Cambridge 02138

The campus sundered, stem cell research, voting

 

 

The Harvard Presidency and Campus Discourse

Neither President Claudine Gay’s resignation letter nor the Harvard Corporation’s responding statement (see harvardmag.com/gay-resigns-24 and “A Presidency’s End,” this issue) includes an apology for bringing shame to Harvard, nor even a hint of regret. By their own actions—not “racial animus”—they have disgraced a great university.

Greg Byrne, J.D. ’71
Oracle, Ariz.

 

It is shameful that Claudine Gay felt compelled to resign from the presidency of Harvard University. Her plagiarism infractions were minor and have been acknowledged and corrected. Her responses to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s questioning in Congressional hearings were legalistic and tone-deaf, but hardly warrant resignation. And I have not heard that her fundraising prowess is wanting, except in the single case of billionaire Bill Ackman. I can only conclude that the Harvard Corporation has caved before political pressure from the far right, which is offended that a Black woman headed the most prestigious and wealthy university in the nation. I was proud that she did, and urge that she be reinstated. As an old, white, Harvard Ph.D. academic, I am well aware of the systemic racism and sexism that plague American institutions. Claudine Gay’s presidency was an important symbol in combating this, and she was an articulate spokesperson for Harvard and for reform. I hope that she and the Harvard Corporation will reconsider.

James S. Uleman, Ph.D. ’66
Pearl River, New York

 

“Antisemitism” and variants appear 12 times in “The Dogs of War” (January-February 2024, page 14), “Islamophobia” and variants four times, yet there isn’t a single example of either cited. What is cited are multiple cases of anti-anti-Zionism—students being doxxed and threatened with unemployment and even deportation!

Strangely, one word which does not appear a single time in the 1,900-word article is “Zionism.” Could it be the editors share with defenders of Israel the desire to falsely conflate Zionism and Judaism, so as to turn any anti-Zionist activity into antisemitism? If so, there are many thousands of Jews at Harvard and across the country who would not only disagree, but who have been at the forefront of actions in solidarity with Palestine.

Steven L. Patt, Ph.D. ’75
Cupertino, Calif.

 

I am waiting for President Gay to claim that her alleged plagiarism is a matter of “context.”

Charles Rosenblatt, Ph.D. ’78
West Hartford, Conn.

 

My years at Harvard were among the best of my life, making me an enthusiastic, unwavering supporter of the University. Until 2023, when the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was renamed for a hedge fund manager, an individual who has made no significant contributions to the arts or sciences and who said that the ultra-wealthy have “insufficient influence” on the political process.” Renaming the GSAS was surreal: only in a bad dream, I thought, would one of the great educational and research institutions of the world callously sell out.

We then discover that calling for the genocide of Jews does not necessarily violate Harvard’s anti-harassment policies. This year we also learned that instead of Harvard continuing to bring diverse students together, it now divides them based on labels such as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation for segregated graduation ceremonies.

And then we face the fact that the Harvard president repeatedly engaged in plagiarism in her dissertation and scholarly publications. What kind of example does this set for students?

I will wait a little longer before abandoning my remaining affection for Harvard. It is not too late for Harvard to reclaim its independence, integrity, and dignity. I cling to the hope that Harvard knows what it should do, and will do it.

Lawrence R. Bernstein ’77, A.M. ’78
Menlo Park, Calif.

 

Editor’s note: The University supports celebrations by diverse affinity groups of graduating students (see harvardmag.com/affinity-23), but no such distinctions are made in the traditional Commencement conferral of degrees. The notion that there are “segregated graduation ceremonies” is a myth.

 

I write as the wife and soulmate (of 44 years) of a Harvard graduate. Recently, with deep sadness, I studied the cover and reread the cover story on “Claudine Gay: Harvard’s thirtieth president” (September-October 2023), where President Gay looked out to us all with commitment, sincerity, and devotion. My life has taught me that to err is human, and I will always see Gay as a committed scholar who has given her all to Harvard and Harvard students. Plus, I cannot begin to imagine the pain, heartache, and fear she has experienced. In modern times I liken it to Hillary Clinton’s second presidential defeat, when a perfect storm deprived her and America of her presidency.

Life has also taught me that often in moments of extreme pressure, what we deeply believe may not be conveyed by what we say or how we act. Dr. Gay’s academic life gave testimony to her words, “The idea of the Ivory Tower is the past.” She believed the scholarship of her students belonged in the real world, in service to others. Yet, her congressional testimony, imprisoned by legalese, deprived America from knowing, from experiencing, her essence. Regrettably, Gay was not prepped for the very place she knew she belonged—the People’s House, where to be seen clearly and understood, humility, taking responsibility for unrecognized (at the time) missteps, and everyday language (that she surely speaks) were necessary. To me the saddest part of the uplifting study of a proven ethical leader was its final sentence. After stating that Harvard “appears ready for an intellectually ambitious agenda,” it read, “Harvard would seem to have the leader for that moment.”

With a heavy heart,

SaraKay Smullens, 
Wife of Stanton N. Smullens ’57
Philadelphia


 

By the time this letter appears, the war between Hamas and Israel will be six months old. All of us hope that the unspeakable tragedy for both sides will have eased.

But my deep disappointment in Harvard remains. I watched a distinguished university utterly mishandle and misjudge what to say and do and allow or not allow in the weeks following October 7.

I was born in Israel and came here as a young boy. My parents, who lost everyone in the Holocaust, arrived as penniless immigrants. They saved while I studied, and I was fortunate enough to graduate from the Law School more than 50 years ago. I have had a privileged life because of Harvard, and I am conscious of that every single day.

The campus events after October 7 did not strike me as antisemitic. The pain I experienced was watching intelligent Harvard students allow emotion, social media, and groupthink rule their actions. They failed to use their fine Harvard minds to understand, at least minimally, the complicated and painful history, geography, and realpolitik of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. They should have realized there has been terrible injustice on both sides that cannot be reduced to one-sided slogans and accusations and megaphones. Sadly, these very privileged students and (some) faculty were no different than diehard MAGA supporters. We have (once again) learned that the “progressive” left is no different than the right. There will always be vigilantes.

As a Law School graduate, I wrote the dean and proposed a course on the numerous legal and policy issues that have made this century-long conflict so terrible and unyielding. My hope, perhaps naive, is that more learning will result in a better civil discourse. Better discourse will allow all sides to be better and more informed citizens. Better citizens can solve the most difficult challenges. That would be the Harvard path I would take pride in.

Joshua Bar-Lev J.D. ’70
Portland, Ore.

 

Harvard’s “favorable [financial conditions] persist only so long as the community remembers how hard-won [it] was and applies [its] resources prudently” (January-February, page 22).

One can only lament that Harvard has not been as prudent with its reputational and moral capital.

Howard Landis, M.B.A. ’78
Naples, Fla.

 

Last year, in a survey completed by 98 percent of Harvard seniors, only 37 percent reported that they were comfortable discussing controversial subjects in class. Discussing these findings in the light of campus friction over the war between Israel and Hamas, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana remarked, “I’ll just say, Houston, we have a problem.”

The problem is not really that students feel uncomfortable discussing controversial subjects. It’s that they shy away from speaking up, or worse, they silence each other. How can you get a liberal arts education when you are afraid to talk about difficult subjects? To ask questions? To listen?

Identity politics are at the root of the problem. No one wants to be called sexist or anti-LGBQ+ or some other “ist.” But what is really unbearable is to be called racist. If a Harvard student—or teacher—thinks there is any chance of being called racist, he or she will clam up.

There is good reason for this wariness or avoidance. The history of racism is terrible, and it’s important to be sensitive to the feelings of people whose ethnic or religious group were long oppressed. But in recent years, the term “racist” has become a cudgel and a smear, especially amplified on the internet. People start to feel they risk being accused of racism no matter what they say or how they say it.

As its first Black woman President, Claudine Gay is positioned to make speech free again at Harvard, that is, if she really took on the problem, in a serious and honest way. She could start by bravely saying that a liberal arts education may from time to time make you uncomfortable, and that is actually a good thing.

Evan Thomas ‘73
Washington, D.C.

Editor’s note: For more on this subject, see “Talking about Talking,” this issue.

 

I am disappointed and perplexed by your failure in the January-February issue to discuss or even mention the obvious problems of President Gay’s record of serial plagiarism, her effort to finesse the discoveries of repeated instances of this misconduct with a tepid proposal to “correct” only the first few to be identified, the Corporation’s inadequate inquiries before selecting her and its stonewall response to these damning revelations, the contradiction between the university’s policy on academic integrity and her past “scholarly” behavior, or the Corporation’s attempt through hired counsel to intimidate and suppress independent journalists’ exposé of the issue. It appears that, by deliberate silence, the editors of Harvard Magazine are de facto apologists for her misbehavior and for the absence of responsible governance by the members of the governing board. All alumni are entitled to objective and timely commentary on the most troublesome disclosures regarding their university in living memory. And students need to understand the rules and policies applicable to their work and that of their faculty. You have forfeited your editorial role.

Les Jacobs
Toronto

 

Editor’s note: As explained on pages 4 and 15 of the January-February issue, its contents were completed before Thanksgiving, and the issue was released for printing on December 5—before the U.S. House of Representatives testimony by President Gay and others was completed, and a week before the Corporation announcement on her status and the initial corrections to her published work. The magazine has covered developments online and summarizes them in this bimonthly issue.

 

In his short and thoughtful opinion article, John S. Rosenberg captured everything that needed to be said about Harvard as an educational community during a crisis like the violence in Israel and the Palestinian Territories (“Harvard Sundered,” 7 Ware Street, January-February, page 4).

Education is under attack in the U.S., and Harvard, other universities, and K through 12 schools have all been targeted by political opportunists looking to advance their agenda and positions, while maligning and silencing everyone else. Meanwhile people are dying by the thousands. Many, including students, want to know why, and to put an equitable and just stop to the violence.

We owe it to our educational institutions, students, and country to advance dialogue and study with the help of broad expertise to educate our students and citizens, so that we can act more effectively for a better world for all.

David Souers, M.Arch. ’82
Friendship, Me.


 

 

 

To those who claim that anti-Semitism is protected by the First Amendment, I ask: When is the last time you read it? Do you know what it really says, and what it does not say? True, the First Amendment prohibits government infringement of speech, but it also protects freedom of religion. In fact, religion is the very first thing protected in the Bill of Rights, because the founders regarded it as our most important freedom. Calls for the genocide of Jews and other anti-Semitic hate speech impede the “free exercise” of religion (as the Constitution characterizes it) and thereby are actually inconsistent with the First Amendment.

When rights conflict, there is no constitutional mandate to favor speech. For example, notwithstanding the First Amendment, courts restrict speech in order to protect the Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial trial and the Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process of law, by such techniques as imposing gag orders on litigants (viz. Donald Trump); prohibiting jurors from discussing the case while it is pending; barring media reports of some sensational cases; keeping grand jury testimony secret; etc. Regardless of the First Amendment, the law prohibits, among other things, threats of violence against the President (a federal crime), the exchange of price information by competitors (a violation of the antitrust law), and defamation (a civil tort)—even though all of these activities involve nothing but speech.

Apologists claim that even the most hateful, threatening, and damaging anti-Semitic speech must be permitted because of the First Amendment. But that’s not what the Constitution says and not what it does.

That said, it is unfortunate that the current debate about anti-Semitism at our leading academic institutions has been so focused on issues of speech, although that is understandable in light of the outrageous testimony of university presidents. The more profound question is why is there so much hatred on college campuses—hatred that extends to advocating, celebrating and/or disregarding the slaughter, massacre, rape and mutilation of Jews in Israel? Why is there so much ignorance among elite students, who chant “from the river to the sea” but have no idea what river or sea they are talking about; who champion Gaza because of their opposition to Israeli “occupation” and “settlements” but are unaware that Israel has no settlements in and doesn’t occupy Gaza; who condemn Israel as a white, apartheid state without realizing that more than 20% of its citizens are Arab, who serve on the Supreme Court, in the Knesset, in the IDF and in great numbers in the professions; who embrace both LGBT rights and Hamas-led Gaza without realizing that Gay Pride Parades in Israel are festive events attended by hundreds of thousands of people, but in Gaza such events are prohibited and gay sex is a criminal offense; who shrug off the multiple terrorist attacks of Hezbollah without realizing that it has been designated as a terrorist organization not only by the United States, Israel, and other countries but also by the Arab League.

The answer to those questions lies not in the Constitution but in the hearts and character of college students and the quality of what they are taught. I’m not sure what can be done about the former, but surely something can be done about the latter, including by my once-beloved, once-respected alma mater Harvard.

Mark H. Alcott ’61, LL.B. ’64
New Rochelle, N.Y.

 

There seems to be confusion—deliberate in the case of right-wingers—between actual antisemitism, on campuses and elsewhere, and Jewish students feeling uncomfortable. Not afraid. Not under threat. Uncomfortable.

I was birding one day wearing my green FREE PALESTINE T-shirt. A man said I shouldn’t wear that shirt birdwatching in public, it might make some people feel uncomfortable. (What he meant, of course, was that it made him feel uncomfortable, but he didn’t have the koyach to say so.)

I said, “Good. That shows they still have a conscience.”

That shirt didn’t identify me as Jewish. I now have one that does. Would that have made him less uncomfortable? Or more?

Elizabeth Block ’65
Toronto


 

I would like to believe that Harvard students and their former president, Claudine Gay, face the same consequences for plagiarism.

The term encompasses behaviors ranging all the way from freely using a common phrase (fairly trivial) to claiming credit for someone else’s research (outright stealing). Dr. Gay did the first: she wrote “pushed me harder than I wanted to be pushed,” almost a cliche by now. She never did the second. In fact, her research is widely acknowledged as outstanding.

Dr. Gay did, however, report the research findings of others without crediting the researcher, a behavior she characterizes as “sloppy.” Actually, it’s plagiarism, even though it falls somewhere between the above two poles. And she was not fired for it. She simply returned to a faculty position. Yet the New York Times reports that Harvard students are routinely suspended or even expelled for plagiarism. This appears to be a double standard.

Is it Harvard’s policy to consider the degree of plagiarism and assign penalties on a sliding scale, regardless of whether the perpetrator is an administrator or a student? If not, how can Dr. Gay, currently reassigned to faculty duties, mete out suspensions and expulsions that she herself did not receive?

I deplore the fact that Dr. Gay’s plagiarism was uncovered as part of an effort to “get” her. I believe she was on the way to becoming a fine president. But Harvard does need a policy toward plagiarism that is clear, fair, and uniformly applied.

Audrey Edwards, Ed.D. ’69
Mattoon, Ill.

 

The last month has represented a low point in the history of Harvard University. The tragedy is that these events could have been avoided, had Dr. Gay, the Harvard Corporation, and Harvard counsel (who both worked on the search process and who advised Dr. Gay before her testimony in front of Congress on December 5) lived up to their responsibilities.

Harvard stands as a beacon of scholarly truth, for impeccable faculty standards, and for the model of education of bright, inquisitive minds. It also stands for inclusion of people who, in the past, have rarely been front and center in higher education. The highest possible standards of teaching and research are not at all incompatible with a search for diversity. However, the university has to weigh carefully how its educational standards are rigorously maintained while it simultaneously embarks on the broadening of its faculty and student body. It also must stand for welcoming diversity in many different ways: by gender, race, age, religion, geographical and economic background, cultural history and (most important) of thought.

Harvard has given the impression—rightly or wrongly—that diversification should be limited to considerations of only race and gender, and more recently sexual orientation. This impression has given fuel to those people who oppose diversity in almost all forms.

The active promotion of the objective of diversity has also given rise to the suspicion that scholarship standards have been compromised. I do not think this to be true, but the University has not adequately defended its standards, nor has it emphasized diversity of viewpoint as a crucial goal.

When the Corporation embarked on its most recent search for a president, who turned out to be Dr. Gay, it should have realized that a choice of a black women scholar would be challenged by people with narrower minds. The Corporation should have insisted on the most rigorous scrutiny of Dr. Gay’s record, so that there would little if any chance for criticism, especially as we live today in a very divisive world. I do not know, of course, how the Corporation charged the firm who researched Dr. Gay’s past history, nor how that research was conducted. But in a day of enormous public records, which can be analyzed quickly and critiqued, I find it impossible to believe that the firm in question did not uncover the instances of plagiarism which surfaced publicly only well after Dr. Gay had been appointed president. (Perhaps the Corporation did know about these charges well in advance; if so, they should have taken preemptive action to diffuse them.) This lack of action shows either an inadequate charge by the Corporation to that counseling firm, or a very serious error of omission by that firm. Given Harvard’s standards and resources, this error is more than unfortunate, it is close to unforgivable. The Corporation and the firm which did the search history must do some intense soul searching to take responsibility for this error, and to ensure it does not happen again.

Dr. Gay was challenged, and right away, by student groups on October 8 who claimed that Israel was responsible for everything that happened in the Hamas atrocities of October 7. She erred by not immediately stating that terrorism is unacceptable in all forms, and chastising students who (according to direct quotes from one or more students) parroted the charge of “colonialism” given them by certain faculty members. This error was not fatal, as she a few days later recovered and made a strong statement. Actually, this sort of challenge is part of the learning process of any university president, and Dr. Gay recovered fairly quickly, which is to her credit.

Much more serious was her reply given to Congress on December 5 that statements calling for “genocide” of the Jewish nation were to be condemned depending on “context”. It is possible that Harvard’s counsel had told her to qualify any statements that might be taken to interfere with free speech. She should have remembered that Mr. Justice Holmes famously stated that “there is no right to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre”—that is, that free speech must be curtailed when such speech is calling for violence and harm to others. “Context” was a very weak and offensive word to use at that time.

Dr. Gay’s letter to the Harvard community of January 2 makes the points that Harvard must “combat bias and hate”, and must “respect each other’s dignity”, and “affirm our commitment to open inquiry and free expression.” She ends by wishing that we “recommit ourselves to the excellence, the openness, and the independence that are crucial to what our university stands for.” She does mention that hate speech was directed at her, and I believe she must be supported fully by condemning all such attacks. But her basic statements are merely generic and inoffensive. She might have taken full responsibility for certain errors of judgment. Such action is very proper and clears the air. Her statement represents a missed opportunity.

Then the January 2 letter from the Harvard Corporation also misses the mark. Instead of taking responsibility for an inadequate search process and for errors on the part of either Harvard counsel or other advisors, it praises Dr. Gay (correctly admonishing and calling out the hate speech and hate emails that were addressed to Dr. Gay) while extolling the university’s “core values of excellence, inclusiveness, and free inquiry and expression.” Once again, platitudes. Once again, a missed opportunity to go into more detail about any corrective measures to be taken.

The statement on January 3 of Dr. Sally Kornbluth, President of MIT, goes considerably further in the direction of numerated steps of action. New emphasis on student disciplinary procedures, examination of rights and responsibilities regarding free expression, re-examination of DEI programs, and a survey of student campus climate. Dr. Kornbluth’s letter mentions specific actions, and is thus much more responsive and pro-active than the Harvard statements.

While we all should wish Dr. Gay well, as she returns to the faculty, we should not forget the role of the Harvard Corporation, which should undergo a thorough process of self-examination. Respected outside advisors should be called in to conduct a review of everything about the Corporation—its secrecy, its processes, its standards. Out of this serious fiasco, which could and should have been avoided, possibly some long-term good may come.

David W, Scudder ‘57
Ipswich, Mass.

 

I’m angry about the recent articles claiming that efforts to get Penn and Harvard presidents Magill and Gay to resign following their Congressional testimony are nothing but a right-wing attack on higher education. That perspective misses the mark, and reveals a fundamentally flawed view of exactly what a college education is supposed to be.

I attended both Harvard and Penn, and while some players in this latest controversy may have a political motive (like Elise Stefanik, who has a political motive for breathing), I did want to say that I saw genuine concern and anger among the alumni, big donors and non-big donors alike, over the simple fact that you couldn’t get either President Magill or President Gay to state explicitly something I think we all took for granted: That calling for the extermination of a group of people—a group you might belong to—would be harassment that violated the school Code of Conduct.

Colleges are not only, and not even predominantly, think-tanks for the exercise of free speech. They are a means to an end for students from all backgrounds to be able to get the skills and credentials they need to better their position in life. They are critical to the American Dream of using education to create upward mobility.

When you take the focus off of the question “Does this conduct make a student feel so threatened that they might drop out?” you are destroying college’s critical role in American life.

I understand the need to have free speech in universities, and in fact in 1981, as a 1L at Harvard Law School, I cut class to sit in in the Dean’s Office to have our question about whether or not what one faculty member had said (that if you didn’t agree with his Critical Legal Studies perspective on the exam he would mark you down just on that basis) could be true. I sat in for free speech. I get it.

But I’m also a mixed first-generation college graduate whose grandfather grew up in a house in the Azores with a dirt floor before coming to America to work as a gardener, and the daughter of his son, who had to alternate college with his brother because of the need to have one of them working at all times, and someone who went to Ivy League schools on scholarship. Higher education has been critical to my trajectory in life. And I would have had an extremely difficult time attending a school that allowed others to openly call for my annihilation, and the annihilation of everyone like me, without punishment.

THAT’s what bothered the alumni I knew about the Gay/Magill testimony.

Here’s a solution. I’ve practiced employment law for 35 years, am a mediator and a former settlement judge at the EEOC, and currently work in investigating claims of harassment, discrimination, and assault for the 3rd largest employer in the country. I’m a former appellate clerk, member of the PA Advisory Committee on ADR in employment, and consulted with PA legislators in revamping their internal harassment investigation procedures in the wake of #MeToo. Employment law, which seeks to protect an employee from having to endure a hostile or abusive work environment as a condition of keeping a job, offers useful standards for analyzing how to protect a student from having to endure a hostile or abusive educational environment as a condition of obtaining their degree.

Using that analogy, the focus should be whether or not allowing the speech to remain unpunished is something that would deter you from pursuing your education. For objectors who raise concerns about “snowflake” student sensibilities, employment law has the answer: the “reasonable person” standard, someone standing in the shoes of the person raising the claim. Applied here, that means, would a reasonable student find whatever is being said so hurtful/scary/offensive that they no longer want to stay at that school and pursue their education because of it?

Context matters. Is it something you just hear about from others, or is it being directed to you specifically? How frequently is it said? Is it being said by one person in a college newspaper interview, or being chanted in a group of a thousand people outside your dorm tonight? Is it an opinion expressed by a faculty member in an academic journal, as part of an analytic discussion of a controversial topic, or made publicly in class?

While this analysis is complex and fact-specific, it’s worked well in handling this balancing of rights in employment law, and would be helpful to universities re-examining their campus policies. But to get there, we have to conceptualize colleges and universities as what they are: places where young Americans go to better themselves in life.

We need to focus on the students—not the faculty, or the alumni donors, or the GOP—but the students.

Linda Falcão, HLS ’83
Baltimore

 

The current controversy at Harvard would make an interesting case study at the Business School in whatever course deals with institutional governance and crisis management in public relations. It might well include the current election statements of the candidates for Overseer with the same critical rigor that was given to students’ submissions in the course “Written Analysis of Cases” years ago.

Why do the candidates’ statements show such a remarkable similarity of approach and tone? They deplore the current difficulties, while they avoid implying that anything might be amiss—and therefore no change is indicated.

Stephen B. Oresman, M.B.A. ’58
Stamford, Conn.

 

I’d like to thank John S. Rosenberg for so eloquently expressing what I have been struggling to articlulate. I have found it difficult to have a rational discussion with anyone in the radical “with me or you’re evil” current atmosphere. The vicious attack by Congress on university presidents frightened me.

As I live in Providence, I have been thoroughly exposed to the performance of Brown students on the Israel-Hamas issue. A group apprently picked up the Harvard students’ “everything is Israel’s fault, period” statement. I am disgusted that students in what are supposed to be our top universities haven’t learned that a sweeping generalization, made in haste, is not an argument and appear unable to appreciate basic historical contexts. I have taught students at community college with poor academic backgrounds who were better able to approach contentious issues calmly and rationally.

Jane Arnold, A.L.B. ’85, M.T. S. ’92
Pawtucket, R.I .

 

As an alumnus of the Graduate School of Design, I can testify that Harvard’s Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion is a political slogan that translates into something else in real life. Harvard’s Diversity amounts to rhapsodizing the black culture while denigrating the white culture. Equality means equally marking bad and good works of students (after all, they all paid equal tuitions). And Inclusion means excluding students from the decision-making Harvard Corporation. DEI is a behavioral doctrine rather than an emblem for scientific excellence. It’s time to stop this DEIfication of Harvard that became DEIfiction. So instead of reforming it, I would change DEI to KIM: Knowledge, Innovation, and Mastery.

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

 

Harvard has recently undergone lengthy soul-searching in regard to its seal and naming, seeking to excise any endorsement of persons who engaged in activities that, while legal at the time, are abhorrent by today’s standards. The question is whether that exercise signifies a genuine intention to center the institution on enlightened values, or rather was a useless feel-good exercise to make us feel virtuous by attacking those long dead, while we cooperate in current evils without remorse. To judge that question, we may look to whether the University is continuing to name buildings after persons who advocate or fund racist violence that is illegal and immoral under current human rights standards. In the Jaynestown episode of Firefly, Mal Reynolds observes “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him, was one kind of sumbitch or another.” I hope that Harvard will prove him wrong.

Matt Lykken, J.D. ’85
Colleyville, Tex.

 

 

I write not to criticize how Harvard has dealt with the context of President Gay’s testimony before the U.S. Congress, but how her career path led to her selection as president of a premier academic institution. Her persistent use of the ideas and writings of others without attribution is breathtaking. Where was the academic adviser overseeing her Ph.D. dissertation? Or the committee that awarded her the Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in political science? Or the committees that recommended her first academic appointment and then promotion at Stanford University? Or those vetting her appointment as a professor and then dean of FAS at Harvard? Having served myself on search committees for the most senior academic administrators, I can in good conscience give a pass to the presidential search committee. By the time a candidate reaches the short list of aspirants most search committees assume their academic credentials have been vetted. Why is President Gay not being subjected to the same scrutiny and chastisement as a freshman student in the College?

Reed E. Pyeritz, A.M ’71, Ph.D. ’72, M.D. ‘75
Philadelphia

 

Former President Bok laments the near absence of “an important body of conservative thought.” In my time (1967-71), there was no such problem, other that the most “conservative” person I know has since charted a career of radical Zionism, which never seemed “conservative” to me. More import, the party thought to advance conservative views in our broken two-party system, i.e., Republicans, has abandoned the “conversative” label in favor of a radical, reactionary one. So my question is, other than studying history and (maybe) government, why bother?

Harvard has also been criticized for activism in favor of ending the genocide and apartheid regime oppressing the Palestinian people. In the ’30s and ’40s, should Harvard have taken a balanced view toward Nazism? There is no “conservative” nor otherwise human excuse for supporting the use of billions of dollars and American-made arms to try to empty Gaza and facilitate another land grab by Israel in violation of UN Resolutions—much less the trend toward “ethnic cleansing” (a euphemism for racist or cultural mass murder). Nor is there any need to “balance” such views against world peace.

Timothy E. Morgan ’71
Benicia, Cal.

 

Militarized Cover Art?

Something about the cover art for the January-February magazine stood out to me. The figure standing above the words “The Vigilante Mindset” conveyed to me a military or veteran persona. I am concerned this imagery could feed into a preexisting and false narrative that veterans are prone to extremism.

But first let me say I am confident that no one involved in the design process intended to contribute to a negative narrative. I’m sure the intent was to frame the complex and important issue of political violence in a way that invites constructive engagement on solutions to this issue. Nevertheless, I worry readers could draw unhelpful inferences from the cover art.

The “violent veteran” narrative is as old as war, yet repeatedly found to be false. Last year RAND published a comprehensive study showing support for extremism among veterans was similar to or less than that of the general population; and, more recently, the Institute for Defense Analysis published a study making a similar point about the active-duty military.

Since the transition to an all-volunteer force in 1973, the military has grown more remote for much of American society. This makes the narratives shaped by the media more influential in how people see and engage with veterans (and the military more broadly). It’s important that Americans, especially those without a direct connection to the military, know that veterans are civic assets—veterans are more likely to vote, volunteer, and spend time with neighbors.

I hope that when Americans think of veterans, the images they see are those of their neighbors and local small-business owners, the teachers and coaches at the local school, and the volunteers running food banks on the weekends.

Dan Vallone, M.B.A. ’15
New York City

 

The magazine’s January-February cover art of “The Vigilante Mindset” contributes to the caricature that military veterans are violent and deranged. The sprawling article—which opens with an endorsement of the Sandinistas—contains dozens of vignettes that might have been rendered on the cover. The magazine chose the silouette of a solider looming over blue protestors against a U.S. flag. Art is interpretive, but the symbology is clear. Militia groups do not carry grenade launchers.

At least it’s on brand. The class of 1991 graduated more Harvard students into the Marines than any since the Vietnam War. In those days, the Harvard President refused to attend commissioning, but a small ceremony was scheduled outside Memorial Church, dedicated to Harvard’s war dead. That morning we were ushered into a dingy Science Center basement instead.

Harvard has since changed its behavior toward its military students, but not its instincts.

Owen West ’91
Menlo Park, Cal.

 

 

Vigilante Bias

I read your January-February 2024 cover article “The Vigilante Mindset” and observed a flagrantly slanted bias.

Professor Siegel was quoted as saying, near the end of the article: “…vigilantism is not inherently a tool of the right.” In my opinion, that phrase should have been the lede.

However, every “vigilante” exemplar she selected was a pointedly “right-wing” one. She totally avoided talking about cases of vigilante leftists “…tak[ing] the law in one’s own hands,” like Antifa, BLM, Muslim no-go Zones, and other left hate groups “…[using] the guise of solving a problem” (page 33).

I decry the lopsided interview presented by your Associate Editor but must admit I was not surprised by it. I suspect your woke Cambridge audience would have rioted if a balanced examination of vigilantism had even been hinted at.

My first (and only) encounter with “problem solvers taking the law in their own hands” was in Cambridge. I was a senior in the College in 1970—sitting at a special dinner in the Faculty Club among my fellow HCF class agents, when President Pusey received a whispered message, stood, declared the Yard gates had been locked, the Square was in flames, and dismissed us as he hurried off to deal with the police response. The “problem-solvers taking the law in their own hands” were, naturally, all leftists.

Commander Joe C. West ’70, USCG (ret.)
New Orleans

 

 

Susanna Siegel responds: Some historical perspective may be helpful. The term “vigilantism” originates in the confrontational activities of “vigilance committees” in nineteenth-century America. The 1851 San Francisco Vigilance Committee (think Gold Rush) set up its own system for trial and punishment, hanging a man they convicted of stealing a safe. In the same year, the Syracuse Vigilance Committee dragged a fugitive from slavery named Mr. Jerry McHenry out of jail and helped him get to Canada, physically blocking the federal marshals who would render him a slave once again. Vigilantism can enact all sorts of different political relationships.

I won’t jump to conclusions about what reader West thinks of movements defending voting rights, the right to read what one likes in the library, Build Back Better, or DEI initiatives. But none of these causes have led anyone to storm into grocery stores or churches to kill the people inside. None have led anyone to drive their cars into protestors. Such acts have been done by authors of tracts about the perils of “white replacement” and members of groups unapologetically committed to doctrines of white superiority. Those acts don’t define vigilantism, but they are examples of it.

 

Stem Cell Ethics

How many more times are we going to be asked, without the benefit of our then receiving any meaningful reply afterward, to take scientists entirely at their word, as if the whole reason that we let them experiment is a privilege that we grant to few other professionals, even physicians (“Ethics and Human Cells,” the sidebar to “How to Make a Mammal,” January-February, page 40)? Is it not even more odd that the whole reason that we then let scientists do as much is that they’re admitting that they really don’t know exactly what it is that they are doing in the first place? Hence, research.

Science advances, so-called, as if the entire species had at some one time said, “OK, science, advance!” Famously, and truthfully, for just one outstanding example, we allowed it to do so in 1945 at Los Alamos, where and when those self-same fabled experts, scientists, were not at all certain that initiating a full-scale nuclear reaction would not consume Earth’s entire atmosphere, yet they initiated it anyhow, Truth be known at all costs.

Now we are about to artificially create human stem cells, while happily letting AI take the wheel on a research highway to nowhere at all certain.

Think we must, Yoda would say, of the Golem. Or how about Procrustes? How about even Peewee Herman’s “I meant to do that” as he crashed his bicycle? Ethics, smethics!

Russell E. Murphy
St. Charles, Mo.


 

On Voting

Associate professor Benjamin Enke does not “show how a ‘universalist’ mindset versus a ‘particularist’ one drives voting behavior” (“Values and Voting Patterns,” January-February, page 9). He merely finds a statistical correlation. It is difficult to imagine a finding more obvious.

If one wants to understand voting behavior, one needs, among other things, to explain the extreme regional variation. Why are people in Republican regions somehow more likely to be particularist and people in Democratic regions more universalist? Perhaps it’s education? Perhaps religion? Maybe something else?

We don’t need more nonsense explanations of non-economic behavior from economists.

Michael Karr, Ph.D. ’84
Brookline, Mass.

 

Work…and Life

I read Aden Barton’s undergraduate report (“What Work Means,” November-December 2023, page 60) with interest and a bit of a smile. About 20 years ago I was a member of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Admissions Committee. I reviewed an application by a Columbia graduate who related that he had recently conversed with his college best friend. They were both working 80 hours or more per week. The best friend, although dog tired, was gaining great pleasure from her occupation as a medical resident, making little money. The applicant, although making six figures in a Wall Street firm, realized that he was only “making rich people richer” (his phraseology, not mine). Ergo, the application to medical school.

My recommendation to the Committee: interview, then admit!

Murray L. Levin ’57
Highland Park, Ill.

 

The Amazing Miocrobiome

Congratulations and thank you for a mind-opening article, “You Are What (our) Microbes Eat” (November-December 2023, page 30).

I am a life-long generalist, and try to think holistically. This article on Rachel Carmody and colleagues’ work has expanded my grasp of our existence. From my understanding, the microbiome could be considered a new organ, akin to our skin:

It expands and contracts based on environmental input, which includes not only nutrients which we ingest but feedback from our bodies.

It seems to perform a screening function for the nutrients we ingest, and adapts accordingly.

It seems to perform a screening function for the medications which can reach our brain.

And it seems to influence even our metabolism and our immune systems.

What a marvelous organism!

Peter Papesch ’60, M.Arch. ’63
Boston

 

Pedagogy and Identity

I very much enjoyed Isabella Cho’s thoughtful meditation on the suitability of personal experience and anecdote in the classroom (“Is Pedagogy about Us?,” January-February, page 58). Personal history is critical for understanding and appreciating any text, but it can exert an outsized (and often undeserved) authority that can too easily quash discussion. Given that the essence of education is to expand the range of experience and knowledge, the ability to put aside one’s biases is critical. But how do we get students and faculty to adopt this stance? My suggestion: Include Cho’s article in the packet of required readings for incoming freshmen.

Ben Stanger, M.D.-Ph.D. ’97
Philadelphia

 

After reading Ms. Cho’s Undergraduate essay “Is Pedagogy about Us?” (January-February 2024, page 58), I look forward to hearing more from her as her career develops. Her balanced, nuanced analysis of the role of identity —should it be central to one’s intellectual endeavors?—is striking in this era of hyperbole and single-mindedness.

Nancy Pepper M.Ed. ’76
Watertown, Mass.


On “Yesterday’s News”

Two comments on the January-February 2024 “Yesterday’s News” (page 20).

When our class of 1959 entered Hollis South in September 1955, we were told that “biddies,” i.e. diligent and respectable service ladies, would no longer be available to “make our beds.” Don’t recall any reference (at age 17) to the earlier 295 years in the Yard.

And on 11/11/11, as a former NROTC-trained officer in the United States Navy, I had the honor in Memorial Church to rise from my place alongside President Drew Faust before Harvard’s “great & good” and to dedicate the Medal of Honor plaque—in language that I had drafted as a cofounder of the Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization—to “Welcome Back” ROTC on behalf of our “ten thousand men (and women) of Harvard.”

Terry Murphy ’59, Ex-LT USN & USNR
Bethesda, Md.


 

Amplifications and Errata

The January-February chart accompanying “FAS: Faculty and Fisc” and depicting professors’ age at retirement (pages 22-23) correctly labeled the first period 1994-2003 but incorrectly labeled the second 2003-2023; the correct time period for the latter cohort is 2013-2023, as indicated in the text.

Harvard Sundered” (7 Ware Street, January-February, page 4) cited an essay by Kennedy School student Zahra Asghar lamenting the absence of substantive events focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian war. School sources pointed out that it has worked to foster such discussions, including panels led by Tarek Masoud, Ford Foundation professor of democracy and governance and faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative (as subsequently reported in harvardmag.com/foster-hks-24). We note those offerings here, but also restate the larger point: that Harvard could and should sponsor more such substantive events University-wide.

The Tangible Past” (January-February, page 54), referred to Summit County, New Jersey. That should have been Somerset. And as David Burzillo, A.L.M. ’92, noted, “You Are What (our) Microbes Eat” (November-December 2023, page 30) mistakenly identified the Hadza of Tanzania as “Hazda.”

The Harvard Portrait on Tom Hyry, Fearrington librarian of Houghton Library (January-February, page 15), identified his father as a teacher. He was in fact a school superintendent. And Jacqueline Lapidus, M.T.S. ’92, points out that sculptor Romolo Del Deo’s father (“Thinking Archaically,” January-February, page 45), is Salvatore—not Salvadore, as we rendered it.

Robert I. Rotberg, now retired from the Kennedy School faculty, notes that “The Philosopher of the ‘Real World’” (January-February, page 30), wrongly identified Cornell President Frank H. T. Rhodes as a descendant of Cecil John Rhodes, the mining magnate and founder of the Rhodes Scholarship—leading to the inference that President Rhodes accordingly “refused to cut financial ties to South Africa.” In fact, Cecil Rhodes had no issue (and never married). “Whatever reasons President Rhodes may have had for refusing to cut links with South Africa, his ties to Cecil Rhodes were not the cause,” Rotberg notes.

We regret these errors.

 

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