My Faults My Own

Any human’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in humankind.

Okay, you can stop it now.

note: Unapologetic Harvard privilege. Optimistic, idealistic belief that my opinion as a lowly undergrad matters in any way.



Now I'm a student and employee of the (checks Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Typical Crimson pro-Harvard-Campaign article here. Q&A (mostly about fundraising) with formerly-interim-Dean of SEAS Harry Lewis here.


Back when the School of Public Health sold its name for $350M, Michael Mitzenmacher asked:

I can't help but wonder what the naming rights of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences could go for? In the course of our capital campaign, will I have the chance to find out? Maybe we could get a bidding war going? How much would SEAS have to get for me to feel good about having "Harvard's XXXX School of Engineering and Applied Sciences" on my letterhead for some appropriate name XXXX? (...)

$400M for the name HJAPSEAS was, in my mind, the wrong number. J.A.P. wasn't even a Harvard A.B.!

But mostly, can't shake a generally crummy feeling about the whole thing. And I suppose I should calm down, stop writing in sentence fragments, and try to explain why.


First off, I'm not at all bothered that it's Wall Street money that he donated. A cursory tour of Wikipedia reveals that he made a bulk of his fortune shorting the subprime mortgage market, which is to say, attempting to bring it back into line with reality. That is, he bet against the speculators that drove the market to the brink of the cliff (and in this world, at least, two wrongs do basically make a right). Again: He made his fortune on deflating the bubble that caused the financial crisis, not inflating it, and if you're bothered about where the money came from, that's probably good to keep in mind.

And further, I mostly buy Prof. Lewis's argument that "they aren't all angels":

I like to think that universities cleanse the money they take from such folks and society comes out better the exchange, as long as the donors don't buy too much influence and the university doesn't honor the donors too publicly or too fulsomely. (...)

Money is money, and if it comes from Bad People, well, all the better that Harvard has it and not them. Besides, I do believe that Wall Street is net good for the world, for the reason that frictionless, abstract capitalism is basically pretty decent at efficiently allocating societal resources. But that's not the point of this post; maybe I should get back to it some other time.


No, I think it's mostly just that I liked being a student and employee of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences a non-insubstantial amount more than I like being a student and employee of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It's nothing rational; it's entirely an aesthetic preference; but I don't think that that makes it wrong. The cynic's defense is that maybe I should try caring less about aesthetics, but...I'm not sure that I should? Aesthetic taste, like culinary taste, lies in the ability to distinguish things based on features incidental to their utilitarian purpose -- and I don't want to give that up, since it makes me actively happy when I have nice things. Giving up the ability to take pleasure in nice things just seems bad, even if it's marginally more efficient.

And for better or for worse, I think that my aesthetic sensibilities are amplified with regard to the world of academia in general, and Harvard in particular. It is a personal flaw that I am super into the concept of academic regalia, to the point where I know most of the content of Wikipedia | Academic Regalia in the United States and Wikipedia | Academic Regalia of Harvard University from memory. I adore ceremony in general (see also: My Faults My Own | How Do You Spend the Darkest Night?), and Harvard's accumulated history is just so good. I mean, come on, the Commencement procession involves select dignitaries riding through Johnston Gate on white horses; what's not to like about that?

...but apparently, the decision-makers at this school don't agree. They don't see much in the aesthetic realm that ought not to be suborned to practical opportunities, given the chance. And, well, I can't really say that they're doing anything wrong, since at the end of the day, it's their school. But every time that they do something like this, it feels less and less like it's mine.

After all, if I am going to continue to cultivate an aesthetic taste and an appreciation for ceremony and tradition, is it possible that Harvard is the wrong place for me? At this point, is that even a question any more?


I guess this is a reason to be skeptical of (and at this point, perhaps outright anti-) the whole media circus that is the Harvard Campaign. In a calculated bid to set yet more records in the world of higher education, the Harvard administration has found itself in a position where it's actively looking for ways to raise funds in whatever way possible. Is it surprising, then, that it's more willing than ever to consider once-sacred things as reducible to the bottom line?

The one line that still hasn't been crossed, as far as I'm aware, is outright corporate sponsorship. And while that may stillsurvive this capital campaign (though I wouldn't take 1-to-3 odds on it), I find myself more and more doubtful by the week that it'll survive the next one.


You know, it was supposed to be named the Gordon McKay School of Art. For all of my bluster about aesthetics and ceremony, I think I would actually be perfectly fine as a student and employee of the Gordon McKay School of Art at Harvard. Partly because it would be hilarious to have a technical degree from a place name the School of Art, and partly because McKay is a semi-mythological figure at this point. Are we going to look back at John A. Paulson a hundred years from now the same way?

I doubt it. Maybe I'll eat my words, but I doubt it.

And here's a question that'll sound silly, but which I mean completely seriously:

If you were going to name the school, why isn't it the Harry R. Lewis School of Engineering and Applied Sciences? Are academics only worthy of academic honor when it's by the charity of their former students?

It wasn't always so -- I live in Eliot House, named for Charles William Eliot, back in the days when the academy believed in honoring its own. And honestly? I'm proud to wear his family arms on no fewer than three tee shirts, a tie, and two hats that I own. He was a visionary educator and a university president arguably without peer.

John Harvard himself was...a good deal less inspiring. But I guess at this point, he gets a bit of a pass. Again, maybe it's all a bit hypocritical, and we'll be saying the same about John Paulson a few centuries hence, but...I just don't see it.


Anyway, Harvard JAPSEAS. The doctoral robes are awesome, but the school name is awful. Be forewarned.

And Harvard? You've got more than enough money; you can stop naming things after rich people now.


Someone asked me why I'm not bothered at all about buildings that carry donors' names, but why I'm so up in arms about the school renamings.

The obvious answer is that I'm used to the former and not to the latter. But if I were in the mood for motivated reasoning, I think it'd be something like this:

A building is just a bunch of rocks and steel on top of each other. Naming a pile of rocks after some arbitrary person is fine, whatever. But a school is an academic enterprise, whose fundamental substrate is a community of scholars. What does it mean to name an academic enterprise after a donor? What does it mean to name a community?

Epilogue II

Dylan Matthews, writing for Vox, hits the nail pretty much on the head as well:

Let me be extremely clear: Harvard is not a charity. If you want to donate to it as a bribe to help your kids get in, go nuts. It's not the absolute worst thing you could do with your money. Kidnapping people and making them fight to the death in gladiator pits would be worse. But if you want to make the world a better place, your dollars [could be] better spent...

Paulson could give $400 million to distribute bednets in sub-Saharan Africa, a highly cost-effective way to save lives. He could give $400 million directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda through GiveDirectly. He could give $400 million to deworming efforts that spare children ailments that can cause immense pain and poverty. He could give $400 million to the Open Philanthropy Project or the Gates Foundation or another group doing careful, rigorous work to determine the best ways to use charitable resources to make the world a better place. (...)

If you've been following this blog at all, you'll be well aware that I'm largely convinced by similar arguments re: effectiveness in the field of altruism, to the point where my altruistic goals in life never really included donating $X million to my alma mater. But then again, given how unabashedly pro-Harvard I am usually, you should probably also be unsurprised to learn that I pretty much expected to give my $20.16 when Senior Gift time rolled around. In the wake of all this, though, I've got second thoughts about even that, given that both Harvard and JAPSEAS seem to have it pretty well in the bag (financially speaking). What's my drop in their bucket?

Not that I expect that to mean anything, of course. I'm just a lowly undergrad. Why should Harvard care at all what I think?

Epilogue III

Okay, Malcolm Gladwell made me giggle:

(more here)