at Harvard. None of us cared about the prestige of our first jobs—we cared that they were interesting, meaningful, and provided enough money to live.
There’s a striking contrast between President Gay’s inspiring inaugural address, in which she exhorted Harvardians to use our coveted educations to uplift society, and the statistic Barton cites that 60 percent of graduates pursue consulting, finance, and technology. Of course, these fields do make vital contributions to society. But let’s be honest, many grads heading off to these jobs are (or will become) more focused on money and power. One need only look at the ad on the back cover: four men play golf in a gorgeous mountain setting under the caption, “Welcome to the peak of luxury.”
An even sadder statistic is one I saw in the Crimson at graduation: the majority of my classmates going into finance and consulting wished they were doing something else. Harvard offers extraordinary financial aid to ensure its graduates aren’t saddled with debt. So why does it watch while hedge funds swoop in to recruit seniors who don’t know what to do with their lives, instead of coaching students in how to follow their passions without sacrificing financial stability?
Sonia DeYoung ’10
In a way, it is sad to say it, but let’s recognize it for what it is: Claudine Gay’s installation as Harvard’s thirtieth president is a “Great Leap Forward” (“Let Us Be Courageous Together,” November-December 2023, page 22). What took so long? President Gay joins a group of other Black women who are now making their marks on America: Leticia James as New York’s attorney general; Stacey Abrams leading the fight for civil rights; U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan; Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis. And, dare I say it, perhaps saving America, at least our democratic system of representative government, from fascist forces? I can’t help but ponder the human resources we’ve squandered over the past two and one-half centuries denying women and minorities equal opportunities.
Congratulations to Dr. Gay and to Harvard for moving us forward.
Richard Sutherland, J.D. ’73
President Gay’s research (“A ‘Scholar’s Scholar,’” September-October 2023, page 24) plays a critical role in recent redistricting cases, among them the decision in Singleton v. Allen by an Alabama Federal District Court that stated a district that was 48 percent black was required to create an “opportunity district” in which a black candidate had a good chance of winning. An earlier case had ruled that 42 percent was not enough. The court reasoned that research had shown “that voting in Alabama is extremely racially polarized.”
Gay’s research demonstrated this phenomenon in other cases. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the extent of partisanship: a 42 percent black district would likely elect a black candidate if a bit more than one-fifth of other voters voted for the black candidate. Apparently, the court felt this fraction would not be obtained.
Neil Cohen, J.D. ’75
Some of the lofty talk in President Gay’s installation speech arose, no doubt, from the headiness of the occasion itself. Even so, one must take Claudine Gay at her word when she says that she sees Harvard as a significant agent for change not only on a state and national scale but on a global one as well. Among other things, she would have the University work through and with, “institutions representing states and nations near and far, and our trusted partners from state and local government who make possible our collective contributions to the country and the Commonwealth.”
Her ambition for Harvard borders on hubris. She recognized no limiting principles as to subject matter, method, place or time that should apply to the University’s activity in the world.
She failed to insist that the first and foremost mission of the University must be the advancement of learning and knowledge through the exercise of the greatest possible degree of free inquiry. This paramount mission is threatened by promoting the university as a change agent working with governmental and other institutions to solve the problems of society. Such actions enmesh the university in social and political issues that are controversial at any given time and which are transitory over time. Therefore, over time, the university undermines its credibility and standing as some causes which it has advocated or espoused inevitably lose favor or prove to be unfounded.
Sadly, Claudine Gay expressly rejects the concept of the university as an Ivory Tower, likely because she misapprehends its historical origins and purpose. The tower concept was intended to ensure that students and teachers could inquire freely and question all things without undue interference from outside political and social forces. Tenure for senior faculty is one of the key pillars of the ivory tower. But academia cannot have it both ways. It cannot demand to be free to inquire, insulated from outside influence, while claiming that it can freely engage in political and social activism. When the institution engages in such activism its so-called partners in government and other social institutions, will try to influence how the university executes its teaching and administrative functions, including what should be taught, who should be allowed to teach and who should matriculate. When education engages in political and social activism it becomes politicized; that, in turn, threatens its primary mission.
Within its walls, a university must always encourage and protect the freedom to ask “why” regardless of the subject matter. Addressing the questions:“why not, why not here and why not now,” if asked to promote particular political and social policies, should be left to politics and society at large.
Admittedly, the divide between town and gown cannot be and should not be an impermeable wall. But academia must recognize certain limits to its role in society if it is to maintain adequate independence from political and social influences in its promotion of free inquiry.
Zala Forizs ’67
St. Petersburg, Fla.
I am in tears. Eighty-three-year-olds do that when something particularly good happens. In President Gay’s installation address, “Courage to Be Harvard” (November-December 2023, page 26), I have just read one of the finest “calls to action” I have ever heard or read. I would like for her to know how deeply she affected this grad—and I am sure there are many others.
Thank you for printing the full article and the magnificent address.
Franklin McCallie, M.A.T. ’68
Signal Mountain, Tenn.
Brainy Seven Sisters
In the September-October 2023 “College Pump” (“Paths to the Presidency,” page 60), Primus clearly failed to interview anyone who was a college student in the 1960s when he wrote that Drew Gilpin Faust enrolled in “Bryn Mawr (the most cerebral of the Seven Sisters) in 1964.” Everyone knows that Radcliffe was the most cerebral by far of the Seven Sisters colleges in those years.
Edward Tabor ’69
As a music writer who delights in discovering under-appreciated artists, I want to thank you for “Reviving Black Classical Music” (November-December 2023, page 53). I’ve written about musicians (mostly from the early 1900s) who were erased from canonical histories, but had not known of Blind Tom Wiggins. What a story. And I’m listening to Gerry Bryant right now. Beautiful stuff. Thank you for bringing both of them to my attention, and thank you, Gerry Bryant!
Charles Hsu ’79
In “Reviving Black Classical Music,” Gerry Bryant ’76 recounts that “throughout my career, I hadn’t known about the existence of a whole lot of these black composers….” For his ongoing classical music and jazz accomplishments, Bryant more than warrants this article’s recognition and appreciation. The magazine, however, is deficient in its failure to independently inquire about how, and why, black composers of the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century were systematically excluded from the American classical music canon. To readers who are interested in this important chapter of American cultural history, and the related cultural phenomenon of the antagonism of American-born composers and conductors to jazz and to its potential contribution to classical music compositions, I recommend Dvorak’s Prophesy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music, by J. Horowitz.
Arthur R. Block, J.D. ’75
New York City
“What Makes Humans Smart?” (September-October 2023, page 9) was an appallingly simple view of human development. There was natural selection in Homo for larger brains with capacity for human language, significantly enhancing our capabilities as gregarious mammals. This premise is generally held by anthropologists and has been for over a century. It was a tenet for Margaret Mead, who tirelessly promoted cooperation as fundamental to humans. Joseph Henrich’s notion that earliest human language was “a couple of hand gestures” ignores the huge body of observational research on vocal and gestural communications among all primates and many other genera.
That “IQ scores” increased dramatically when towns were “connected” would be a result of former rural children attending larger, conventional public schools that teach to the test. That paragraph goes on to attribute innovation to tavern gatherings—please, is there any research supporting this extraordinary claim? Finally, “Societies that best capture and transmit inherited culture enjoy greater success” echoes Western imperialism touting European/Euro-American societies as superior to all others: what is meant by “success”? All surviving societies have been successful from an evolutionary perspective.
Alice B. Kehoe, Ph.D. ’64 (Anthropology)
Without a shred of supporting evidence, John Rosenberg asserts that “there isn’t much case for retaining legacy preferences: they are a rotten look for selective schools already the considerable subject of public disdain—an own goal if there ever was one” (“Legacies’ Legacy,” 7 Ware Street, November-December 2023, page 4). It is beyond bizarre that the editor of the magazine whose primary audience is Harvard alumni would dismiss each and every one of their offspring as “a rotten look”—maybe that’s just Rosenberg’s Yale roots talking? He doesn’t argue that legacy admits reduce the academic quality of the class, nor could he credibly do so: studies from Princeton, Harvard. and others have proven otherwise. Finally, Rosenberg advocates for the abolition of legacy preferences at precisely the time that Harvard’s alumni have become far more diverse: there’s a true “own goal if there ever was one.”
William F. Murphy ‘75
The editor responds: The “rotten look” is not a reference to the students, who are undoubtedly extremely well qualified (as they ought to be: their parents benefited from superb educations, and often invested heavily in acquiring such educations for their children). The “rotten look” is the public view of legacy preferences; surveys show strong opposition to the practice (and to affirmative action, and ethnic, gender, or athletic preferences). Given the increasing willingness of politicians to intrude on academic prerogatives at private colleges and universities, including admissions, one should be wary of inviting more such interventions for a practice that isn’t really necessary.
David Souers (November-December 2023, page 6) hopes Harvard will “educate all Harvard students in ethics,” especially because there is a new dean of the Divinity School. I, too, hope for something like that.
Courses about ethics teach cognitive knowledge about ethics. However, the problem is that I have found no evidence that such courses affect behavior beneficially. Some studies, though, have shown that didactic courses do not lead to ethical behavior.
Souers also hopes for a “full court press on what is ethical behavior.” Yes, before behavior can be modeled by the members of the Harvard community, active discussions are needed to try to determine what behaviors are good or wise or appropriate. These are already ongoing.
I hope they conclude that there is no theologian, no philosopher, no code, no algorithm that is considered to give “the answer,” but rather that continuing, respectful, honest discussions of actual experiences will help those involved move toward behaving responsibly, honestly, respectfully, empathetically, and courageously. Perhaps it is best, even, to forget about being “ethical,” and concentrate on whatever behaviors help foster honest, caring persons and an honest caring community.
George L. Spaeth, M.D. ’58
The GOP Agenda
In response to “The GOP’s Return to Ideas?” (online October 4, 2023, at harvardmag.com/gop-new-23), Max Krupnick is correct: the GOP opposes Leftist-Democrat policies, and with good reason. As flagrant, violent street crime goes unpunished, and looting is seen as reparations, chaos reigns in many U.S. cities. Sidewalk defecation by thousands of homeless addicts threatens public health and harms tourism. Millions of illegals are on parole status since 2020 and may cost the United States $182 billion annually, even as they induce more disorder. Commerce declines as theft forces closure of retail outlets. Democrat rhetoric convinces minorities that white oppression causes their problems, and black-on-white crime increases, including fatal street stabbings. Police are reluctant to intervene, fearing career loss or worse. In the name of global warming, oil drilling is down and gas prices are up, causing general inflation. Intellectual chaos describes the Leftist nonsense that men and women are indistinguishable, while youngsters are encouraged to undergo genital maiming. Educational standards are lowered in public schools, as are test scores. If our President adds war to this mess, will chaos give rise to revolution? Is there a method to Democrat madness?
Richard Merlo ’57
Regarding John Henn’s letter to the editor (November-December 2023, page 78), I would expect more from a fellow member of the Bar to support use of the Thirteenth Amendment to cover preferential admission policies than that “it covers some Native Americans,...and maybe some others.” No doubt, governments at all levels have, at various times, treated Native Americans, as well as other immigrant groups such as Irish Americans and Italian Americans on the East Coast, Chinese Americans on the West Coast, and Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, shamefully and despicably. The simple fact remains, however, that no other race has been subjected to the “peculiar institution” of organized slavery except for African Americans. Thus, use of the Thirteenth Amendment does not justify broad-brush racial discrimination.
Indeed, Henn gives the game away with his paragraph on the children of rich donors, which I read as follows: I don’t care how white, male, or cis you are, if you flash the cash, your offspring are in. This bald cost-benefit analysis illustrates the moral emptiness of using non-merit criteria to govern admissions policies. Once discrimination is permitted, the criteria become subject to the whims and passions of those making the choices. Of course, merit criteria can cover many non-academic areas, such as individuals’ ability to overcome personal or environmental difficulties, their demonstrated work in support of causes or principles dear to their hearts, etc. However, objectifying applicants as being no more than the sum total of certain identity-based or otherwise non-merit criteria is unfair and should have no place at an institution whose motto is still Veritas.
Mark E. Dennett, J.D. ’83
Palm Coast, Fla.
When I matriculated in 1961, Harvard perceived its main equity challenge as semitic. Jewish students scored higher on the SAT and applied with better secondary school grades. The gap between this growing pool of students and traditional, now “legacy,” students was widening and leading to conflict on campus and among alumni.
One solution was “diversity.” Not racial diversity, but regional diversity. Since I applied from Idaho with relatively good scores and grades, I was one of the diverse admittees. It probably didn’t hurt that my last name sounded like it could be Native American and my father was born on the Pipestone Minnesota Reservation (where his grandfather operated Walkup Drayage). Little did the admissions office know that my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Roth. After graduation, I learned that the scholarship I received was for Indians. Harvard’s 1650 Charter states that Harvard was granted “sundry gifts legacies lands and revenues…[for] the education of the English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness.”
I learned during early “work study” admission with other scholarship students how to clean restrooms for later arriving classmates. After two weeks I was assigned to Wigglesworth G22 with four other geographically diverse but white freshmen from Oregon, North Dakota, North Viginia, and Florida. We had little in common other than not coming from Massachusetts or New York. For example, one of my roommates had gone to a military academy, another to Choate, others to diverse private schools. I “prepared” at a public high school. The only black and Hispanic students I met were from other countries.
PBH and sophomore year work study cleaning pots and pans with “townies” in the B School dining room began to teach me about real diversity. In Vietnam, I saw that most front-line troops, who had the highest attrition rates, were black and occasionally Hispanic. Their officers were mostly white. The Army had begun racial affirmative action in the 1940s and ’50s, together with the post-World War II draft. Harvard began racial affirmative action after my graduation.
Now the Supreme Court has ended post-secondary affirmative action except at the military academies.
Hugh Walkup ’65
John H. Henn’s letter in the December issue refers to people “who are descended from persons enslaved in the American colonies or states from 1619 to 1865 …” That is an unfortunate mistake. Black people who arrived in English America from 1619 onwards were being punished for petty crimes (like stealing a chicken). The Muslim judges in West Africa were at that time very observant of the Old Testament, where it says in many places that such punishment should be for seven years of servitude, and then the people should be freed and given land and other items. One such seven-year slave was Matthias de Souza, a Roman Catholic from the Portuguese colony of Angola, the last four years of whose servitude in Barbados were purchased in 1634 by the Roman Catholics who were on their way to found Maryland. After he had served his four years, he was freed. Soon afterwards, he ran for, got elected to, and served in the Maryland Legislature in 1641.
In 1663, one of the ports in Africa ran out of seven-year slaves, but offered prisoners of war instead, whose servitude could last forever, they said. Right away, all the existing English colonies changed the laws on their books to reflect the new reality, but Rhode Island never did. So, 1663 was the real beginning date for slavery in English America, not 1619. What a difference forty-four years can make!
John Fitzhugh Millar ’66
Two words, or maybe it’s only one, about “Mick Mulvaney Changes His Mind” (published online November 8, 2023): mealy-mouthed. And a few more: as a graduate of Radcliffe, I don’t need a guy who remains “proud” to have served the previous president and even now wonders only “whether or not” the latter “did anything illegal” on January 6th telling me how to think.
Andrea Rhodin Tebbets ’71
Big Events Now
In recent years, countless millions across the political spectrum—conservatives, libertarians, progressives, socialists, and more—have been socialized to hope for Big Events Now. Social media users and others who unceasingly follow and comment on Big Events Now seem constantly to think, “We need action!”
Two causes have fueled the hunger for Big Events Now. (1) Technology has sped up human social life. Millions of people now think it inadequately exciting to learn of, say, one big sociopolitical event per month. Instead, millions hope for a continual series of dopamine spikes or visceral reactions to major-news-right-now. (2) In the Covid years, extensive lockdowns, media death tickers, public uncertainty and fear, and other jarring changes socialized millions, again, to expect or even want Another Big Event immediately.
These trends are historically striking. I caution citizens and public leaders: Beware!
There is a real danger that the pervasive use of social media has conditioned citizens to hope for and expect Big Events much as Pavlov’s dogs hoped for and expected tasty treats. Given geopolitical events such as the attack on Israel shortly before the writing of this letter, the persistent public desire for more startling, Even Bigger Big News risks fueling indifference—and, in some cases, undue openness—even to public events as grave as war itself. To be sure, this letter is not a comment on the justice of any war. But war can be hell on earth, and hell is worse than forgone dopamine spikes. Readers are thus advised to consider the current heightened openness to, and even desire for, Big Events Now—and the risk this cultural phenomenon poses in geopolitics and beyond. The future is unpredictable, but popular hunger for big news, which strongly trends negative, can lead societies down a dark and dangerous path.
Gregory Robson, A.L.M. ’08
South Bend, Ind.
Gun Violence, U.S.A.
I don’t wish to interfere in the internal affairs of the US, but I have kept for many years an interest in the U.S. political and social life. What happens there in the matter of guns has baffled me for decades (“What Can Be Done About Gun Violence?” online November 2, 2023), but the situation has worsened in such a way that silence is no longer an option.
I come from a country where (up to the 1980s) every male citizen was subjected to compulsory military service; and where the right to hunt as a sport has been a conquest of the French Revolution: prior to 1789, only the aristocrats were allowed to hunt and peasants were reduced to poaching!
So I do understand that Americans are legitimately attached to the right to bear arms, even though a case could be made that this right has originally been granted by the U.S. Constitution as a matter of convenience, dispensing the states of the need to build and maintain armories all over the land.
And, as an engineer by training, I can also understand why the universe of small arms, their technology, their handling, their performances, is a fascinating field. Small arms not only fascinate by their lethality; there is also an “eerie sense of beauty” in watching a pistol or a gun (automatic in particular) function on the range. These machines are the product of centuries of technology and seeing one fire is seeing a marvel of technology at work.
But still! What I don’t understand is why hunting guns don’t suffice.
If it is a matter of self-defense, use of a hunting rifle or shotgun would be enough to warn off intruders off one’s property, or even to wound one of them if required by the situation. Handguns may be “handier” as their name suggests, but for “civilians,” carrying them has so many more dangers, not the least that of firing from anger in an unwarranted situation.
As for military-type rifles, it is difficult to see their advantages for self-defence over hunting rifles, except if one were to counter a full fledged assault from an organized gang—an unlikely instance indeed!
There must be something else than self-defense in the visceral attachement of Americans to their guns.
My hunch is that there is a symbolic link with the notion of self-reliance, which is so strong in the American psyche - and which also goes far to explain why Americans do not like a “Big State” which has produced so many benefits for them in the past.
Another undesirable side effect of this “militarization” of the US population is that the police, over the years, has been led to acquire in its inventory more and more military-grade weapons; and by the force of events, policemen are led to believe in any situation that the person they flag down may be armed, thus they react accordingly. This leads to abuses in some cases but, more importantly, citizens are beginning to see the police force as a potentially lethal danger to themselves.
In short, owning a gun and owning a military-grade weapon is not the same thing! Neither is self-defence in one’s property vs. carrying a concealed weapon to work!
I won’t delve into the debate on whether arming for self-defence is a good thing in overall terms; my concern is only with a legal right to overarm with military-grade weapons.
The rest of the world watches helplessly as the U.S. population is arming itself to the teeth with superfluous weaponry. Unless preparing for a civil war, this is an utterly dumbfounding attitude!
The polarization of left vs. right on the matter of arms legislation is, as for so many other matters in the US political debate nowadays, a most unfortunate thing. The triumph of uncompromising partisans over moderates is not a new phenomenon, it has occurred in many past revolutions over the world; but now it it not of benefit to a Nation that needs enlightened goverment in a world situation fraught with perils.
Ownership of small arms is literally a matter of life and death. Reason calls for this matter to be considered in a dispassionate, bipartisan manner; but in the last quarter century this has unfortunately not been the case.
Lawmakers should be put on notice. This is a test of how the U.S. democracy can or cannot solve an urgent and vital problem.
The rest of the world will watch and draw its conclusions.
Christian Fournier, M.B.A. ’71
In “Reforming International Finance” (November-December 2023, page 7), the author should have listed Bulgaria, not Belgium, as accepting a League of Nations loan with harsh austerity terms.
We made a few fumbles in assembling the roster of Harvard’s all-time great football players (“The Sesquicentennial All-Crimson Team,” November-December 2023, page 40). Defensive lineman Truman Jones is class of 2023. Punter Gary Singleterry’s name was misspelled. And Noah Van Niel, who was listed under offensive linemen, in fact played fullback. We apologize for the faulty teamwork.
*Since publishing, John Bethell ’54 has corrected the last erratum, writing:
A correction notice in the letters column of the January-February issue states that Noah Van Niel ’08 should not have been listed as an offensive lineman in our constellation of football all-stars. But that listing was correct. As the panelist who brought Van Niel’s name into our deliberations, I can attest that I did so because of his play as a long snapper on the punting unit. That would make him an offensive lineman.
Because of his size and athleticism, Van Niel was sometimes used as a fullback (or “H back”) in third down, short-yardage situations. But what made him such an outstanding long snapper was his ability to center the ball to the kicker, race downfield, and tackle the opposing punt receiver seconds after the catch.
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