Artificial intelligence, belonging, immigration
After the ICU
What a relief it was to read “What It Means to Be OK,” concerning Daniela Lamas and her post ICU care practice, by Lydialyle Gibson (January-February, page 38). Although I had found website help for my West Nile encephalitis recovery and articles about ICU stays, this is the first experience reading about the effects of long-term ICU care from patient experiences.
One patient’s “awful dreams” and “hallucinations,” which I share, were assured by Lamas to be “your mind trying to make sense of your situation.”
During a long recovery, with much time at home “watching TV,” I queried, “Where’s the meaning?” and I relate to patients saying, “What am I doing here?” and “her road back to health was scary and sad.” “This sort of not-dead and not-alive (aspect) of illness and recovery” describes it perfectly. Thank you.
Carolyn Gold, Ed.M. ’85
Speak Up, Please
Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not a Harvard graduate, yet I read about Dr. Lamas with keen interest. I lost my father this past November after a period of poor recovery following emergency surgery in August. At 87 he came through the surgery very well. In fact, the surgeon was impressed that he was so strong for his age. I fully expected him to bounce back, but this time was different. Sadly, my Dad ended up twice in the ICU afterward.
I read this article with gratitude for helping me to understand what was happening with my father when he went home for the last time and went into hospice care. I wondered whether any of the medical staff who tended to him previously knew that he was dying. I want to thank Dr. Lamas for starting her clinic to follow up with her former patients. This kind of caring understanding will go a long way in helping families make decisions about whether to pursue medical intervention.
Margaret A.E. Bryan
The following is my attempt to come to terms with having an incurable terminal illness.
Overcoming the psychology of getting better:
For most of us, our mom helps us through getting over the inevitable cuts and bruises of early years.
At the age four or five I contracted a serious strep throat infection and was hospitalized for a week. My mother took great care in helping me feel secure, that my present weakness would pass, and it did. That secured my faith in the idea that one can always get better.
As a 23-year-old adult, a 20 percent right-lung collapse put me in the hospital for a week. Recovery was quick and shortly after that I was back to work.
The years passed with a couple of bouts of flu and minor pneumonia overcome with no lingering effect.
In my sixties, cardiac problems developed which in an earlier time was a harbinger of an end-game event. However, a double bypass put an end to that and in a couple of months I was “all better” and back at work, feeling considerably stronger than before the operation.
Two decades later I noticed a peculiar distortion in things I looked at with my right eye. A quick trip to the eye doctor revealed the beginning of macular degeneration. I began getting regular injections of medication, which stopped progression of the irreversible damage. It was never going to get better but it was sort of halfway there, not getting worse.
A few weeks later, while pushing my lawn mower around during my weekly lawn-care chores, I became seriously out of breath. I felt like many of the characters in books I had read about high-altitude mountain climbing, gasping for breath above 20,000 feet. Cardiac and hematology tests showed no serious issues other than moderate anemia. Finally, my high-altitude comment stimulated my doctor to order tests to determine my blood oxygen saturation during exercise, and I was not surprised when it measured 80 percent.
X-rays told the rest of the story. I had developed an interstitial lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis from an unknown cause. The anemia was considered “anemia of chronic disease.”
And there you have it. At my age, neither of them has a cure nor a treatment.
Breathing oxygen from a machine or a tank keeps me alive and constantly overcoming a lack of appetite keeps my “weak blood” from getting worse.
As someone who has accomplished much against all odds and loves life, I am glad to continue being here each day, no matter what happens. I have had the opportunity to have a glorious dance on this incredible treadmill to oblivion for more than eight decades, and the unbelievable good fortune to share more than six decades of it with the most wonderful person in the world—Marsha, my wife.
It’s a once in a lifetime experience.
Robert Bernard Miller ’72
Zion Crossroads, Va.
AI and Ethics
“Embedded EthiCS” (despite the cute caps) in a computer-science curriculum reflects a fundamental misconception: that technology subsumes ethics (“Artificial Intelligence and Ethics,” by Jonathan Shaw, January-February, page 44).
Everything about AI is a choice people make. The article ponders how to deploy AI and people interactions “properly and fairly,” but never really considers that ethically many of these interactions are better not developed and deployed. Lily Hu comes close in criticizing AI proponents approaching everything as issues of “optimization…or prediction…or classification.” Yet, that’s what the article discusses—logistics. Barbara Grosz, for example, studies how to help computers understand human speech, but doesn’t consider when they don’t belong in the conversation, offering instead the same kind of emotional, extreme example—children with rare diseases—as AI commercials. No one questions the inevitable implementation, assuming the answer to any problem from hiring to healthcare is to turn it over to a machine.
Students in computer science at Harvard—its second largest undergraduate concentration—are likely to end up working with or being the “private commercial developers” the article mentions. What ethical reinforcement are they receiving before going corporate? Jonathan Zittrain argues AI “should be shaped to bear the public interest in mind.” (Sad to think that necessary to state.) However, his replacement for the “runaway trolley problem” is an equally hair-splitting debate over who’s responsible for the misuse of an autonomous car. Currently, the public itself is far from keen on the concept of autonomous cars. Isn’t that a more important discussion? Can companies accept that some products are not wanted? Plastic pollution and climate change come from unquestioned collaborations between business and technology. We should ask more of those who would change our world.
Fundamentally, it is wrong for elites—financial or intellectual—to eliminate such choices for others. Technology may be “ubiquitous,” often usefully so, but it is time to consider not just how, but what kind, how much, and where, and to set boundaries. Real issues of fairness, employment opportunity, individual privacy, and human dignity are at stake, and threaten most those who already have little of them. These courses don’t seem to be looking at such issues, and should.
Christina Albers ’79
Decision Tree Help!
Reader Robert C. Grano, M.B.A. ’56, of Portland, Maine, wrote: “Please provide illustration of correct navigation of ‘simple decision tree’” published to illustrate “Artificial Intelligence and Ethics” (January-February, page 44).
Author Jonathan Shaw explains: Tracing a path through the decision tree: At each level of the tree, determine which of the five inputs—ICML (International Conference on Machine Learning); 2017; Australia; kangaroo; and sunny—is relevant. Then ask whether that input matches what is described in the bubble. If yes, follow the green arrows to the left down to the next level. If no, follow the red arrows down to the right. The correct solution is shown above.
“Artificial Intelligence and Ethics” asks: if a self-driving car is instructed to go 80 miles an hour in a city, who is responsible for it being “involved in an accident”? Assigning fault for this outcome is a matter worthy of debate, but that this deadly outcome is a preventable crash and not an inevitable “accident” is not.
There is nothing accidental about death and damage that result from blatantly bad decisions—like driving at 80 mph on a city street—regardless of who or what made them. Let’s reserve the self-absolving term “accident” for spilled milk and potty-training mishaps. It’s not just semantics; the word choice both influences and reflects whether technologists and the public accept 40,000 traffic deaths each year as morally acceptable—or as an urgent epidemic.
In the dawning age of the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, staff had to put a dime in a jar every time they uttered the word “accident.” Now, as AI turns on its head the question of who is responsible for the deaths of Ms. Herzberg and the traffic-death victims who follow, we must be even more careful to recognize that human decisions are responsible for causing or preventing such tragedies. This starts with calling them what they are: crashes.
Alexander Epstein, Ph.D. ’12
In response to “Who Belongs at Harvard?” by Catherine Zhang (The Undergraduate, January-February, page 30), I can answer: everybody and anybody. That doesn’t mean everybody can or wants to belong to every social group, nor is that a requirement a college or indeed a society has to fulfill. A college does have to offer courses of instruction and professors able to teach them and ready to meet with students for intellectual guidance.
Zhang’s account of her visit to a final club struck me rather forcibly. When I was at Harvard as a Radcliffe girl (we were girls until the age of 21), there were a few old-time gentlemen’s clubs that a small percentage of boys belonged to. There were girls who socialized with them; most of us did not. Most of us—boys and girls—had no interest in social clubs. We created our social lives from the people we met in classes, in sections, in residential Houses. It used to be a point of pride with us that Harvard was not a fraternity and secret society school.
I’ve been disappointed with the advent of many final clubs, by nature exclusive. To allow such organizations at Harvard is to invite exactly the prejudices and discriminatory practices Harvard claims to reject. The behavior Zhang observed comes as no surprise, since such clubs have been regularly vilified in books, movies, and news reports. If she feels uncomfortable at social clubs, she doesn’t have to attend them.
I have nothing good to say about clubs, and I am sorry indeed that they have been handled, administratively, in such a ridiculous and ineffective fashion. I understand that students’ needs for large spaces to accommodate vast numbers has been a motivating excuse. In my modest college days, we were content to socialize on a smaller scale, which seems exactly like what would suit Zhang.
Her claim that “diversity…is the apparatus which sustains the preservation of the elite” should give her pause for further thought. Diversity is not an apparatus; it is a kind of social world (pretty much America’s social world) that offers everyone opportunities for social choice and personal enlargement.
Don’t worry that “change doesn’t happen overnight.” Be grateful that it comes at all and when it comes it proves a true boon.
Heidi G. Dawidoff ’60
The concept of race, as used in the context of the present lawsuit against Harvard, is a bankrupt idea that has been invalidated by modern science in every conceivable way. It is now rejected in every branch of learning from genetics to biology to anthropology, yet it stubbornly lingers in the law and in common parlance.
Perhaps the idea of race—or more precisely racialism, i.e. the belief that separate races exist because of differences in culture, habits, and physical appearance—is believed to have currency because it is so widely employed, and because it has been present for thousands of years throughout the world. This doesn’t mean, however, that it has anything scientific to support it, and by inference, that it has any conceivable application to social policy, including college admissions.
The idea that there is such a thing as an Oriental or Jewish or Black or Hispanic race has provided a rationale for segregating and disadvantaging countless millions, and for institutionalizing artificial distinctions between peoples without a credible basis. To the contrary, as modern science tells us, people may be categorized in terms of ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, language, nationality, place of origin, and physical traits such as height and pigmentation, but not in terms of race.
Therefore, when Harvard recognizes the word “race” in its vernacular context, and uses it to promote diversity and inclusion, it inadvertently validates and extends a fiction which has been debunked by Harvard’s own homegrown science, and that of the most advanced learning from around the world. Time to wipe the books, and start fresh with what we know to be true about the human condition, as science makes abundantly clear.
Frank Morgan ’73
Playing off one group against another to protect a wealthy, white, male elite is obviously nothing new.
After reading “Who Belongs at Harvard,” which describes administration foot-dragging in dealing with first-generation and low-income students and in establishing a multicultural center, I refreshed my memory by rereading an article I wrote for the Crimson in 1970 called “Women’s Lib is Men’s Lib, Too.”
At that time, progressives were organizing for a merger of Harvard and Radcliffe and for equal enrollment of men and women, rather than the 4 to 1 ratio then in effect.
A committee headed by then-dean of admissions Chase Peterson issued a report arguing against merger and equal enrollment on the grounds that because a substantial increase in total enrollment was impractical, admitting more women would mean reducing the number of men. This, President Nathan Pusey said, would jeopardize Harvard’s duty to provide the nation’s leaders—a mission that Dean Khurana echoes in Zhang’s article.
Equal enrollment, the Peterson report argued, would impact men from racial, geographical, and class minorities because it “might force us to eliminate a number of such distinctive groups entirely.” Then-dean of students Robert Watson told me that I might not be supporting equal enrollment if I realized that it would significantly decrease my benefits as a (white male) Harvard student.
From Zhang’s article, it appears that while the specific proposals at issue have changed, some of the underlying power dynamics remain the same. There obviously is a lot more organizing to do.
Matt Witt ’72
The article presents evidence that, in the author’s view, the ostensible goal of complete diversity has not yet been accomplished. She cites as evidence the refusal or failure of the dean and administration to accept a bridge program for first-gen and low-income students, a “first-year institute” as a means of bringing the disadvantaged element of the student body into full acceptance; the lack of such a program demonstrates the absence of complete equality, despite protestations to the contrary that complete diversity has been achieved.
In response, I want to supply a historical prospective, based upon my own experience at Harvard, beginning many years ago.
At the time I was accepted, I quickly learned that there was an elite portion of the student body, namely, those who were members of, and invitees to, the final clubs. That was a portion of the University student body to which I could never belong, or become a part of, being way beyond my reach. I did not give the matter much further thought, because of the conviction that such a portion of the student body had always existed, and would always continue to exist.
I was consoled by the fact that Harvard did not have any fraternities, which would have enrolled many more of the students as members and which would have permeated student life to a much greater degree than the final clubs, and in my particular case, I spent the first few weeks bunking at the Indoor Athletic Building, together with a group of veterans attending under the GI Bill, which tended somewhat to leaven the student body.
I also received information, I hope accurate, that Harvard had done away with quotas, and that there was at least no limit placed upon students from diverse groups such as Jews, Asians, and African Americans.
I found that the Harvard University into which I was placed, quite fortunately for me, was perfectly acceptable. Apparently, it no longer is. Perhaps it never should have been, but I did not know any better; I believed that I was extremely lucky to be present, and I concentrated on finding my way to achieve accomplishments which I believed were much more important than social equality.
Having accepted this system, I managed quite well. I considered Harvard the acme of educational institutions, to which I was thrilled to be admitted, and I managed to obtain the benefits which were offered, not only from class attendance and course work, but by learning to audit the best courses taught by the outstanding professors noted not only for dispassionate scholarship but also the ability to teach in exciting ways, thereby deserving their fame. I learned from the best of the best, which created not only reasonable knowledge, but also a desire to learn, which has continued for the rest of my life, and which I find most exciting. I consider that my ability to graduate magna cum laude was clear evidence that I belonged.
Currently Harvard is not yet a perfect society, and the final clubs, and those who belong, are still an issue which Harvard finds problematic and for which a solution has not yet been found despite considerable study. There being numerous factors on all sides of this issue, it is understandable that the matter has, as of yet, been imperfectly resolved. The best that the University can come up with is to penalize those students who choose to belong.
I do believe that the defects in Harvard student society, so accurately and, to an extent painfully, described by Ms. Zhang, do not extend to the admission process. I certainly hope that this assumption is correct, because I personally have been involved for many years as an interviewer engaged in the student application process and would not want to participate if the system is flawed. So far, I am satisfied that the system is dispassionate and fair, and therefore I believe that Harvard should win its legal battle.
I also am thankful for the editorial policy of Harvard Magazine, which preserves its freedom to review and criticize the administration honestly, critically, expertly, and dispassionately, covering all aspects of University leadership, policy, finances, etc.
I believe that the University should be grateful and thankful for the inspired leadership of its former president, now University Professor Faust, and I look forward to great things under the administration of President Bacow, noting that his paramount aim of “Veritas” has always been the backbone of the University, from my first days. I was proud that even in the era of McCarthyism and anti-communist fervor, it was still possible to find a copy of the Daily Worker at a newsstand in Harvard Square. Harvard, via “Veritas,” will similarly survive as a beacon leading us through the paranoia of political life today, and will, I hope and trust, help Harvard to achieve the more perfect society to which Ms. Zhang aspires, and to which she, and most of us, would prefer to belong.
“Who Belongs At Harvard” points out that Harvard still has a way to go before discrimination among the student body has been totally ended. Under the aegis of “Veritas,” a good step toward attainment of complete social inclusion and true diversity without social stigma so that all students can belong equally, would be to adopt the Freshmen Enrichment Program, as Ms. Zhang recommends.
The students of today demand much more than academic freedom, which existed throughout my attendance at Harvard. They demand, quite appropriately, complete and total acceptance in the Harvard society, without regard to their prior economic status, race, gender, religion, and any and all other distinguishing factors. They now demand complete social equality: they are entitled to it.
Robert A. Cohen ’51, J.D. ’54
A Friend, Remembered
John de Cuevas ’52, a long-time and steadfast friend of this publication, died on November 29, (An obituary appeared in the January-February issue.) He served as an Incorporator of Harvard Magazine Inc. for decades—an important role in the governance that assures the magazine’s editorial independence and integrity—and as a contributing editor. He was also a generous supporter of the enterprise, and, beginning in 1985, a source of the contents readers enjoyed—writing features on science, the environment and climate change (a special concern), and other subjects; and crafting Harvard-themed crossword puzzles in print and online. (See this characteristic devilment published in 2011, for the University’s 375th anniversary: harvardmag.com/375-puzzle-11.)
John was a gentle, genuine friend—sweet and mannerly, intellectually acute and curious, a superb writer. We remember him as a distinctive original.
The comments in “What Legacy?” (7 Ware Street, January-February, page 5) were appreciated by this grad, who benefited from a “thumb on the scale,” at least to the point of being admitted and given financial aid.
I was a public-school boy and transfer from Northeastern. Married, I lived off-campus and wasn’t part of the House system. Dudley House, even with Lehman Hall, wasn’t quite the same. As a consequence, I never quite fit in. Despite the aid, I had to work 20 to 25 hours a week and through the summers.
I value what I got in my years there and some of the doors opened to me later—though I was still scrabbling from having left home at 18. Lately, as I was reflecting on my experience with a classmate also from the Boston public schools, he remarked that he never felt as well taken care of as the “stars”: students from wealthier backgrounds with better preparations and connections. He thought Harvard didn’t do particularly well by its average students. I have to agree.
One big revelatory moment was walking into a room just as a fellow student, talking to someone else, said, “Oh, he’s all right, even though he doesn’t come from money.” I knew my place then.
The thumb on the scale for the economically disadvantaged is a good thing that would be much better if Harvard did a better job of helping those admitted.
So imagine my surprise to read the excellent essay by Catherine Zhang (“Who Belongs at Harvard?” January-February, page 30), to much the same point, with its articulation of the resistance of Dean Rakesh Khurana to any such program. It is hardly a surprise to note in Brevia (page 28) the dean’s choice to diminish the little support provided undergraduates not safely ensconced with their prep-school peers in the House system, with the demotion of Dudley House to the “Dudley Community.”
It really makes one wonder whether Harvard means what it says.
I write as a person with a very long Harvard affiliation: class of ’57, Higgins professor of mathematics, etc. I would like to propose a radical change in admissions policy, one that I feel suits our “woke” age, steps down from a certain highly criticized pedestal, and saves a lot of money as well (“Admissions on Trial,” page 15, and “What Legacy?” page 5, both January-February).
It is quite simple. Instead of playing God and making superhuman efforts to decide which adolescents have major leadership potential, I submit that random selection will do just as good a job. More precisely, take the applicant pool, admit a very small percent who simply cannot be turned down for various reasons, reject those clearly unqualified who would probably flounder and not benefit (30 percent? 50 percent?), and then accept randomly from the remaining pool enough applicants to fill the class. The brilliant work of the psychologists Kahneman and Twersky (see The Undoing Project) has shown how flawed human selection can be. It is certainly my experience as a professor that I rarely recognized which of my students would go on to do spectacular work, and which not. There are so many examples from history of geniuses who were mediocre in school—Einstein comes to mind. This could set off a major trend with Harvard, once again, the leader.
David Mumford ’57, JF ’61, Ph.D. ’62,
Saint George, Me.
“What Legacy?” demonstrates the comforting diversions that we use to maintain the moneyed hierarchy. At one end, President Bacow’s excuse that legacy students are “arguably the most qualified applicants” should not make us conclude that legacy and donor preferences are not anti-meritocratic, but rather should provoke the conclusion that legacies don’t need an additional advantage. At the other end, the satisfaction with racial “plus” points is an equivalent form of hidden oppression. Race-based points are a means for seeking Obama-type private-school graduates and the children of black-ish CFOs who will likely make a lot of money and contribute to the school, in preference to truly diverse children of the rural or urban underclass.
Harvard should be devoted to students who have high native intelligence plus the personal qualities that distinguish contributors from parasites. They should be people who perform a task simply because they see it needs to be done, and who value contribution to the common good over making more money than they can reasonably use. Students from remote towns or distressed urban areas who lack the school resources or prestige opportunities that well-to-do suburbanites possess should have equal access, so long as they have a reasonable ability to make use of the academic resources.
Truly seeking these student characteristics, however, would indeed reduce the importance of parental wealth in admissions. Moreover, it would be difficult. It is easy to find a student who got to do something impressive in Mom’s lab or in an expensive summer program during high school or who was able to hire an essay coach, but it takes work to identify the Arkansas backwoods child of talent who is intrinsically motivated to save the planet. Focus on race or on the things that pushy parents can train their children to achieve distracts from such an effort and helps to entrench the vice of well-to-do parents seeking to give their children position rather than seeking to raise them as persons of merit. My blood relations are black, white, and Asian. I hope they all will feel the burden of duty that flows from their natural gifts, and that they and all children of virtue will have equal opportunity to use their talents to serve.
Matt Lykken, J.D. ’85
I am writing about the large gift recently made to Harvard Medical School (HMS) by Leonard Blavatnik (“Accelerating Medical Research,” January-February, page 18). There can be no question this gift is of great value to the school and should be welcomed. As part of his gift, there will be both an institute and a laboratory named in his honor.
Blavatnik is one of the wealthiest persons in the world. The nature of his background as a very successful Russian oligarch is discussed in a recent article published in The New York Times (Ann Marlowe, “Is Harvard Whitewashing a Russian Oligarch’s Fortune?” December 5, 2018). Whatever may be true about Blavatnik personally, his associations and background raise questions at a time when reinforcement of certain values seems particularly important. This is especially true for an institution such as HMS, which has been committed to sustaining a high level of excellence as well as integrity and honesty. A name implies acceptance. At a minimum, the circumstances surrounding Blavatnik’s gift need amplification.
I am grateful for my HMS experience, which has enabled me to have a meaningful and rewarding professional career. I have continued to support HMS and am now president of the Harvard Medical Society of Chicago. I am not certain that I can sustain these efforts with the same enthusiasm since it seems unclear to me at the moment where Harvard Medical School stands on issues of fundamental importance.
Morris A. Fisher, M.D. ’65
Editor’s note:The Medical School responded:
Harvard Medical School is deeply grateful for this generous and transformational commitment from the Blavatnik Family Foundation that will support discovery at HMS propelling the school’s mission to transform human health.
The Blavatnik Family Foundation has a long history of support at Harvard. It originated a decade ago with a gift that established the Biomedical Accelerator Fund in 2007, followed by a $50 million gift in 2013 that created the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator at Harvard University and the Blavatnik Fellowship in Life Science Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School.
The Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator has awarded 104 grants to 80 principal investigators across Harvard University, totaling $18.5 million. The Blavatnik Family Foundation is known for its Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, which support noteworthy young scientists and engineers. HMS Professor of Neurobiology Rachel Wilson received this award in 2014.
As Dean George Q. Daley has said, “the work that takes place in the labs and clinics across Harvard Medical School embodies the promise of curiosity-driven fundamental research to solve some of humanity’s most confounding and pressing biomedical challenges. In that sense, this is a gift to medicine and to patients everywhere.”
Immigration and Innovation
Professor William Kerr (“The Innovation Engine,” January-February, page 6) lauds the economic contribution of immigrants to U.S. innovation and growth. He urges us to “align the pipes” to make it easier “to attract and retain more talented immigrants.”
As far as I can tell, he never considers the impact on the countries they emigrate from. In the heavy majority of cases, they emigrate from countries much poorer than the United States. Thus, to improve the economic growth of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, he would have us drain away the best talent of the poor countries of the world. Am I the only one who finds this shameful?
Jack Harllee ’63
I enjoyed reading about the value of high-skilled immigrants to the U.S. economy. A word on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Admit it or not, our economy depends on undocumented workers to build our houses, harvest our crops, and provide domestic services. Not only do they provide value in these ways, they pay taxes ($11.6 billion annually) and buy goods and services. And they enrich our communities with their diversity. Our broken immigration system badly needs to be fixed to reflect these realities.
Rosanne Jacobsen, J.D. ’90
William Kerr’s research on the contribution immigrants make to innovation generally and entrepreneurship in particular is an essential antidote to the hateful moral panic that Trump and his allies have sought to ignite against immigration. But efforts to attract “high-skilled immigrants” should be mindful of what we used to call the “brain drain.” A quarter of medical doctors practicing in the U.S. have trained abroad; the need for medical care is far more urgent in their countries of origin than in our own. As we welcome skilled immigrants to the U.S., we should be aware of our obligations to the countries that trained them.
Richard L. Abel ’62
Connell Distinguished Professor of law emeritus, UCLA
“The Innovation Engine” relates, in an important way, to President Bacow’s column in the same issue of Harvard Magazine (“The View from Mass Hall,” page 3). Currently, immigration is a defining issue in U.S. politics. Mr. Griffin presents the views of yet one more academic cheerleader for increased immigration levels. Notwithstanding strong environmental and socioeconomic reasons for substantially reduced immigration levels, one effectively never sees articles articulating such a perspective in college publications meant for wide audiences. This is not compatible with President Bakow’s comment that “…we must invite to our campus those people who challenge our thinking; we must listen to them carefully and thoughtfully.”
Reasons for substantially reduced immigration levels may be found in many places, including the reports of two distinguished national commissions. One was a bipartisan 1972 Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III, which recommended that immigration levels not exceed 400,000 per year, and that “gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the Nation’s ability to solve its problems.” The second was the 1995 report from the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by Barbara Jordan, a highly respected Democratic African-American congresswoman, which proposed a core immigration admissions level of 550,000 per year—still the most generous of any country on earth. Instead, Congress and subsequent administrations have increased the level to twice that number, so that now immigrants and their U.S.-born offspring constitute the principal driver of (endless) U.S. population growth.
My claim above—that articles in support of the positions of these two commissions essentially never appear in college publications—is based on a personal experience. Within the space of two months in 2017 the student newspaper (The Daily Bruin) at my home institution (UCLA) published two opinion pieces demonizing me because of my views on immigration. Thankfully the Bruin editors gave me a chance to respond to the two attacks (see https://dailybruin.com/author/benjamin-zuckerman/).
Following publication of my first response, I received an email from a Columbia University student. She had read my Bruin article and wanted to interview me for an article she was writing for a (conservative) organization she was affiliated with. She said she was really surprised to read my Bruin piece because, previously, she had never seen an article espousing my point of view in a U.S. college newspaper. I hope that the editor of Harvard Magazine will consider publishing an article that embraces an immigration perspective different from that of Professor Kerr.
Ben Zuckerman, Ph.D. ’68
Department of Physics and Astronomy, UCLA
What a delightful ending to your report on Harvard‘s finances (“Surplus Surprise…” January-February, page 19)! You very cutely liken Harvard’s approach to that of the squirrels of Harvard Yard, storing away for the future. The article seemed subtly to poke fun at Harvard’s unremitting concerns. The glass is always half empty!
I have never doubted that in the long run Harvard would become ever richer. How could this not be so? Over the long run its endowment has always returned at least 2 percent or 3 percent per annum more than is distributed from it. In the meantime, our university aggressively and very successful solicits contributions. I have even made them myself, though not at the magnificent level some others have achieved.
This scenario might be the subject of some political or sociological concern, in addition to amusement, but for this: Harvard has given me and countless others a wonderful education, and it remains a repository of extraordinary knowledge, expertise, and intelligence.
It was a pleasure to learn some of the details from your report, and also to be reassured that Harvard remains true to its fiscally conservative heritage.
Robert S. Venning ’65
Editor Rosenberg’s report on the endowment suggests that Harvard’s Overseers are still speculating with its financial future, and may already have suffered multibillion dollar losses in the value of its high-risk portfolio of “foreign,global and emerging market stocks.” The endowment should have rotated out of these at least six months ago, and increased, not decreased its holdings of U.S. treasuries, which rise daily in the current bear market.Alas, it sounds like the fiasco of 2008 all over again. All in all, nothing seems to have changed as the Overseers continue to seek high returns despite the risks involved. Senator Grassley’s observation that Harvard is a hedge fund with a University still applies.
Second, I was sorry to see no mention of the federal university endowment tax in this discussion. Last year’s issues estimated Harvard’s endowment tax bill will be $40 million. Is this in fact the number?
Jerry Garchik, J.D. ’70
Marina Bolotnikova’s “Native Modern: Philip J. Deloria studies American Indians and the contradictions that made America” (January-February, page 50) requires clarification. This is especially true of her assertion that Deloria (a son of the famous Standing Rock Sioux activist, Vine Deloria Jr.) has “made Native American history about culture.” Deloria has the academic right to interpret the Indian narrative in any context he deems appropriate, but there is an entirely different way of looking at Native American history than the one that he advocates, and that Bolotnikova focused upon.
An essential aspect of Native American history began in 1670, when the Indians of southern New England rose up against the second- and third-generation English settlers, who were encroaching upon their lands, in what is known as King Philip’s War. Once the Indian tribes were defeated, and the survivors were either dispersed or sold into slavery in Bermuda and the Caribbean, waves of newly arrived Europeans moved westward, accompanied by a 200-year-long tsunami of genocide (or, if you prefer, ethnic cleansing) during which thousands of Indian men, women, and children were killed in tribe after tribe and nation upon nation, until the slaughter reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean, at which point it rolled back across the country as Union Army veterans of the Civil War, like George Custer, continued massacring Native Americans, until those remaining were confined to reservations, where many live today in conditions of mass unemployment, deep poverty, and wholesale discrimination. This territorial expansion and its brutal consequences have been ascribed to the convenient ideology known as Manifest Destiny.
Such are the contradictions that made America.
Paul Brodeur ’53
North Truro, Mass.
Author of Restitution: The Land Claims of the New England Indians
I know Professor Deloria knows all about this, but perhaps many of your readers might appreciate hearing of one of the more bizarre manifestations of white people casting themselves as American Indians.
I refer to the Germans who have become devoted fans of the works of Karl May (1842-1912), probably the best-selling German author ever. The books in question are a series of adventure stories revolving around Chief Winnetou and his blood-brother, Old Shatterhand, a German who ends up in the American West. These books have had millions of devotees—including Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler—but some have gone beyond just being enchanted readers to join what are a special kind of fan club.
In addition to magazines and trading cards and other conventional fans’ gear, they spend endless hours making authentic replicas of Indian clothing and all manner of Indian equipment. Then at least once a year they gather in large powwows and erect their teepees and spend several days living, eating, and carrying on as—or so they believe—nineteenth-century American Indians. Leave it to the makers of the Mercedes Benz and BMW to outdo us when it comes dressing up as our own indigenous people!
John S. Bowman ’53
House Master John Finley
In his letter (January-February, page 75), William C. Wooldridge imagines the “chagrin” that John Finley would have felt at having non-prepsters “thrust” into Eliot House. I find it impossible to imagine that he ever felt any such emotion.
As a public-school graduate from Colorado with friends from similar backgrounds, I never felt the slightest bit out of place in Eliot House. There is no doubt that this was largely due to the atmosphere of acceptance which Finley generated. “Patrician” John Finley may have been. An extraordinarily warm-hearted human being he certainly was. Social snobbery was beneath him. His ability to write “storied letters of recommendation” was founded on the fact that he took genuine personal interest in all the members of the house from the day they entered until…well, as long as possible really.
My first memory of him is that in the spring of freshman year, shortly after I had been admitted to Eliot House, he approached me as I was out walking and, though never having seen me before, greeted me by name and welcomed me to the House. That was the start. He had bothered to memorize who I was from a freshman picture. My last memory of him is that, at a gathering at Eliot House during my twenty-fifth reunion, he again greeted me by name and knew the basics of my life at that point from reading our class report. What a wonderful man he was!
John R. McDermott ’59
You fell into a trap. People are entitled to opinions but not to publish lies.
John Millar (Letters, January-February, page 75) is entitled to call Israeli policies “brutal,” even if I disagree. He is not entitled to apply the term “apartheid” to a situation that bears no similarity to what was practiced in South Africa, or to Jim Crow in the U.S. South, even though anti-Semites the world over commonly invoke the canard and “useful idiots” repeat it. And supporting BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] is indeed anti-Semitic, in part because it is directed only at Israel and not at any of the immeasurably more extensive and serious government abuses on this planet.
Robert Kantowitz, J.D. ’79
I wish Mr. Millar had done better in history while at Harvard. There is a big historical difference between Roman Catholics and the Italian government and Presbyterians and the Scottish government, and Jews and Israel.
Neither of the first two groups had a modern government dedicated to wiping them out and succeeding as to six million. And neither group has continuing and now escalating groups around the world continuing to preach hate, which we see in anti-Semitism.
The reason U.S. Jews don’t feel separate from Israel is that it’s the only safe harbor. And just as Americans feel connected to the United States because of cultural reasons, Jews feel connected to Israel for cultural reasons.
As to “brutal and apartheid policies,” the U.S. has Israel beat there in its treatment of blacks and migrants. And what do you think the U.S. response would be if Mexicans started to shoot rockets into San Diego? A lot more brutal than the Israeli response to this continuing terror.
Mervyn L. Hecht, J.D. ’63
Santa Monica, Calif.
I must take issue with John F. Millar’s letter, which blithely ignores the hatred at the heart of the BDS movement. Though clearly Israel like every nation should not be immune to criticism, BDS is notorious for its singular dedication to the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. Moreover, BDS activists frequently have shouted down or threatened other members of the academic community on campuses across the country. They have employed crude rhetoric that has devolved into outright anti-Semitism in too many cases. Institutions of higher education have a special obligation to nurture a rich learning environment—the diametric opposite of the propaganda-laden BDS movement, which blames one side in a complex situation and excuses horrific acts of terrorism. One doesn’t have to be a partisan of a particular Israeli government to recognize the inherent dangers of demonizing a single country and people.
Zachary Narrett, Ph.D. ’84
Glen Ridge, N.J.
Recent letters to the editor have claimed that supporting the BDS movement is not anti-Semitic. However, when the authors present a one-sided view of the complex conflict in the Middle East (identifying Israelis with terms such as “clearly brutal” and “abominably, brutally”), they are perpetuating the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes. This is typical of divestment and boycott campaigns that singularly demonize Israel. Where is the call to boycott Russia (for invading Ukraine), Saudi Arabia (for murdering Jamal Khashoggi), Syria (for using chemical weapons), or of course Hamas (for launching rockets at civilians and using Gaza’s residents as human shields)? No, only Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is singled out for punishment. I suppose the authors also think it is justified that the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned Israel more times than the rest of the world combined.
Steven Janowsky, Ph.D. ’90
Woodcliff Lake, N.J.
John F. Millar accuses Jews who don’t openly disassociate themselves from Israel as “having it both ways.” Apparently, everyone is free to voice their opinions about other countries without being accused of dual loyalty, except for Jews! This is a key canard of anti-Semitism.
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions supporters don’t “love their Jewish neighbors” if they deny our ethnic, historical, cultural, family, and religious ties to Israel’s Jews, and side with Israel’s most extremist Arab opponents, whose vitriolic hatred and violence against Jews precedes the modern state of Israel by many decades.
Alex Bruner, M.B.A. ’76
Boca Raton, Fla.
Winter in Maine
I enjoyed Nell Porter Brown’s article on Portland, Maine, a great deal (“Beyond Lobsters and Lighthouses,” Harvard Squared, January-February, page 12E). I was born in Lewiston and all our family have been going up every summer to the cottage at Higgins Beach, just this side of Portland. We enjoy the restaurants, the museums, the lively feel of all the familiar and new places we visit and explore, so well captured in the article.
One thing I’d add would be a note on the literary scene. There are a number of independent bookstores and book and journal publishers in Portland, Brunswick, and around the state. I took part in a poetry reading in September at Longfellow Books with the Portland-area poets Mike Bove and Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel, and the books that we read from were published by Moon Pie Press, over in Westbrook. It was fun to take part, as it is all around the place up there.
David McCann, Ph.D. ’76
Korea Foundation professor of
Korean literature emeritus
Idrees Kahloon’s review (“Uses—and Abuses—of Economic Austerity,” January-February, page 63) of Ropes professor Alberto Alesina’s latest book on economic austerity (Austerity: When It Works and When It Doesn’t) betrays a bias that he should have acknowledged. I give Mr. Kahloon credit for a well-supported conclusion that views of the successes and failures of austerity—including both “tax austerity” (tax increases) and “spending austerity (cutbacks in government spending)—remain sharply disputed. But in an era of intellectual dishonesty in high places, it is troubling to find unacknowledged right-leaning ideological bias buried in the article. Four points stand out:
Equating tax austerity and spending austerity as two paths toward a common goal is disingenuous. If Alesina’s work assumes otherwise, that error should be pointed out. The vision of tax austerity is greater economic equality; the vision of spending austerity is unregulated economic division. It is simply false, and a standard deception of right-wing ideology for the past 100 years in the U.S. (and probably much longer in England), that these two views of national fiscal responsibility have the same objectives.
Alesina is presented as a careful scientist. One of his major critics, Paul Krugman, is described as “vitriolic.” Please. Why not just come out and say, “Oh, and by the way, if you’re interested in this subject, you can trust Alesina, not Krugman.”
The British experience with government-spending cutbacks since 2008 is characterized from the viewpoint of a right-leaning onlooker. Noting that Alesina has “cheered” former Prime Minister Cameron’s austerity policies, the article points out that the political price has been strikes in various professions and—oh my!—an empowered Labour Party that is “firmly in the grip of its hard left leader Jeremy Corbyn.” Lions, tigers, and bears!!
Calling Jeremy Corbyn “hard left” is like calling David Cameron a fascist. It’s fine if Mr. Kahloon believes his characterization, but it does not belong in an article that purports to offer an objective discussion of opposing views of economic-austerity programs.
The tragedy of the right wing in modernity is that it is convinced that morals are only a private affair, and that our institutions work best if they are deemed the equivalent of an unmanageable jungle. The persistence of this myth, despite the unspeakable atrocities of the twentieth century and the assault on democracy in the twenty-first century, is an extinction-level event in the making, and it cries out for serious people like Mr. Kahloon to pay a great deal more attention to it. Pointing out one’s participation in the myth is simply a minimal requirement of fair journalism.
Peter M. Macy, M.Div. ’83, Ed.M. ’82
In her heartfelt defense of abortion, letter writer Jane Collins unfortunately resorts to a red herring (January-February, page 75). She calls anyone else who opposes abortion “a hypocrite” because they don’t “show any concern for children once they are born.”
Her argument is false on two counts. First, she assumes that pro-life people generally don’t support affordable childcare, housing, healthcare, and education, free contraception, etc. How does she know? I’m sure a fair number of abortion opponents may be in total agreement with her on that score. Secondly and more importantly, her comment is beside the point. Whether abortion is right or wrong does not depend on anyone’s opinion of childcare or housing policy or American bombings. Instead of rebutting the pro-life argument, she resorts to an ad hominem attack.
This issue isn’t about one’s “claim to righteousness.” The matter of abortion comes down to this—whose body is it? If the developing fetus is merely an extension of the woman’s body, she has a perfect right to do what she pleases. The law as it currently stands supports her in this. On the other hand, if it’s not her body, if the fetus is a distinct human being, which it surely will be at some point, then terminating a pregnancy robs an individual of his or her life. That’s the issue.
It’s a question that makes abortion supporters uneasy. The possibility they may be wrong is too awful to contemplate. Better to deflect the issue, cut off discussion, silence dissent.
If you want to debate abortion, address the issue. If you’d rather not talk about it, don’t engage in the discussion. Either way, spare me the hypocrisy sermon. That’s not an argument; that’s a defense mechanism.
Joe Borini ’83
New York City
Ulysses S. Grant
According to its title, Elizabeth Samet’s Vita (January-February, page 42) briefly addresses the image of Ulysses Grant, and how that has changed to suit a political, social, and historical narrative.
As such, I’m reminded of an observation by Allen Ginsberg: “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”
So, what then are we to make of the extraordinary caveat appended to the article: “The views expressed in this Vita do not reflect the official position or policy of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, or the U.S. Government.”
Even though the author is on the faculty at West Point, that fine print disclaimer seems peculiar, and smells of the unseemly considering the views expressed. Evidently calling out the inexcusably immoral abomination of slavery does not “reflect the official position or policy of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, or the U.S. Government.”
Which brings this remark to mind: “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” ~ Vice President George H. W. Bush, Newsweek, August 15, 1988.
Apparently, being American (i.e., white) means never having to say you’re sorry (yet my apologies to Erich Segal ’58).
Erik Roth ’70
Editor’s note: That standard disclaimer appeared only because Professor Samet’s institutional affiliation was mentioned in the article’s author’s note. Similar text appears on page xxiv of her edition of Grant’s Memoirs.
It’s good to see General Grant finally getting his due in Elizabeth Samet’s perceptive and engaging article. Thanks in part to her efforts, Grant’s Memoirs will be read long after today’s ghost-written products are forgotten.
By contrast, Professor Samet gives short shrift to Robert E. Lee. To be sure, Lee provided the perfect symbol for Lost Cause romanticism. But unlike, say, Union general Georgle McClellan, there was a lot more to the man than mere imagery. Lee’s military tactics are studied even today. After his surrender, Lee lent his considerable prestige to healing a wounded nation. As president of what is now Washington and Lee University, he became an educational innovator. And the fact that, though personally opposed to slavery, he nonetheless fought to keep it legal, might give us pause for self-reflection in our own time.
Where I live, we seem to be re-fighting the Civil War. One night at the University of North Carolina, protesters toppled the Silent Sam statute of a Confederate soldier while campus police looked on. On another night, the university removed what was left of the statue, citing public-safety concerns. One can only wonder whether George Washington, who sits placidly on the grounds of the old state Capitol, will meet a similar fate. He was, after all, a slave-owner.
It is easy to fight yesterday’s battles. But if we really want to take a stand against slavery, how about fighting it where is still exists today? And that includes sexual slavery within our own borders.
Rob Ahlin ’72
Overseers and Directors Elections
So here is a proposal: Hundreds of millions could be saved, with no cost to any institution’s core educational mission, by eliminating every position whose title contains the word “sustainability”—and, while we are at it, “diversity,” “multicultural,” or “inclusivity.” The result would be higher education higher than the propaganda-saturated version we have, and more sustainable.
~George F. Will
Godkin Lecturer ’81
Visiting lecturer, Department of Government ’95-’96
Elections for the Board of Overseers and HAA elected directors soon will be upon us, this year expected to be the first with online voting. But of greater concern to alumnae/i should not be technical innovations for selecting candidates, but what surely is to be more of the same in terms of the choices and how it will affect our alma mater.
Each year from 2013 to 2016, I pursued a position on the Board of Overseers, first by submitting a letter to the Nominating Committee and then, when that (as I expected) was not successful, advertising myself as either a petition or write-in candidate. As a (happily) not “well-connected” alumnus, I had realistic predictions about my likelihood for winning a seat. But it was a good experience, in that it led me to pay closer attention to the state of affairs at Harvard and throughout higher education, especially in the governance of these institutions and their responses to important issues affecting academics and campus life.
That was where the good experience ended, because I was left with the far-more depressing realization of how thoroughly awful the intellectual climate is—and how, at Harvard and other “elite” colleges particularly, the largest burden of that blame justifiably could be attributed to corrupt and therefore squandered mechanisms for proper alumnae/i stewardship.
To start with what should be an obvious defect, the whole practice of nominating a slate of “official” candidates for the Overseers and HAA elected directors fairly blatantly makes a mockery of the concept of “oversight.” At least Harvard did provide token concessions to the possibilities of representation outside of the “official” pipeline, with the petition process for a spot on the ballot (which has resulted in a very small number of successful candidates in recent decades) and space for “write-in” candidates.
But this is where Harvard’s bad faith took an openly hostile turn, not to its credit. Prior to 2016, a petitioned place on the ballot required the signatures of slightly more than 200 eligible alumnae/i, which does not sound like many, but in practical terms even for “well-connected” aspirants could take a fair bit of time and expense in a window of several weeks. Among the few who did meet the hurdle were those working in the 1980s and early 1990s through the well-organized “Alumni Against Apartheid” network, who successfully placed Peter H. Wood ’64, Consuela M. Washington, J.D. ’73, Gay W. Seidman ’78, and Desmond M. Tutu, LL.D. ’79, on the Board (and for which a young Barack H. Obama Jr., J.D. ’91, made it onto the ballot during his first year as an eligible alumnus). As far as I can recall, the next time that petition candidates wound up on the ballot was when prominent attorneys Robert L. Freedman ’62 and Harvey A. Silverglate, LL.B. ’67, pursuing the spots as a team, managed to get their names before the electorate in 2009.
It was in 2016 that Harvard realized it would have to put a stop to this impudence. The five-member “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” alliance, led by activist Ron Unz ’83 and whose most famous member was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, LL.B. ’58, followed the petition process and procedure in a perfectly above-board manner, to the letter, and wound up on the ballot.
They then waged a highly proactive and visible campaign against many of the untouchably sacred pillars of Harvard’s orthodoxies, which of course set the Harvard establishment on full-scale nuclear battle alert. Because some (not all) of their candidates targeted “affirmative action” and “diversity,” this resulted in the predictable and nasty ad hominems of “racism,” for example. But what was impressive was how many open letters, Web pages, and counter-petitions suddenly blossomed from the usually drab soil of University elections to beat down these candidates and any of their sympathizers into a submissive pulp. The crowning and enduring touch of this counter-campaign was that Harvard then revised its policies so that a petition candidate would need to secure a whopping 2,600 signatures to make it onto the ballot.
Now, whether the required number of signatures is 20, 200, 2,000, or 20,000 is not in itself objectively morally “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” What is an objective fact is that the more signatures that are required, the more difficult it will be for more potential candidates to achieve a position on the ballot—and Harvard has decided that these obstacles to participation are a preferable and desirable “good.” Why?
The shameful fact is that such resistance to participation has a long and ongoing history. Recalling first the “Alumni Against Apartheid” experience: For a number of years in the 1980s, members of “AAA” tried to place candidates on the Overseers ballot through the petition process, with the hopes that as Overseers these individuals would influence the University’s policies on financial investments with firms that conducted business in South Africa; and in 1986 (the year of my graduation), succeeded in adding three. At that time, no less than Overseers president Joan T. Bok ’51 wrote an admonition, included with the ballots mailed to alumnae/i, about the risks of “specific-issue” candidates being elected to the Board of Overseers.
In general, I agreed that single-issue candidates were not appropriate for a body such as the Board of Overseers; and in specific, I was a staunch opponent of the “divestment” movement, which I believed (then and now) was a cruelly counterproductive sham foisted by a narcissistic, comfortable, elite, and all-too-often violent rabble of cynically self-serving First-World moral poseurs. Yet, I actually secretly hoped that the “AAA” candidates would win—out of spite for this outrageous meddling and manipulating and interference in the election.
By the 2000s, the conditions in academia had changed—entrenched “Cultural Marxism” and its poisonous fruit meant that challenges to campus officialdom were more likely to come from conservatives and libertarians (such as myself), not from the Leftists of the “divestment” days. The unexpected success of “insurgent” candidates for the Board of Trustees at Dartmouth College in 2004, 2005, and 2007 proved that there was a constituency among Ivy League alumnae/i supportive of and enthusiastic for the necessary reforms at “elite” institutions such as Harvard. But the Dartmouth experience provided a template of more meddling and interference that still was to come.
First, 2005 petition candidates Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki faced the wrath of “Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth,” formed solely to oppose their elections (they ultimately won). Then, Dartmouth hoped to undercut the increasing success of petitioning by shortening the length of time that candidates could secure signatures. In a highly questionable move to ensure that their other changes to the election constitution would succeed, the establishment trustee majority voted to postpone their own re-election schedule to keep themselves in power when the changes would face a vote. Finally, as Zywicki’s critical opinions were made known, the board invoked a highly irregular procedure that it had transferred to itself a few years earlier to expel a trustee through majority board vote, not through an alumnae/i vote as had been required previously.
Revolt came to Harvard in 2009, when aforementioned petition candidates Robert L. Freedman and Harvey Silverglate faced official and quasi-official actions to lessen their chances for success, such as having their names placed at the end of the ballot rather than alphabetically within the list; being the obviously implied target of an all-alumnae/i vote-encouragement email from Board of Overseers president Roger W. Ferguson Jr. ’73, J.D. ’79, Ph.D. ’81, that included the line, “The Board functions with a remarkable mix of candor and collegiality that is rare in my experience;” and being the explicit target of a full-page color advertisement in Harvard Magazine paid for by Charles J. Egan Jr. ’54, a former president of the Harvard Alumni Association and former co-chair of the Harvard College Fund, that insisted, “Vote for the Harvard Alumni Association Slate for Board Of Overseers.”
As Mr. Silverglate perceptively noted of Mr. Ferguson’s email, “Embedded in Ferguson’s message was a plea for ‘collegiality’ and, it seemed to me and some others who read it, a subtle request that alumni vote for the official HAA candidates rather than the upstart petition candidates.”
Why was Harvard so afraid?
The 2016 election ended up being notable not for my aspirations, but for the extraordinary challenge to officialdom put forth by the well-organized “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard”—and, worse, by the odious eruption to squelch it. The pertinent issue then, and now, is not the positions that these candidates took (which on several points were not even uniformly shared). I myself both agreed and disagreed with some of their ideas. Rather, the lesson hammered home was about the unforgivable insolence, the audacious gall, the churlish chutzpah, that this quintet would dare to question, would imagine to subvert, the hallowed orthodoxy pronounced from on high. Thus, the rabid reaction exposed exactly why the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” coalition was necessary.
In 2015-2016, Leila Fawaz, M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’79 (Overseers president in 2011-2012) was chair of the nominating committee. She also was one who signed a letter to Harvard Magazine alleging in part that the “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” candidates “are committed to a platform that would disserve the interests of the University about which we all care deeply.” Am I the only one who recognizes how her open, biased, and unseemly meddling tainted the entire nomination selection process, and therefore the legitimacy of all Overseers and HAA directors elected from the slate that Professor Fawaz put forth?
This year, the shenanigans have shifted to Yale, where the Yale Alumni Magazine “accidentally” did not print a class note about conservative journalist James Kirchick’s bid for a petition spot in the upcoming trustees election, depriving him of his best possibility for attracting signatures to his effort.
What was it about “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” that so rattled the Harvard administration and alumnae/i “in-crowd” that such a draconian rewrite to the petition process had to be implemented? These were five alumni who obviously cared enough about Harvard that they were willing to devote the valuable time, spend the considerable money, and endure the inevitable abuse just to secure one voice among the many that influence our University’s direction. Instead of being welcomed, why is this despised so ferociously that we have to make sure it never again happens?
Commenting on the likely ramifications of the “Alumni Against Apartheid” candidates in 1986, no less than University president Derek C. Bok, LL.B. ’54, paraphrased in The Harvard Crimson, said that “in the past very few alumni have cast their ballot for the board.” Could any remark be more damning—then or now—about the sorry state of the University’s and HAA’s myopia in putting forth only the most conformist candidates for its governing boards?!
The generally understood statistic recently has been that in any given year, approximately 14 percent of eligible alumnae/i cast a ballot for members of the Board of Overseers or the elected directors of HAA. This is utterly disgraceful—and it does not reflect poorly on the alumnae/i. Rather, it reflects poorly on the University and on HAA, for not giving to the alumnae/i any reason to think that it is worth their while to spend just a slight few minutes reviewing the candidates and completing and returning the ballot.
Here is the solution: All candidates on the Overseers and HAA directors ballots should be nominated by petition. If the signature requirement is going to be at an insurmountably high number, fine; then make it a challenge uniformly for all candidates—don’t give to any the preferentially easy path to victory provided by a spot on the HAA “official slate.”
When all candidates have to earn ballot status like this, then more often we will see open and detailed “campaigns” such as those promoted in the past by “Alumni Against Apartheid,” by Mr. Freedman and Mr. Silverglate, by “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard,” and even on my own campaign blogs. This is a good thing. My rationale and motive for conducting an active “campaign” was that if the Board of Overseers truly is as important to the governance of Harvard as the University claims that it is; and if the responsibility invested with the alumnae/i for selecting the Overseers truly is the esteemed privilege that the University has boasted that it is; then the alumnae/i deserve to be able to make their voting decisions based on more than a mere 250 words of the usual recycled banal codswallop about “traditions of excellence,” “expanded opportunities for higher education,” “our call to public service,” “challenges of globalization,” “emerging technologies,” “responsibilities of leadership,” “critical issues facing society,” and other related, similar horse-spit. The “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” coalition, and other upstart candidates throughout the Ivies, similarly have sought to educate their fellow graduates about the salient issues and how their positions could make a meaningful difference in opposition to the stultifying annual routine of electing the “go-along-to-get-along” slate. What thanks do they get? Vilification, election chicanery, expulsion, and increased future impediments to participation—any underhandedness to preserve the failing status quo.
How might I or someone like me have made a significant practical difference if Harvard had been more open? For one, a recurring plank in my platform was “abolish ‘diversity,’ ‘affirmative action,’ ‘multiculturalism,’ and other racist ideologies”; and four years ago in my campaign I specifically warned about the likely coming lawsuit by “Students for Fair Admissions.” Well, typical of my Nostradamian prescience, Harvard did indeed wind up in the court’s hot seat because of its failure to modify its appalling admissions practices. But as long as the Nominating Committee will not entertain broader choices among potential candidates, then this demonstrates exactly how the University ends up with the stagnant policy ossification that leads to the sorts of practical messes in which it routinely finds itself.
If the elections process remains so exclusionary, and if reform-minded alumnae/i as a consequence can’t get their concerns addressed, then Harvard should not feign surprise and indignation if we resort to hitting them where it hurt$ the most.
Many readers will recall the alarming descent into chaos at the University of Missouri in 2015 as the violent campus Left pursued their atrocious “demands” and forced the administration into a cowering position of concessions and impotence. What startled our friends in Boone County and other observers of university relations was the swift retort by alumnae/i, whose financial donations plummeted by many millions of dollars. Is this the tactic that Harvard alumnae/i must pursue? We cannot get our representative candidates on the ballot, we cannot get our concerns heard and taken seriously through persuasive argument; so, do we have to resort to the only remaining avenue of influence?
Indeed, the alumnae/i financial boycott in Missouri provides not just a model for response at other colleges, but also a larger lesson. Observing the similarities between frustrated Catholic lay faithful and the popular voter groundswell that supported presidential candidate Donald Trump, multimedia evangelist Michael Voris of “Church Militant” made a point that, in the context of such alumnae/i disgust, just as persuasively could apply to us:
Establishment types never like to be challenged. That’s why they are the establishment. They secure power and make their view of the world as the established order, the way of doing business, of the status quo. They grow comfortable in their power and ignore the rest of the world. Ah, but then, as in the course of human events things always tend, the low-life plebes, the great unwashed masses, the peasant crowd, begin to grow discontented. Then along comes a leader or group—some other voice—that taps into this discontent and begins to harness it.
I genuinely believe that the questions of who gets elected and how it is done reflect far greater stakes than petty extracurricular power squabbles among the privileged class. On the contrary, the increasingly violent and vicious political discourse that is degrading our nation can be traced directly to the left-wing stranglehold on Harvard and other “elite” campuses of the past 50 years, enabled and facilitated by sympathetic bureaucratic and alumnae/i governance. If higher education suffers from what increasingly looks like a coming disintegration of society, there will be no satisfaction to say “I told you so” or “You reap what you sow.” Harvard needs to sober up and admit that maybe there are good reasons and sound motives for those who challenge the “official” channels of decision-making.
As the Missouri case shows, colleges cannot be complacent and take for granted that their supporters will remain passive and indifferent to the ominous relationship between the ugly life on campus and the dangers outside. It’s too late for Harvard to revamp its procedures for the upcoming elections, but the administration would do very well to adopt much of what I have recommended above for 2020. No one—students, faculty, administration, staff, and alumnae/i—is being served responsibly by the policies and practices that are preserved by keeping out potential Overseers and HAA directors who are willing to ask the tough questions and make the difficult decisions to fix what is grievously wrong. If I am not the right person to assume the mantle of leadership—then find someone who is. There are 330,000 of us, for Pete’s sake! What’s important is not who is elected, but what gets accomplished. Let’s hear it, Harvard—are you willing to open the doors more equitably to more of your daughters and sons with great visions for a better campus future? Or do we with heavy hearts need to take our support and talents elsewhere?
D. C. Alan ’86
The opening image for “What It Means to Be OK” (January-February, page 38) was incorrectly credited. The correct credit for the photograph is: Amélie Benoist/Science Source. We regret the error.