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Letters | Letters

Cambridge 02138

September-October 2011

College Crises

In their “Colleges in Crisis” (July-August, page 40), Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn see an outdated and defective “business model” as chief cause of the financial trouble in which U.S. universities find themselves. But 90 percent of our students (customers?) study in academic institutions that are not businesses. That those nonprofits are in some ways confused and inefficient, few would dispute. But it is an historical mistake to conceptualize them the way Christensen and Horn do.

Is the mistake significant? Yes, because it entirely misses the transition over four decades from higher education funded as a public good, to education pretty much on its own in the market. For instance, the authors refer to the decline of public support as “offsetting government dollars” that “have not kept up of late.” “Offsetting”? Those dollars were not a charitable handout, but the foundation of the whole system.

Finally, did Christensen and Horn notice that for-profit universities have shamelessly relied on those “offsetting government dollars” to make their business model work?

Richard Ohmann, Ph.D. ’60
Hawley, Mass.

 

“Colleges in Crisis,” while presenting issues of serious concern to our institutions of higher education, omitted one very important aspect: the quality of education gained from at least some of these institutions, notably some of the for-profits that market to certain groups of low-income individuals, many of them members of minority groups, who use significant amounts of financial aid to pay for their education. As a faculty member who teaches at Empire State College, one of the SUNY campuses, I see many of these individuals coming to us to complete bachelor’s degrees, having achieved their associate degrees at one of the for-profits, and their academic preparation is typically far from adequate. Writing skills along with critical-thinking skills are sadly lacking, thus compromising the possibility of success in the upper level of undergraduate work.

I would suggest that faculty conditions related to online learning need examination as well, for setting up an online course and managing it appropriately takes more time and effort than a similar course traditionally delivered in the classroom.

Susan Tower Hollis, Ph.D. ’82
Penfield, N.Y.

 

The fundamental claim of Christensen and Horn’s argument is that the business model of higher education is inadequate. I wish it were obvious to everyone that this premise is itself a symptom of a fundamental misunderstanding. Higher education is not a poorly run business; it is not a business at all. The modern university is indeed a complex institution, asked to carry out an almost impossible number of vital tasks, several of which have important financial implications. It would behoove us all to reflect on what it does well, and what it should not be called on to do.

The kind of profit-driven credentialing mills described in the article would be certain to enrich a very small number and impoverish many, all while putting at risk the one element in the American education system that is not an international embarrassment, its universities.

The simple binary model of traditional institutions swamped by emergent ones proposed by the article notwithstanding, institutions of higher education have been quite aggressive and varied in responding to the opportunities presented by technology. A number of approaches have been tried, with varying kinds of success, at institutions serving diverse constituencies.

What Christensen and Horn describe, with its ersatz populism (degrees for everyone!) and magical thinking about the benefits of unproven technologies, along with its bad faith about the balance between public-sector risk and private-sector profits—all this bears a striking resemblance to the kind of approach that led directly to our current financial crisis (mortgages for everyone!), and straight to the mess in which we find ourselves.

Jonah Siegel
Professor of English, Rutgers
New Brunswick, N.J.

 

Kudos to Christensen and Horn. I would take their analysis a step further. Believe it or not, there are some college students who merely wish to obtain an education, get their degree and move on without being subjected to the college “experience” of living with strangers in cramped quarters, eating slop in tenebrous dining halls, or negotiating their way between trails of vomit spewed over residence hall floors in the wake of obnoxious parties. Over time, even the aforementioned selling points of a conventional undergraduate education may cause even the mighty grip of Harvard College to give way.

Aleksander Milch ’92
New York City

 

Christensen and Horn want a “new education technology and business paradigm” for higher education, but fail to prove the change would benefit anyone apart from those who profit financially. They mock colleges as “extraordinarily complex,” Whirlpool, McKinsey, and Northwestern Mutual Life combined. But people are complex—dishwashers, consultants, insurers, and more—and universities are designed to engage all our roles. They are complex because they are more human than institution, communities not businesses.

As a high-school teacher working primarily with low-income African-American students aiming for college, I object to people who have enjoyed its benefits offering others an inferior product—“actionable assessments” and “essential skills” with “real gains in cost.” My students deserve their chance to work with diverse people, lead an organization, and explore interests in a rich, multifaceted environment. They need college to be affordable, not nonexistent.

According to computer scientist Fred Commoner, managing modern technology requires not more technology, but rather more thoughtful “organizational culture” and education. A stripped-down, online university cannot provide that. Communities of remarkable people, such as colleges, can.

Christina E. Albers ’79
New Orleans

 

Christensen’s and Horn’s essay missed the key issue entirely. Proposing that online education has the potential to disrupt the business model of post-secondary education is not based on the facts. Yes, online education is growing substantially and is a practical alternative for certain segments of learners, but there has been no substantive change in the fundamental business model and cost structure of most of American higher education in the last 30 years, despite the growth of online learning.

The root cause of this inertia is that college and university leaders have no reason to make fundamental and meaningful innovations while federal and state governments continue to subvent post-secondary education with hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the form of insured student debt and research and service grants.

Almost every industry in the United States has had to undergo dramatic reengineering in the last 30 years to cope with painful pricing and competitive pressures. In higher education, with many faculty teaching zero or one course per term, and conducting research, much of which is of questionable value, there exist almost no tough pricing or real cost pressures. Most colleges and universities are still layering on more and more costs each year, have no clear measures of quality and impact, and are passing their costs on to society in the form of tuition increases at twice the rate of inflation, throwing a generation of students into real debt. Only when the taxpayers say “enough already” will higher education leadership be forced to embrace real change. Absent that, innovation in higher education is mostly just on the margins.

Peter Segall, Ed.M. ’85
Wellesley, Mass.

 

Energy Options

Michael McElroy’s “Time to Electrify” (July-August, page 36) states that the solution to high oil prices and to our dependency on foreign oil is to capture wind power in the form of electricity to power our autos and light trucks. But his claim that this is a lower-cost alternative is without substantiation. No mention is made as to the number of windmills required, the area needed for both power generation and transmission facilities, the cost of electric vehicles vs. alternatives, the cost/time for charging, or the replacement of the tax revenues now derived from motor fuels. He states that wind blows hardest at night and in the winter, and this variability must be recognized. But he does not state that sometimes the wind does not blow at all! An enormous expense would be needed in investment and operating costs for standby facilities.

McElroy further states that his approach will “minimize the risk of adverse future climate change.” This claim needs to be put in the perspective of global energy consumption and its outlook. Current world consumption of fossil fuels is about 35 million tons per day. These add 2 to 3 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide each year to the existing 390 ppm in the atmosphere. Two large factors exist that will counter any effect of practical reductions in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. First, the world’s population is expected to grow by at least one billion by 2020. Second, currently about one billion people are without a reliable source of electricity, and they desire it.

Conservation of energy and searches for more efficient and clean sources of energy in the United States are warranted, but we must be realistic about the ease and costs for realizing these desires. 

Robert Baker
Darien, Conn.

Editor’s note: Professor McElroy addressed many of the issues about wind power in “Saving Money, Oil, and the Climate: Using non-fossil energy sources to power our vehicles,” which contained a sidebar on wind energy resources (March-April 2008, page 30). A cross-reference to his prior essay appears at page 39 in “Time to Electrify,” with a link provided in the online edition. 

 

I agree electric cars are the future, but not for the reasons proposed in this article. Appeals to science, logic, or pragmatism rarely succeed.

Human beings are irrational economic players—for more than two decades we purchased SUVs for no discernible, logical purpose, even at a $10,000 premium over a sedan. Instead, peer pressure, national pride, and a debt bubble ruled the roads. Electric vehicles are an expensive alternative. Despite McElroy’s claims, their operating cost per gallon equivalent is not a mere 80 cents, at least not in an “apples to apples” comparison. As ever more electric vehicles hit the road, federal and state highway taxes will eventually be recovered against the cost of an electrical mile—adding another 50 to 75 cents per “gallon.” And the battery pack and other embedded costs for an electric vehicle relative to gas create an amortized premium (even assuming above-average production learning curves) of another $2: that is, at least $3.25/equivalent gallon.

Yet electric vehicles will dominate. Not as a solution to the very real (but invisible and pernicious) anthropogenic buildup of greenhouse gases, but because electrification leads to a better car: one that is quieter, with greater acceleration and improved traction control, as well as improved manufacturing and design flexibility. They are joining a hundred-year trend of substituting electrons for burning fuel, and computers for mechanical linkages. 

We cannot green the future by direct appeal—it’s not in our human nature. Instead, by making electric vehicles an object of desire, we can leverage the power of peer pressure. By aligning with the interests of historically obstructionist domestic fossil-fuel electricity suppliers, we can make owning an electric car patriotic. And by switching from gas to electrons, retail-store parking lots become recharging stations—a further incentive to shop at the mall.

Deception and logistics, not frontal attacks, win most wars.

Greg E. Blonder, Ph.D. ’82
Summit, N.J. 

 

I found it interesting that McElroy finds the proposed $500-billion subsidy to convert eight million trucks and buses to use compressed natural gas (CNG) too expensive, while the cost of building a coast-to-coast electricity-distribution system to accommodate optimal windmill siting, with a price tag of $1 trillion, to be the preferred alternative. This ignores the possibility that if a trucking company could get better efficiency out of a gallon of CNG than out of a gallon of gas, it might decide to pay for the conversion itself. This article has so many economic tradeoffs and assumptions that it might be wise for the author to run the whole case by Harvard Business School, where some economists could tie down the loose ends and help separate whatever climate-change agenda might be present from economic benefits. HBS might even recommend that markets, rather than the government, make the decisions. Markets these days seem to be wiser and more objective than legislatures and politicians.

Ralph M. Wright, M.B.A. ’56
Bountiful, Utah


“Time to Electrify” spoke of a national network of high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) supply lines to distribute wind-produced electric power. A few more words on HVDC may be helpful.

Losses from HVDC transmission are far lower than from traditional alternating-current lines, making HVDC attractive for long-distance lines. A special advantage is that HVDC lines can be buried underground and require only a narrow right-of-way. This avoids the public resistance, attendant delay, and increased cost from securing rights-of-way for above-ground lines. As McElroy notes, HVDC rights-of-way could be along existing rail lines and interstate highways, and burying preserves scenic values and is likely to make the lines more secure. There is an extra cost for conversion at either end, AC-DC and DC-AC, to match current methods of generation and distribution, but for long lines (an estimated break-point is about 300 miles) the main considerations become esthetic and societal and in most cases favor a HVDC approach.

More public information on HVDC for any new long-distance transmission lines would improve prospects for a useful debate on upgrading our national grids.

Nicholas Carrera ’60
Frederick, Md.

 

Reefs at Risk

We were pleased to see Harvard Magazine call attention to the plight of the world’s coral reefs (“Reefs at Risk,” by David Arnold and Jonathan Shaw, July-August, page 32). While the article accurately describes the threats, it neglects to mention durable solutions. As board members of the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), we know that people all over the world are committed to building healthy coral reef ecosystems. For example, in Hawaii, CORAL’s volunteer “citizen scientists” are gathering data to assist reef-monitoring activities to improve conservation management. In Belize, CORAL’s mangrove habitat reforestation project is reducing the amount of harmful pollutants reaching nearby reefs. 

If we are going to succeed in protecting our reefs for future generations, however, we need more people to support sustainable and long-lasting solutions—now. We encourage the Harvard community to get involved in supporting coral reef conservation by visiting www.coral.org.

Curtis Berrien, M.B.A. ’70
Berkeley, Calif.

H. William Jesse Jr., M.B.A. ’76
University Park, Tex.

 

Home Cooking

What is so hard about cooking dinner in less than 20 minutes (“Restaurants Rampant,” July-August, page 24)? My late husband, Rollin L. Wilson, A.M. ’50, used to have a hot meal waiting for me when I came home from my counseling work at 7:20 p.m. After he died, I figured out how to use the toaster oven.

In 10 to 15 minutes, I can broil fish and vegetables in olive oil and have the table set, a bowl of berries and a salad ready, plus my vitamins and supplements, along with water and sometimes wine. I might also light a fragrant candle and put on some suitable music. If the main course takes longer to cook, I can do a household or paperwork chore during the wait time.

A weekend farmers’ market trip, plus two other Whole Foods stops in afternoon breaks, is not a burden.

Katharine Wadsworth Wilson ’50
San Jose, Calif.

 

Palestinians

I don’t see why so many supporters of the State of Israel seem to find it necessary to disparage and belittle the Palestinian people. The letter by Orrin Tilevitz (“On Gandhi,” July-August, page 3) carries so many assaults against them that if such remarks were directed against any other people they would undoubtedly be called prejudiced and probably racist as well.

Most Americans do not realize the extent to which Palestinians were brutally forced off their lands by heavily armed Jewish paramilitary groups in the years leading up to and including 1948. Fully 85 percent of the Palestinians living on the land that was to become the State of Israel were ruthlessly evicted from their homes, their farms, and their orchards by these groups and given a one-way ticket to nowhere.

And contrary to Tilevitz’s assertion that the land occupied by the Palestinians for centuries was bought and paid for by Jewish authorities, most research on the topic confirms that no more than 5 percent of the land in Palestine was obtained by purchase; the remainder was seized without any recourse or compensation and incorporated directly into the State of Israel.

And then to assert, as Tilevitz does, that there really is no such thing as the Palestinian people is a direct affront to a proud and courageous people. It would be like saying that there is no such place as New England. True, the Palestinians did not have a state of their own, but that has been part of the problem. And it is also part of the solution.

As I see it, if we are looking to find peace in that region, we can and should take a position that supports the rights of both peoples equally and unequivocally to create safe and secure homelands for their own people and to achieve full recognition and standing within the community of nations.

Dan Adams ’67
Fulton County, Pa.

 

Blogger Andrew Sullivan

John Braemen’s attack on Andrew Sullivan for not being the exact kind of pundit he wants (Letters, July-August, page 2)—which sounds to me to be William F. Buckley minus the sense of humor—began with a barely hidden attack on Sullivan for being gay: “But Sullivan has been—to be euphemistic—selective in his Catholicism in his personal life.” I’m not positive, but I suspect that Braemen wouldn’t bother to write something like that about a divorced Catholic politician or a Catholic judge who sentenced someone to death, even though, based on my understanding of Catholic teachings, both are vastly graver crimes than homosexuality.

Sullivan can be infuriating and unpredictable, but he also admits when he is wrong and changes his opinions based on facts on the ground, rather than reinterpreting the facts to fit his preconceived opinions, as many modern pundits do. His popularity and influence are based on the inability to peg him as a liberal or conservative; he has legions of readers from both sides of the spectrum. He retains his readers even when they disagree with him because we know that we’re getting intellectual honesty, not partisan hackery. That’s what makes him the best blogger in America. Instead of mocking Sullivan for his sexual orientation and for admitting that he has a human and not a robotic mind, Braeman should read Sullivan’s blog, which he clearly hasn’t, since he has only his “imagination” to surmise “how awful the rest must be.”

Ted Gideonse ’96
San Diego

 

The Meaning of Life, Part two

Madeleine Schwartz’s “The Most Important Course” (The Undergraduate, May-June, page 56) is the most profound piece I’ve ever seen in Harvard Magazine. Like Dean Dingman, I don’t feel that additional coursework is the answer to the important issue she so skillfully articulates. What needs to change is the attitude of the College’s faculty and student body toward deep and personal discussions. Schwartz mentions that “talking about the personal implications of a text in section would be gauche,” that she “can’t imagine” such discussions at the Kirkland House dining hall, and that a discussion about race during Freshman Week “was slow-going, mostly marked by cautious silence.” 

My experiences at the Extension School were nothing like this. Our in-class discussions drew parallels between readings and our lives outside the classroom as a matter of course, my friends and I went out of our way to eat at Dudley House before class specifically to engage in serious philosophical conversations, and lively debates about even the most contentious topics were the norm.

The College community needs to take a long, hard look at itself, and work together to promote a culture where probing, unfettered discussions form a regular (and integral) aspect of student socialization. Existing courses provide more than adequate raw material for the most profound conversations anyone could ever imagine. What’s missing is the spirit of free enquiry.

Marc Callis, A.L.M. ’05
Jupiter, Fla.

 

On ROTC’s Return

I am deeply saddened to see that ROTC is returning to campus (“ROTC Returns,” May-June, page 45). Sugarcoat it as you will, ROTC is an integral part of a military-industrial complex whose function is the expansion and enforcement of an empire unprecedented in human history. More to the point, the training of officers differs little from the training of soldiers in its ultimate goal: to create more effective killers of designated “enemies.” How this fits with Harvard’s mission, which I had always assumed was to humanize and civilize, is hard to fathom. The efforts of students 42 years ago to rid the campus of ROTC were motivated by a deep understanding of this inherent contradiction; I can only imagine the forces driving Harvard’s recent reversal of conscience.

Ramsay Harik, M.T.S. ’91
Bloomington, Ind.

 

Sarah Hicks’s Sweet Sound

I enjoyed reading the profile of Sarah Hicks (“A Baton with Sting,” July-August, page 16), who has joined us as associate conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, “America’s Next Great Orchestra.” The orchestra has blossomed into a wonderful, first-rate group, blending classical favorites with innovative, modern works, as well as undertaking challenging collaborations with local theater groups. We have enjoyed Maestro Hicks’s concerts and found her explication of performed works to be lucid, literate, amusing, and very educational. The Harvard connection and the fact that she graduated in my daughter’s class add to our personal pleasure.

Stephen R. Kandall ’61
Raleigh, N.C. 

 

Metabolism Matters

In light of healthcare costs, why are we talking about interesting, but expensive, “personalized medicine” (“Fathoming Metabolism,” May-June, page 27)? Why are we not talking about fundamentals such as get off your ass and go for walk?

Let’s give our bodies a chance. If the USA was peopled with citizens who had a healthy BMI and walked 30 minutes every day while eating mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, do you really think healthcare costs and the costly prospect of “personalized medicine” would even be of interest? I doubt it. We accept 37 percent obesity rates and run around looking for pills to fix the problem. 

Mary Beth Frost, M.B.A. ’88
Phoenix

 

Amplifications and Errors

Mollie Katzen, featured on the cover and in “Restaurants Rampant” (July-August, page 24), wrote to note, “I appreciate your mention of the Food Literacy Project (FLP) of Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services (HUHDS). I want to make sure the creation of this terrific undertaking is correctly accredited to the estimable Ted Mayer, who recently wrapped up his 15-plus-year tenure as assistant vice president and executive director of HUHDS. Ted has been nothing less than a visionary leader—the kind who inspires and encourages excellence and creativity in his very large and complex team. He made possible countless good things during his tenure, and at the same time skillfully allowed everyone (myself included, as a friend and consultant to HUHDS) feel a part of the endeavor. This pertains especially to the FLP, which is nothing less than his brainchild.”

 Several readers noted the inaccurate reference to the “marriage of more than 50 years” of Mary and Bernard Berenson (Vita, July-August, page 30). Author Diane Booton responds, “‘Relationship’ would have been the mot juste, not only for its numerical accuracy. It aptly describes their unconventional union, challenged repeatedly by Bernard’s dislike for Mary’s children (or any children) and his resentment of her spending household money on them, and by the couple’s mutual quest to find in the companionship of others what was missing from their own 45-year marriage.”

In “The Senior Seniors” (July-August, page 69), we inadvertently ran a photograph of George Barner ’29 instead of the intended image of Donald F. Brown ’30, Ph.D. ’55. Barner is from an earlier class, but Brown is nearly a month older.

Brevia erred in reporting that Susan Marine, who recently left the assistant deanship for student life to assume new responsibilities at Merrimack College (July-August, page 62), had not taught at Harvard. She taught courses twice, read theses, and served as a teaching fellow, among other academic duties.

Lisa Abend (Off the Shelf, July-August, page 21) in fact earned her Ph.D. in 1998.

José María Gómez Durán wrote to note that “Ants through the Ages” (July-August, page 60) misidentified Auguste Forel as “Auguste Morel.”

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