Archive for May, 2013

Oprah? Really?

Posted on May 31st, 2013 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments »

On, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, who both work at Harvard, think that Oprah is a lousy choice for Harvard’s commencement speaker.

Oprah’s particular brand of celebrity is not a good fit for the values of a university whose motto, Veritas, means truth. Oprah’s passionate advocacy extends, unfortunately, to a hearty embrace of phony science. Critics have taken Oprah to task for years for her energetic shilling on behalf of peddlers of quack medicine. Most notoriously, Oprah’s validation of Jenny McCarthy’s discredited claim that vaccines cause autism has no doubt contributed to much harm through the foolish avoidance of vaccines.

It’s kind of a good point, actually. That anti-vaccine stuff is dangerous, and the peddlers of it have done American society a great disservice.

Of course, there’s another reason that Oprah’s not a great fit for Harvard commencement: She’s such a strikingly unoriginal, predictable, boring choice.

But maybe it’s just one celebrity brand schmoozing another….

Mr. Fletcher, Your Water Is Hot Now

Posted on May 30th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

The Wall Street Journal reports that the IRS has filed a $1.4 million tax lien against Harvard grad, philanthropist, and kinda-sorta hedge fund manager Buddy Fletcher, written about by yours truly in Boston magazine.

The lien dates back to a tax filing for 2010, the same year that the Dakota board rejected Mr. Fletcher’s application to buy a $5.7 million, two-bedroom apartment.

The IRS effort to obtain back tax payments comes as Mr. Fletcher’s suit claiming discrimination by the Dakota board is still wending its way through Manhattan state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Fletcher inexplicably continues to pursue his lawsuit, even as the NY Post reports that Dakota lawyers are busily discrediting his gift to Harvard establishing a university professorship.

Lawyers for The Dakota pressed a Manhattan judge yesterday with their claim that Fletcher welshed on a $4.5 million gift to his alma mater, Harvard University — a donation that was to be used to endow a chair in African-American studies. The chair, named after Fletcher, is now held by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Fletcher, through his lawyers, argued the donation was “non-binding” — but failed to come up with any proof to back up the claim.

I am both fascinated and depressed by Fletcher’s downward spiral. Is there no point at which he will cut his losses and admit defeat? And if that’s the case…how does it all end?

The Yankees-Mets Dilemma, Part 2

Posted on May 29th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The two teams, once considered rivals of a sort, and generally the object of intense dislike by the other team’s fans, played two games in the past two nights. The Mets won both, 2-1 each time, in two well played, very well pitched games. Last night they beat Mariano Rivera in an exciting come-from-behind victory.

And attendance at both was the lowest its ever been for an interleague game between these two…around 32, 000 each time.

I think these two teams have reached tipping points of sorts. They’re not very good, they’re not very exciting, and their tickets cost too much money. Throw in a little mediocre weather, like last night’s mist, and the fans just won’t show….

At least the Yankees’ owners are aware of the issue; they’re trying to cut down on an enormous salary structure, and they have A-Rod’s bloated contract to deal with. (For quite a while, unfortunately.) But still, they clearly care about fans’ opinion of the franchise.

The Mets’ owners, the Wilpons, just don’t get it….

She’s Gone (Dean Hammonds, That Is)

Posted on May 28th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 22 Comments »

As predicted on this website, Evelynn Hammonds is kaput as dean of Harvard College. Cambridge’s long decanal nightmare is over.

(Some of you commenters—you know who you are—were skeptical that it would come to this. To me, it felt inevitable.)

The Times’ Richard Perez-Pena reports that Hammonds will leave the job on July 1, after five years as dean.

Hammonds, of course, is addressing the matter with the same candor she brought to explaining the e-spionage and various other matters she’s mishandled during her time as dean.

I was never asked to step down,” Ms. Hammonds said. “I have been in discussions to return to academia and my research for some time.”

..Ms. Hammonds said, “The e-mail controversy was difficult, but it was not a motivating factor in my decision to step down as dean.

This is nonsense, of course; there’s not a chance in Cambridge that Hammonds’ acts of e-spionage and subsequent fabulism didn’t lead to her almost-certainly forced resignation. The question is, why does she have to lie? Why not just say, “Although I thought I did the right thing in spying on the Harvard faculty, the decision was an unpopular one and I made some mistakes in how I handled it, so the Harvard administration and I felt that it was time for a new dean and a fresh start. Five years in that job is a lot, and I’m excited to get back to my scholarship.”

No one’s going to believe your prevarications anyway, so why not be honest?

I’ve never been much impressed by Hammonds, and the e-spionage really capped off a mediocre deanship. Good for Harvard for making this change. But aside from the opportunity to point out that I called this departure—satisfying though that is—Hammonds’ exit does create a moment to consider what went wrong, and how a dean can lead better, and I think this issue of honesty does go to the heart of the matter. Though not generally privy to Harvard’s internal workings (not since writing Harvard Rules, anyway), I watched Hammond every time a public matter arose in which she was involved. Her responses typically struck me as bureaucratic, political and disingenuous—she didn’t seem to trust the intelligence or the good faith of the Harvard community. (Remember that boneheaded kindness pledge?)

Even in the modern university, deans are not just administrators, they are leaders, and thus are expected to be generally honest, and not to lie, and to speak to their community with respect and trust. This is particularly true when your position is as a leader of young people who are supposed to be getting an education not just in the classroom, but in character. So when you read their email, or are clearly dishonest with peers and students—as Hammonds was during the e-spionage scandal—you’re obviously not treating them with respect and trust, and, not being stupid, they will respond in kind. (Were the lessons of Larry Summers so quickly forgotten? Or did people draw the wrong conclusions from his experience?)

I guess in that sense Hammonds’ words now are just more of the same. Again: Why? No one will believe her, and she doesn’t have to try to lie to save her job; she’s already lost it. Anyway, she has tenure. It’s not like Harvard is going to drive an African-American woman and former dean into exile. I suppose there’s the possibility of a non-disclosure agreement in which Hammonds promises not to disparage Harvard in exchange for a big check as she heads out the door—c.f. Larry Summers—but I still think there’s a way to leave that isn’t so patently false.

That’s the problem with evasion and dishonesty: It becomes habit-forming.

Final question: Does this mean that Mike Smith is absolved of accountability for his role in the e-spionage? (Which, who knows, could have been his idea.) And does Hammonds’ exit leave him more or less powerful?

Does Serious Literature Need Likable Characters?

Posted on May 24th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Serious novelist (the Sontag-ian hair is a tipoff) Claire Messud says, quite the contrary. An interesting discussion on Slate (no, not an oxymoron) about literary merit and literary accessibility.

The Dilemma of the Yankees and Mets

Posted on May 24th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

No one wants to pay gi-normous ticket prices to see them play.

As Phil Mushnick points out in the NY Post, the high ticket prices demanded by the two New York baseball teams are keeping fans away in droves—to the point where they can’t even sell out a game between the first place Yankees and the second place Red Sox.

.And so, the inevitable: The Yanks, in concert with MasterCard, are running a buy-three, get-four come-on to June 2’s game, first pitch 8:05. Yep, still plenty of seats available. Imagine that, Red Sox-Yanks tickets on special! Yanks will announce 40,000-plus, regardless.

The Mets, as The Post revealed Monday, now are directly dumping tickets on to StubHub….

As Mushnick notes, this makes anyone who actually buys full-price tickets basically a sucker….

Myself, I’ve always been reluctant to spend full price on Yankees tickets. (The best way to see a Yankee game: Get someone else’s expense account to pay for it. But that’s a problem too.) What if you spent $200 a ticket on decent–not even great—seats and then the opposing team scored 9 runs in the top of the first? Or it drizzled for 5 innings and then they called the game?

And in the meantime, you’re paying six bucks for a hot dog and $12 for a beer….

It’s just not worth it.

Tuesday Morning Zen

Posted on May 21st, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »


I’ll be back and blogging more regularly tomorrow.

On the Road Again

Posted on May 16th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I’ll be in Mexico the next few days, underwater as much as possible; blogging will be sporadic, but very relaxed.

Harvard’s “Revenue Experiments”

Posted on May 15th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

The New Yorker has a really fine piece on MOOCs, largely focused on Harvard, in this week’s issue.

Lots to say about it which I will try to do ASAP.

But one thing that’s striking: The rationales proposed for Harvard’s push into online education are almost entirely financial. The argument about bringing higher education to the world gets some face time, but not a lot. It’s hard not to think that this isn’t just about expanding the brand.

One other thing: At one point in the article, Drew Faust seriously considers the possibility of having student essays graded by computer. In the end, she comes down somewhat against it, but in a way that suggests she’s prepared to change her mind. This is not encouraging.

She also talks happily about a course called “Science and Cooking,”—”I just have this vision of people cooking all over the globe together”—thus inadvertently raising the question of whether Harvard’s MOOC courses will be as intellectually serious as a Harvard course ought to be.

Speaking Further of Economists

Posted on May 8th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Here is a scene that is quintessential Larry Summers: the pedagogical forcefulness, the certitude—and the reality that the rightness of his thinking does not always match the forcefulness of his articulation.

Summers segued to an explanation for how he chose a career in economics. The field, he said, provided tools that can be used to make the world, or a basketball team, better. The key is reading data and recognizing what it tells you. Then Summers paused and asked the assembled players a rhetorical question: Did they believe a shooter could get a “hot hand” and go on a streak in which he made shot after shot after shot? All the players nodded uniformly. Summers paused again, relishing the moment. “The answer is no,” he said. “People apply patterns to random data.”

From the New York Times Magazine’s recent piece on Summers and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard.

….some new studies that use huge, previously unavailable data sets are suggesting that, in some instances, hands can ignite, and the success of one play can indeed affect the outcome of the next.

…These new studies do not undermine the validity of the magisterial past research on hot hands, but expand and augment it, Dr. Yaari and the other authors say, adding even more human complexity. Yes, we probably imagine and desire patterns where they do not exist. But it may be that we also are capable of sensing and responding to some cues within games and activities that are almost too subtle for most collections of numbers to capture.

Today’s New York Times.

Almost too subtle for most collections of numbers to capture—I think that’s a phrase that could have been used to good effect during the Summers presidency.

Next I will prove that, in the history of the world, someone has indeed washed a rented car.