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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Educational effectiveness, final clubs, enduring inequalities

January-February 2018

Unequal Universities

I appreciated the useful selections from Charles T. Clotfelder’s extensive research on inequality in American higher education (“The College Chasm: How market forces have made American higher education radically unequal,” November-December 2017, page 50). I was surprised, nonetheless, to find only passing reference to the decline in support by state legislatures for their own institutions. In fact, many land-grant institutions receive only token financial support from the states that took the federal grants of land, first authorized by the Morrill Act of 1862, “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” Escalating in-state tuition now excludes those of modest means.

Unfortunately, the will to fund public higher education has withered under the force of a spurious notion that higher education is strictly an individual business investment, whether the degree leads to portfolio management or teaching English. Consider however: a progressive tax on those who actually earn more could fund the next college generation more generously. We all benefit from public investment in an educated citizenry.

The glory of the land-grant college was that it combined practical training and a liberal education. Farmers, engineers, scientists, accountants, and future professionals in all spheres learned skills that served their communities and with their professors took part in the advancement of knowledge. General education requirements introduced students to a broad range of learning in literature, history, philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences, as well as what we now call STEM courses. Students gained a larger vision of what they might contribute as responsible citizens enjoying an enhanced quality of life.

I doubt that any appreciable progress will be made in reducing inequality until we recover this generous vision, which once made America great.

Thomas M. Adams ’63
Washington, D.C.

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 yourturn@harvard.edu.

 

I found Dr. Clotfelter’s article “The College Chasm” intriguing for a number of reasons. First, he seemed to suggest that we should be surprised by the fact “private colleges and universities whose average student SATs were in the top percentile...enroll less than 1 percent of all students” (his italics, not mine). Apparently, he imagines that we don’t understand what percentiles are.

More significantly, of all the challenges facing U.S. higher education that he presents, he seems most worried about inequality—particularly as it relates to elite private universities. Ironically, these are among the group of schools that he referred to as the “envy of the world” in his introductory paragraph. In other words, after very clearly outlining the huge economic disparities between different types of universities, he decided to focus on a condition afflicting only the most successful sector of the entire global higher education universe. And, while he does not offer remedies to this problem, he hints that he would not mind if these universities cut back “on admissions policies favoring the well-to-do” and taxes were instituted to “reduce overall income inequality.” At which point, I started to suspect that he might not be a Republican.

On the other hand, the author’s own numbers suggest that what should demand our attention involves those institutions that educate “the vast majority” of students in the U.S. I work at such an institution, a metropolitan public state university of nearly 50,000 students, ranked 437th in the U.S. in the 2018 WSJ/Times listing (driven down largely by an 8.0 resource score, compared with Harvard’s 29.8 score). As a regional university, my typical class exhibits a level of diversity that most elite institutions would envy. Moreover, we have types of diversity nearly absent from places like Harvard or Duke—great diversity in undergraduate student age, diversity in competing work-life/childcare demands and, most notably, diversity in SAT scores (that can easily range from 40th to 99th percentile in a single class). The challenge in designing and delivering a class that simultaneously adds value to each and every one of these diverse students is monumental. But this is precisely the challenge that needs to be overcome if we are to improve the overall effectiveness of U.S. higher education, since economic, family, and social forces will always drive a great many students to regional universities such as mine.

Based on my experience in such universities, I would assert that simply adding money to the pot would have certain predictable effects. Upon its arrival, we would doubtless hire more faculty—but would choose them based on their research productivity and potential, not their demonstrated teaching skills. To handle the new hires and smaller classes, we would need to build new buildings for office and classroom space. To attract better students, we would construct more luxurious student housing and pump more money into our athletic facilities. Naturally, to handle all this new activity, as well as to make sure that we administer this new found largess according to the regulations and restrictions placed upon it, we would need many, many new administrators...highly paid vice presidents would multiply like rabbits. Regrettably, it not clear to me that any of these actions would have a discernable impact on the fundamental challenge that I earlier described. To the contrary, I note with considerable pride that my university has made great strides in improving student success over the past four years—a period during which state support was reduced and tuition was frozen. What was required was not money, but a clear will to address the specific problem.

My own view is that if we can improve the educational experience delivered by our regional public and private universities, the inequality problem at the elite universities will moderate. Where applicants feel that they can get a high-quality education from either type of school, the pressure to get into a Harvard or a Duke will subside to something more reasonable. While universities like mine would certainly not turn down any additional funding that was offered, the hard problem is not getting money—it is figuring out ways to use that money effectively. Along the same vein, I am not convinced that it is family income that provides the key advantage to applicants at elite schools (as the author proposes). Instead, I suspect that it is correlates of household income, such as intact family structure, being born into a culture or religion that prizes education above all else, and having well-educated parents. I can only shudder as I contemplate what the remedies to overcome these advantages might look like.

My recommendation: worry about the limited unfairness at the very top once we have taken care of the huge challenges presented by the middle.

T. Grandon Gill ’76cl, M.B.A. ’82, D.B.A. ’91
Professor, University of South Florida
Tampa

Educational Effectiveness

In response to “Measuring an Education,” President Drew Faust’s latest View From Mass Hall (November-December 2017, page 5): As a former faculty member, academic dean, and college president, I have never seen a better understanding of education than that of Coleman Barks, the brilliant translator of Rumi, in his interview with Bill Moyers.

“I believe it doesn’t really matter what the teacher talks about. You remember all those classes you took in college? It doesn’t matter what was said. What we remember are a few presences. What was being taught was the presence of a few people, and there was a connection between the presence and us. But we sat there and took notes and thought we were studying the French Revolution or duck embryos or something, when what we were really learning about was coming through the teacher.”

Thomas B. Coburn, M.T.S. ’69, Ph.D. ’ 77
Warren, R.I.

I very much appreciated President Faust’s letter. Education may be defined as the creative use of knowledge. At the interface of knowledge and creativity is that experience known as education. This definition provides a job description for a faculty person, who must transfer knowledge (the easy part, largely requiring memorization) and inspire creativity (the hard part).

When I started graduate work at Harvard, I came out of an undergraduate experience that was largely focused on information transfer. The wonderful thing about my graduate experience was that the faculty inspired creativity. Their inspiration led me to experience a very successful academic career.

My concern with the use of student evaluations is that they may reflect more about information transfer than creativity. For example, I taught organic chemistry, which at that time was required of the “pre-med” students. I always had some questions on my exams that required creative use of organic chemistry. A student who had difficulty in dealing with this, and was failing the course, came to me saying, “I know all this organic chemistry crap but I get clutched up on your exams.” I responded, “I am glad you are failing this course because this means you will not get into medical school, and if you get ‘clutched up’ on something as simple as organic chemistry, I don’t want you to be a doctor.” The student’s response was, “Oh, but I am not going to be a surgeon, just a general practitioner.” How would one weigh this student’s evaluation?

Leon Mandell, Ph.D. ’51
Temple Terrace, Fla.

Final Clubs…

I write to you [President Drew Faust] today, having just received my latest Harvard Magazine, wherein I was quite shocked to find many letters attacking you and the administration for moving against final clubs at Harvard.

Hooray for you, President Faust! These clubs are a stain on the University and the most distasteful aspect of my entire educational life. As a sophomore transfer student in January 1996, I was so taken aback by these sexist relics, I made an appointment my first week at Harvard with the dean of students (Epps) and the dean of coeducation, who directed me to the Lyman Common Room in Radcliffe Yard for milk and cookies. Shortly thereafter, I personally refused to attend the clubs after I was physically barred from using the front door at the Fly by a male Harvard student. What still burns my britches is that I was more sophisticated, witty, and charming than most of their members, yet I was barred from throwing my hat in the ring by virtue of my sex.

What would all these apologists say if these clubs refused admission to black people? Latinos? Gays? Come on. President Faust, you are on the right side of history! Please stay the course! Even snobby, old-world Princeton’s eating clubs were forced to go co-ed nearly three decades ago.

It has always been my wish that the clubs welcome women to apply as full-fledged members. If they’d rather fall on their swords than do the right thing, so be it.

Elizabeth Topp ’98
New York City

I read with interest and frustration the letters in the November-December magazine about single-sex (finals) clubs. The vehement defense of them from those who enjoyed, or whose children enjoyed, their benefits misses an important point: the clubs’ exclusivity is not based on any visible merit aside from social connections. As a public high-school graduate from Kentucky, I would have welcomed a place to feel I belonged on campus besides my House (then North House, a rather democratic one). I watched peers from East and West Coast big cities, from prep and private schools, going to the Bee and who knows where else; I hardly knew the clubs’ names.

I found the issue to be further fascinating, since one of the featured articles was about the challenges of making a Harvard education work for low-income and first-generation students. If this is a legitimate goal, as I believe it should be, then the fact that clubs are single-gender hardly touches the basic point; nearly all these clubs are functionally single-class: rich. The education available at Harvard is only part of the point; we all understand that much of what makes a Harvard education valuable is the connections. Access to connections at Harvard is fundamentally inequitable.

Until I can see that Harvard takes this goal seriously—making the education truly accessible for all qualified students—my donations will continue to go to Berea College, where I teach, and where every single student is low-income, and none pay tuition.

Nancy Gift ’93
Berea, Ky.

…and First-Generation Students

I suggest you ponder the irony of the “Strategically Speaking” column (November-December 2017, page 7), lamenting the loss of faith of many Americans in higher education, appearing near the article on supposedly special problems of first-generation college students (“Mastering the ‘Hidden Curriculum,’” page 18) and “The College Chasm” (Forum, page 50). In my view, the condescension and victim orientation reflected in the latter two go a long way toward explaining the former.

The search for victims, and endless demands for accommodations for the supposedly victimized group, that many Americans see increasingly emanating from the academy, which are typified by these articles, contribute to a loss of faith in the value of higher education.

In every generation, there are many first-generation and low-income college and university students. In prior generations, this was accepted as part of the American Dream, as such persons and their families worked to improve their lot. Even without the special programs discussed here, many (perhaps most) succeeded in doing so. Suggesting that there is something unusual about today’s generation which necessitates the sort of programs described does them no favors and causes further skepticism about the motivation of our learned class on the part of the citizenry at large.

Similarly, the Forum’s apparently lamenting that colleges and universities come in many flavors is insulting to many. Among other things, the constant references to the supposedly inadequate education being provided at the University of South Carolina is devoid of support, other than the spurious references to grades and test scores. There is no discussion of how graduates of that institution are faring in life, let alone while they are in school. The barely unspoken premise that one can only obtain a top-flight education at a supposedly top-tier school insults those who did just that at other schools, which they attended for many reasons, such as a desire to be close to family or access a particular program. One does not need an Ivy League education to be a pragmatic, honorable, empathetic person—which goes a long way toward success in life.

Even if there is some merit to the Forum author’s premise that there are vast differences in the quality of schools, this ignores the fact that inequality is inherent in many situations and that the most successful among us are willing and able to work to overcome such inequality. It also overlooks the fact that not everyone is well suited for the “best” schools and that, as is true in so many fields, a diversity of offerings is optimal. As Garrison Keillor can tell us, not everyone can be above average or have the best of everything.

Those who wish to muster more support for higher education would do well to accept that inequality of outcomes is inherent in a free society and acknowledge the greater importance of equality of opportunity and the many mechanisms we have to facilitate the latter.

Martin B. Robins, J.D. ’80
Barrington Hills, Ill.

Writers, Seen Holistically

I was glad to see a tutor viewing her student as a whole emotional and writing person, a unity rather than a stack of divisible Lego blocks (The Undergraduate, “Writing, Blocked,” November-December 2017, page 36). In the training I’m completing, in a body-mind relearning field, we also are taught to acknowledge the whole unitary person—a tensegritive and not a compressive model. This has consequences.

In my field, students’ strong emotions can surface. We could even retraumatize a person. As part of our training we learn about the hidden impact of well-intended efforts in our field’s past, and even hear a presentation from a psychotherapist to learn what not to do.

As a private writing tutor, I know I can reinjure my student, too, if not as severely, or subtly discourage them. I’m sure that I have done so at times, unwittingly—faces have told me what words have not. I wish I had had more training to address this, as well as to be better able to take care of my own emotional-writer self. I would love the Writing Center to offer its tutors such support, to integrate the emotional literacy with the craft.

I found the most impactful part of the article to be the author’s transparency about her own intense feelings in relationship to writing. This sharing acknowledges the whole person in the reader, and removes a wall, rather than dividing us into separable teacher-student blocks. It would be good to see more of this integration in academia—and, further, more integrated acknowledgment that we are body along with emotion and words.

Joshua Myrvaagnes ’01
Somerville, Mass.

Legal Services

“The Justice Gap,” by Lincoln Caplan (November-October 2017, page 61), shines a timely spotlight on the enormous gap between the number of poor people who face unlawful eviction, domestic violence, consumer fraud, and other civil legal problems and the number of those people who have an attorney to advocate for them in their time of legal crisis.

As members of the WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) of Harvard Law School (HLS), we salute you for tackling this topic and its various complexities. At the same time, readers may have been left with a misimpression about the LSC. Our work does not focus on “adequate access to justice,” however defined. From our founding in 1979 by the visionary professor Gary Bellow, we have dedicated our work to impassioned, innovative, community-based lawyering for people who cannot afford representation; and teaching and mentoring clinical law students to become zealous, ethical advocates. To be sure, we also embrace and teach students about non-litigation tools such as policy advocacy, community legal-education workshops, and the enhanced use of law-related technologies.

As the thousands of HLS students who have passed through the LSC’s doors can attest, these tools complement—not displace—our primary and enduring focus: direct legal services for the most vulnerable community members to achieve the fullest measure of justice. Bellow’s legacy lives on and is stronger than ever.

Daniel L. Nagin
Vice dean for experiential and clinical education
Faculty director, WilmerHale Legal Services Center & Veterans Legal Clinic

Toby Merrill
Lecturer on law
Cambridge

 

Thank you for the excellent article on “The Justice Gap” [November/December 2017]. Your coverage of John Levi, chairman of the LSC, overlooked the fact that he brings the same earnest intensity to its mission that he showed as a member of our HLS hockey team.

 Rauer L. Meyer, J.D. ’73
Los Angeles

Earthquake Recorder

In the very early days of the Apollo Project, I worked as a “lowly technician” at MIT. The diagram of Brendan Meade’s neural network on page 14 (“A Rosetta Stone for Earthquakes,” November-December 2017) reminds me of the back of several bays of analog computing systems being used at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab to solve inertial guidance problems. It suggests that neural networks are several orders of complexity above those old-time analog-computer wiring plans.

Robert B. Miller ’72
Zion Crossroads, Va.

Buying Happiness

“Cashing Out for Happiness” (November-December 2017, page 15) seems to make the strange assertion that one can buy happiness by buying time, while at the same time asserting we are not buying happiness by doing this.

Joseph Campbell exhorts us to learn to live joyfully with the sorrows of life. Have we lost this psychological skill because it’s rarely taught? We used to exchange wisdom stories that reflected nature, philosophical ideas, spiritual practices, and aesthetic experiences thought essential to being human, including griefs and sorrows. They pointed to the difficult and complex psychological truths of human nature while advocating the courage to accept the finitude we want to deny. Today engineered social methodologies shape the “wisdom” of the crowd by a forced focus on easily quantifiable categories. From this we get a Midas Touch myth, without acknowledged grief, based on endless economic prosperity and growth.

Our wisdom trove of anthropological, mythic, and cultural histories is public but also buried in our unconsciousness. It reveals that the basic elements of human life—joy and grief, happiness and sorrow—don’t much change psychologically over time. Today’s economically influenced search for transactional connections hides the depth of the problem that produces strange inventions such as “The Prosperity Gospel,” which exhorts us to “Try hard, find God, get rich.”

Perhaps the best we can do individually is to allow our dreams to tell us how to survive in spite of the economy, let the artists who are in touch with the unconscious point the way communally, and rely on psychologically wise guides and educated critics, armed with prophetic insights, to remind us of our forgotten humanism. We also must keep shouting to our civic and academic leaders: “Something is very wrong here; pay more attention to the pain of the world that is overshadowed and hidden by the current myth of prosperity.” When measured correctly, happiness is not cheap; it usually costs more than expected..

Kurt A. Pocsi, S.T.B. ’67
San Francisco

Restaurant Review Reviewed

 I am writing regarding the Tastes & Tables: Bites from Eastern Europe article in the November-December Harvard Magazine (page 16M).

Moldova has a long well-documented history of anti-Semitism. I can’t imagine eating at a restaurant which celebrates the food of a part of the world which to this day, continues to treat Jews so badly.

Those “rosy images of Moldovan hills, flowers, and farmland” depicted on the dining room walls were not the Moldova my ancestors knew.

It turned my stomach to see that Harvard Magazine had chosen to review this restaurant above the multitude of other ethnic resturants in the Boston area.

Heidi Gitelman, Ed.M. ’97
Cambridge

Marshall Goldman

I noted with sadness the passing of Marshall Goldman, Ph.D. ’61, one of the great scholars of Soviet economics and Russian history (November-December 2017, page 88P). I had the pleasure of studying under Professor Goldman while writing my undergraduate thesis and I have him to thank for encouraging me to pursue my interest in Soviet studies even though at the time (1977) there were few opportunities in this field outside of work in government or academics. It took another 10 years before I found my niche working in the nuclear-fuel industry, where I now represent Russia’s commercial agent for sales of enriched uranium to U.S. utilities. I have Professor Goldman to thank for this.

Current Russian-American relations have deteriorated to a level that would have shocked him. He would be especially dismayed to see the degree to which extremist American political objectives are now influencing U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, particularly in matters involving nuclear energy, where the two countries have historically maintained a close dialogue regardless of U.S. domestic political vagaries.

Russia and America have very different historical roots and cultural traditions, and so it comes as no surprise that the two countries have different points of view on such matters as freedom of speech, representative government, or the role of an independent judiciary. Professor Goldman spent his career working to understand those differences, instead of merely demonizing Russia because of them. He also understood, I believe, that the United States has far more to gain by working cooperatively with Russia in areas of common interest, instead of constantly criticizing Russian leaders for not adopting American standards of governance or agreeing with American foreign policy. It’s a great loss that we don’t have more experts such as Professor Goldman to advise American policymakers on Russian-American relations today.

Fletcher T. Newton ’77
Washington, D.C.

Expert Signage

“The College Pump” (“Flaunting It,” November-December 2017, page 88) has an interesting commentary on the lack of signage to direct visitors to the major attractions at Harvard, including the Glass Flowers. Back in the late 1980s, I was walking through the Yard when a family asked me how to get to the Glass Flowers. As I was headed in the opposite direction, I started to point northeastward to get them to Oxford Street, when I saw an older man in a white lab coat striding forcefully in that direction. I told the tourists, “See that man in the white coat—follow him, he’s going there!”

The man was Richard Schultes, then the director of the Botanical Museum and perhaps the only faculty member to wear a lab coat while walking on campus, and I figured he was going to his office. To this day I wonder whether those tourists followed him all the way into his office...

Alan R. Kabat, Ph.D. ’90
Washington, D.C.

The Scientific Leavitts

The brilliant Henrietta Leavitt (“Eye on the Cosmos,” November-December 2017, page 104) is not the only member of that distinguished family linked to the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. It also has an extensive collections of technical drawings and an exquisite scale model of an innovative steam-pumping engine designed by her illustrious uncle Erasmus Darwin Leavitt Jr., with whom she now shares a grave site in Cambridge. A huge example of her uncle’s work can be experienced at the Waterworks Museum, across from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, in Boston.

Dennis De Witt, M.Arch. ’74
Brookline, Mass.

Errata

We regret misspelling the last name of Thomas Ehrlich, LL.B. ’59, in “The Justice Gap.”

The caption for the photograph on page 83 (Alumni, “This Land Was Made For…,” November-December 2017) incorrectly identifies the rock formations behind Bill Hedden as the Six Shooter Peaks. They are mesas. The peaks were visible in a different image of Hedden that did not appear in the article.

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