[HCS-D]Re: column

Matt Gline gline at fas.harvard.edu
Tue Dec 7 13:43:54 EST 2004


Hmm. Points fairly made, particularly given your position of expertise
on this matter. And surely, my column may very well have done better not
to focus on matters that are clearly in the long run of minor import,
like cable television or free printing. I'll return to that question in
a moment, but first to the real thrust of my criticism:

Harvard's endowment (I won't say Harvard, though from my perspective the
decision is not so clear as you suggest) is 22 billion dollars large. I'm
not an economist, but I think that's a lot of money for a university. Now,
despite my obvious leftist slant I'm not a huge proponent of fiscal
irresponsibility. But it's also apparently the case that for some reason
Harvard has felt it needs to maintain much, much more money in the bank
than our competitors. This could be because we've simply found a strategy
for managing our bank funds 8 or 9 times better than our competitors. It
could be because our alumni have always been 8 or 9 times more generous
or more successful. But even if it can be attributed to any of these
purposes the question remains in my mind: why is Harvard spending so
much in the future, compared with what they spend at the present?

Maybe Allston will cost billions and billions of dollars. Maybe the
administration intends to buy Kuala Lampur and use it a sociology
lab. There may be a good reason but I've read the university budget
and followed more or less what discussion of these issues has been made
public, and it still isn't clear to me.

And then, there's this: There is a general attitude among my friends and
roommates and the students that I know that the administration at the
highest level doesn't really care about undergraduate life. Your ouster
reinforced that in the minds of many (though a number surely looked upon
this as a win, given your outspoken distaste for certain social venues
they're attached to - but I have as much trouble feeling sympathy for
them as you do for me). Also not unnoticed, however, was the multi-million
dollar renovation of Harkness from a nice student center into a gorgeous
student center, and the ongoing renovation of the student center at the
business school. And while we have no doubt that the administration will
eventually spend lots of money building for our successors in Allston
I think there's a justifiable concern that when those buildings are
finished, undergraduates will have been be pushed further away than ever
from the traditional center both ideological and physical of this campus.

Now, throwing money into expenses which you've observed are frivolous may
not be the answer to this question. There's even something to be said
for the assertion that this isn't a problem at all - wide discontent
over these matters among Harvard students has lead neither towards a
substantial decrease in the immense recruitment power of this
university nor towards a large scale movement among the students to
transfer out (and for most people the obstacle to transferring hasn't
been a rejection letter :) I should mention, though, that I think upon
due reflection that letter did me a world of good and Harvard
is a better place for me Then, Steven Pinker, who we so brilliantly
poached from MIT, in his class taught me of the meaning of cognitive
dissonance, so who knows?) 

Still, while Harvard's power and renown certainly rest in the incredible
diversity of opportunities that careful planning in the administration
and 350 years of tradition have bestowed upon its students, there's
something to be said for the last mile - that wealth of far more mundane
opportunities that lead us to envy students at 'lesser' institutions to
the point of writing FM articles about "The Cult of Yale" and columns
that sound like "the wail of a whiny kid whose daddy is rich but"
yadda yadda yadda. I don't think Northwestern students have suffered
from the availability of cable on their computers (and certainly there's
some poetic irony to the fact that we have a television station run by
undergraduates that undergraduates can't watch), but if you don't like
that example, there are others far deeper that I didn't really know how
to investigate for the purposes of my column. So far as I can tell from
a loose collection of anecdotal evidence, the recent efforts to improve
study abroad have been pathetic and the process is still deeply painful
for those who attempt it. A friend of mine is a diabetic who constantly
complains about the ways in which UHS makes her life difficult (and of
course, there's the sad matter that we're only allowed one cold pack
from the university pharmacy per semester - were people really abusing
that privilege?). Throwing money at these issues doesn't seem like the
long term solution, but given that certain fairly reasonable student
demands could be satisfy for what really amount to nickles and dimes
in the grand scheme of our financial institutions, it's not clear to me
why these things aren't done. 

--Matt

(incidentally, while the rich daddy comment was something of a low blow,
I should point out that it's not clear my father's initial reaction to
my column was all that different from your own ;) )

On Tue, Dec 07, 2004 at 11:00:47AM -0500, Harry Lewis wrote:
> Matt,
> 
> Since I have praised your columns, I will slightly dump on this one. It 
> seems to me the real points are (a) that the stated reasons for some 
> decisions and priorities in the student life arena are convenient 
> excuses for decisions that are really based on social or educational 
> philosophy and (b) that Harvard misspends its money, finding it more 
> important to have a squad car idling in front of Mass Hall all day with 
> a cop in it than to do some of the more reasonable things you suggest. 
> But these points don't come through well. The column sounds instead 
> like the wail of a whiny kid whose daddy is rich but won't buy him his 
> own TV set and wants the world to feel sorry for him.
> 
> I always took the point of view that "Harvard" had no money at all -- 
> it was just a trustee for money other people had given it in trust for 
> various educational and scholarly purposes. Extravagant spending on 
> stuff that made no difference to anyone's education always seemed to me 
> beside the point. Of course that doesn't mean that students should not 
> be physically comfortable, have opportunities for diversion from their 
> work, etc. - in the long run you will learn more if you lead a balanced 
> life. But cable TV in every room did not seem all that important a 
> priority. The other reason colleges spend money on stuff like this is 
> for recruiting reasons - high school students will pick colleges based 
> on hot tubs and paint colors. But Harvard seems to be doing OK on the 
> recruitment front.
> 
> On the other hand, I equally have no idea what that squad car is doing 
> to enhance anything - I doubt the president is in constant danger to 
> the extent that a probably $100K/yr expense could be justified. Not to 
> mention having about four deans to do the job that I did, better, by 
> myself! (But I'm not bitter :) So I react to your piece with some 
> Yankee frugality, offended by the suggestion that Harvard should spend 
> the money because it has it and students want stuff. The real question 
> is what the educational (broadly speaking) priorities are of the powers 
> that be. For Larry, who has captured headlines by his berating the 
> Faculties for their inefficient purchasing practices, there could be 
> some real serious issues about the way he spends money.
> 
> 
> Harry R. Lewis
> Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and
>    Harvard College Professor
> Maxwell Dworkin 237, lewis at harvard.edu


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