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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

News Briefs

July-August 2016

Members of all-female social clubs protest against new sanctions on single-gender organizations.

Photograph by Kit Wu/The Harvard Crimson


Members of all-female social clubs protest against new sanctions on single-gender organizations.

Photograph by Kit Wu/The Harvard Crimson

Social Club Sanctions

Citing their history of gender discrimination and negative influence on campus life, the College announced in May that it would ban members of historically male final clubs and other unrecognized, single-gender social groups from holding leadership positions in athletics or official student groups, and from receiving College endorsements for fellowships, like the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall scholarships. The policy follows a year of escalating hostilities between final clubs and Dean Rakesh Khurana, and will take effect in fall 2017, affecting only students entering with the class of 2021 and thereafter. Two final clubs, the Spee and the Fox, became co-ed earlier this year, in response to pressure from Khurana (though the Fox's graduate board disputed the move, and declared the new women members "provisional" pending approval by a two-thirds majority of alumni); they thus won't be affected by the policy. No other clubs have yet announced plans to go co-ed in response to the new rules.

The clubs had been linked to sexual assault last spring, when a College-wide survey found that 47 percent of senior women who participated in final-club activities reported unwanted sexual contact since entering Harvard, compared to 30 percent of senior women overall, and that 17 percent of assaults occur on property used by single-gender social organizations. But in their messages to undergraduates announcing the new policy, President Drew Faust and Khurana appeared to distance the decision from concerns over sexual assault, focusing instead on the discriminatory nature of single-gender groups.

Many students and alumni, unsurprisingly, greeted the decision with sharp disapproval; a few final-club affiliates threatened legal action against the University. Hundreds of women belonging to sororities and female final clubs gathered for a rally the week following the announcement, capturing national media headlines and provoking campus-wide debate about the legitimacy of the policy. Protesters called all-female groups "collateral damage" in the University's effort to shut down final clubs, and stressed the importance of their organizations in creating a safe, supportive community for Harvard women. Former dean of the College Harry Lewis '68 wrote a letter to Khurana condemning the sanctions, arguing that they would create "a College culture of fear and anxiety about nonconformity" (though acknowledging that final clubs can have a negative influence on campus culture). Lewis later led a group of 11 other faculty members in drafting a motion in opposition to the social-club sanctions, to be voted on by the faculty next academic year.

Read full reports at harvardmag.com/finalclub-16 and harvardmag.com/fallout-16

 

David M. Rubenstein, Fellow

David M. Rubenstein

Photograph courtesy of the Carlyle Group

The day before Commencement, the University announced that David M. Rubenstein—a private-equity executive and a Harvard Campaign leader—will become a Fellow of the Harvard Corporation, effective in July 2017.

Although the announcement a year in advance is unusual, the appointment is in effect a slow-motion double-switch, to use a baseball metaphor. Last December, Princeton president emerita Shirley Tilghman was elected to the Corporation, filling the vacancy created by the death of James F. Rothenberg, an investment-management executive, the prior summer. Now, Rubenstein is in the queue to fill the planned departure of Nannerl O. Keohane, president emerita of Wellesley College and Duke, at the end of the next academic year. Read a full report.

 

Medical Conflicts of Interest

In early May, shortly before concluding his service as Harvard Medical School (HMS) dean on June 30, Jeffrey S. Flier completed a review of the school's conflict of interest policy that he began in early 2015. Then, he cited the need to ensure that the policy "remains optimally constructed and relevant to the current environment and practices, striking an appropriate balance between ensuring the integrity of our work and permitting our faculty the maximal opportunity to improve human health through the discovery, evaluation and eventual introduction and use of new drugs and devices"—the latter involving engagement with commercial companies.

At the end of 2015, Flier promulgated changes in the "research support rule," which he found "overly restrictive" and too rigid relative to circumstances that might arise in each situation. Accordingly, where faculty members who hold equity in privately held companies were previously presumed to be prohibited from receiving research support from those entities, the policy now permits a petition to rebut that presumption. Faculty members who own equity in publicly traded enterprises would not be prohibited from receiving research support from such businesses unless they owned more than 1 percent of the total equity; above that level, faculty members may petition for permission for such research support.


Jeffrey S. Flier
Photograph by John Soares/Harvard Medical School

The May changes pertain to support for clinical research, where a separate rule had prohibited faculty members conducting such work from receiving other income exceeding $10,000 from sponsoring companies, holding more than $30,000 in public stock in such companies, or holding any stock in private companies. While upholding the principle that "research involving human study participants should be subject to heightened scrutiny because bias can directly impact the safety and welfare of clinical research participants," HMS will now liberalize the rules, which it found could "stifle research that is in the best interest of patients and human study participants." The income threshold is raised to $25,000, and the limit on ownership in publicly held enterprises to $50,000. The prohibition on owning equity in a private company from which a faculty member wishes to receive clinical research funding remains in place. A mechanism to permit petitions for exceptions to these guidelines was also put in place.

 

"For a Better World"

From Harvard's perspective, the second most important fundraising effort in Cambridge launched publicly on May 6, when MIT—celebrating the centennial of its relocation from Boston—unveiled its outward-looking "MIT Campaign for a Better World." To put its ambitions in perspective, the goal is $5 billion (as the Engineers' website puts it, 5x109), compared to The Harvard Campaign's $6.5-billion target; but MIT—with 1,036 professors of all ranks, and 4,527 undergraduates and 6,804 graduate students—is about half Harvard's size.

Citing the institute's history of "discovery, knowledge creation, and innovation," the campaign announcement focused on fundamental science; the "health of the planet" (MIT has developed a multi-hundred-million-dollar research program on climate change, clean energy, and sustainability—see "A Modest Proposal"); scientific and engineering research on human health; enhanced emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship, to apply discoveries more rapidly and widely; teaching and learning (driven by a comprehensive strategy for broader, deeper use of online and other technologies, overseen by the Office of Digital Learning, and experiential learning—on campus, in the world, and for K-12 use); and in its core faculty resources, student financial aid, and facilities.


MIT campaigns, too.
Photograph by John Phelan

MIT's science- and engineering-intensive campus will require substantial spending to pursue this work. During the campaign's quiet phase, the institute borrowed $1.3 billion for new facilities and to address deferred maintenance, assuming donor support to help meet the larger total costs. So far, that bet, and other aspects of the campaign, appear to be paying off: fundraisers had secured $2.6 billion of gifts and pledges as of March 31—or 52 percent of the goal: an even more comfortable initial margin than Harvard's 43 percent when the public phase of the Crimson campaign began in September 2013. Given Harvard's stupendous results since, the omens appear favorable for its downriver neighbor.

 

On Writing Better

At the end of a year in which the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) reworked the General Education curriculum (see "General Education Reconstituted," May-June, page 31), dean of undergraduate education Jay M. Harris reported on plans to enhance the College's one universally required course, Expository Writing, and to improve writing instruction generally. His briefing, a report on the work of FAS's standing committee on undergraduate education, noted the "challenges of teaching students who come to the College with varied levels of preparation for writing" (as Harvard extends its outreach to applicants, attracts students for whom English is not the primary language, and so on), as well as the need to help students "continue to develop as writers" as they pursue their concentrations.

Expos 10, an introduction to writing offered to students whose placement tests suggest a need for such work (limited to 10 students per class, with 15 to 17 sections offered in most years, enrolling about 10 percent of entering freshmen), and Expos 20, the required course (which varies in content based on the instructors' academic field), are largely taught by preceptors. These postdoctoral, term appointees are by definition likely to move on, or be hired away, rather than stay at Harvard long term. But they are trained in writing—and teach in a context where students receive close attention and must revise their work. (The written work required in many Gen Ed and concentration courses is generally used only for assessment, and rarely subjected to expert comment and revision that could improve writing skills.)

To determine the effectiveness of the marquee course, the committee retained Les Perelman, former director of undergraduate writing at MIT; he and a cohort of researchers read the placement tests for an entire Harvard freshman class, and then their final Expos essays, and scored their progress. Based on those findings, the committee has recommended "expanding our writing instruction on both ends of the spectrum," for less proficient writers and those who are most advanced. In the latter case, an experiment has been undertaken to allow very proficient writers to bypass Expos 20, and instead fulfill the requirement in a writing-intensive regular class: in 2015-2016, the Humanities 10a and 10b sequence. Another pilot will be run this year. Both embed required writing instruction in the context of a course about which students are presumably passionate.

Beyond Expos, Harris's report noted, most "teaching of writing is done by graduate-student instructors, a relatively small number of whom may have received support as teachers of writing." To remedy that deficiency, this fall, the writing program and Bok Center are piloting training to equip teaching fellows to teach undergraduate analytical writing. Separately, a digital teaching platform that highlights writing in subject-area concentration studies is being offered to departments, with discipline-specific exercises stitched in, to connect the skills honed in Expos to the rest of students' academic work.


Jay M. Harris
Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

These are incremental steps toward a focus on instruction in writing across the curriculum—perhaps increasingly necessary in an age of smart phones and 140-character messages. In time, one could imagine diverse disciplines in which faculty members with a strong interest in writing develop courses—historical writing, scientific nonfiction, and so on—beyond the English department's relatively limited nonfiction offerings. And in the longer term, should graduate enrollment in humanities and other writing-intensive disciplines continue to plummet, Harvard professors may find that they have to read and grade those undergraduate papers and exams themselves—so they may welcome future student cohorts whose writing is subjected to continual improvement during their College years.

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