[HCS-D]Re: column

Matt Gline gline at fas.harvard.edu
Tue Dec 7 13:59:43 EST 2004

Well, one wonders how this wound up going to hcs-discuss...


On Tue, Dec 07, 2004 at 01:43:54PM -0500, Matt Gline wrote:
> 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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