Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Mass Ave, Mt Auburn, and a Tale of Two Schools

Still, this report shows that Harvard could learn a lot from MIT about how to run a university.

Harry Lewis, "The Report Harvard Should Have Asked For", 2013


Around the time I came to Harvard, both Mass Ave schools were dealing with the fallout of embarrassing, messy institutional mistakes. Both started with relatively small incidents, compounded by administrative decisions that were incredibly contentious during and after the fact.

Harvard's began with the Gov 1310 cheating scandal -- and it escalated when scandal erupted over the administration's search of faculty emails to find which sub-dean had spoken to the press, raising both privacy concerns and unease about the relationship between the faculty and the administration.

MIT's began with the arrest of Aaron Swartz for downloading academic articles from JSTOR -- and escalated over the Institute's complicity with the US Attorney's Office, which many members of the community felt betrayed the school's values.

That fall and spring, I was a freshman overburdened with courses that I could just barely keep up with. I was just barely finding my way around Harvard (and had not yet begun this blog!). But I wanted to understand the community I had joined, so I read commentary on what seemed to be the pressing issues, by people that I had come to respect. Some drew parallels between the questions of identity that faced each school. And I began to piece together a theory -- or at least an understanding -- about the soul of the modern university, at least as it was understood along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass.

Now, I'm a degree-holder on the University's donor rolls, flung some two-hundred miles from Cambridge. This spring and summer, both schools on Mass Ave seem to be dealing with embarrassing, messy institutional mistakes that began with small incidents, compounded by highly-criticized administrative decisions that beg the drawing of parallels up and down Mass Ave. The more things change...

attention-conservation notice: My primary argument is down in section 4, but it's pretty context-heavy. Before I get there, I want to spend some time glossing both current events and history:

  • (1:H) the social-group sanctions at Harvard, 2016--2017
  • (1:MIT) the depopulation/shutting down of Senior House, 2017
  • (2:H) the Gov 1310 cheating scandal, email searches, and the Keating Report, 2012--2013
  • (2:MIT) the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, MIT's role, and the Abelson Report, 2011--2013
  • (3:MIT) Senior House and student governance at MIT, 2017
  • (3:H) admin/faculty power struggles at Harvard, 2016--2017
  • (4) argument, synthesis, conclusion
  • (5) epilogue, by Charles William Eliot

I suppose you could try jumping straight to the end, but I make no promise that it would make any sense. But I should also warn you that the long way around is, indeed, long.

length notice: Long. Very long. In word count inclusive of quotes, longest single post I've written yet.

disclaimer: All of these issues are much deeper than I'll cover here. Other commentators have covered them with greater precision, or emotional depth, or both. When possible, I've linked to some of those in-line.

I'm merely trying to make a small point of critical commentary around the edges of some large, complicated issues, and I don't pretend that I'll do the issues themselves justice. And though perhaps the historical parallel isn't particularly deep, I personally found it striking, especially having seen the pieces of it play out from so close.


Today, Harvard's again dealing with a medium-sized issue that has precipitated a much larger question. My former professor Michael Mitzenmacher has a summary as concise as any I've seen (bracketed links mine):

Here's the tl;dr version, which is already too long. (What's the recursive form of tl;dr?)

Sometime back, the powers-that-be at Harvard decided that they didn't like the Harvard final clubs (Harvard's kind-of-like fraternities, "social clubs" that have been around for ages, but that are not in any official way affiliated with Harvard). There's plenty of reason not to like them, but at least initially concerns about sexual assault seemed to be the motivating factor. [Crimson; report pdf] So the powers-that-be decided that if you belonged to some private single-sex organization, they would not let you be captain of a sports team, or be approved by Harvard for a Rhodes fellowship, or things like that. [Crimson; Dean's recommendations pdf; President's response]

A number of faculty -- perhaps most notably, Harry Lewis -- objected to this policy [Crimson; faculty motion pdf], on multiple grounds. (Perhaps one large one is that there are many private single-sex organizations that are quite positive, and it seems odd to put all these organizations under the same blanket policy.) [Lewis comments; Seltzer snark; Haig comments; Vendler in the Crimson; Harvard Magazine; Lewis's summary] So after it was clear that there was some significant faculty objections, for a bit it was temporarily shelved, and a new committee put in place to make recommendations. [Crimson]

Several weeks deep in the summer, the report comes out [Crimson; report pdf], suggesting policies even harsher and more draconian than the original plan. And the reasons for this outcome, from the latest-breaking reporting [Crimson], seem at least somewhat confused.

There's now two issues, seemingly only tangentially related, but that have come together here. The first relates to the suggested policies themselves. But the second relates to how Harvard is governed -- can these types of disciplinary regulations for the students come into being without a vote of the full faculty.

The first, rightly, gets more attention, but as a member of the faculty, the second is of significant importance to me, and relates to a historical trend of taking power (or at least trying to take power) away from the faculty that seems consistent since I've arrived at Harvard. (...)

Also I wrote about the sanctions at the time they were first announced, though that's now two committees and at least one policy shift old.


Meanwhile, down the road:

The fate of an MIT dorm has changed again, in apparent administration retaliation against student and alumni attempts to prevent an earlier announced change.

Initially, the Senior House dorm was to see its current residents reapply to stay and its longstanding culture diluted with first-year students taking part in a program called Pilot 2021 that emphasized career planning, physical fitness and healthy food.

Residents were unhappy with the imposition. The dorm has been known for decades as a creative if countercultural environment – complete with omnipresent murals and roaming cats – for an eclectic group of students that sometimes need extra support, including students of color, LGBTQI students or those who are low-income or the first in their family to attend college.

The plan announced Friday in a letter from Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, though, turns Senior House into graduate student housing, with no current residents returning. (...)

...MIT has its own storm brewing. I quoted a professional publication here for concision, though several perspectives from MIT students are worth reading if you want to understand better.

I don't claim that these issues are analogous in form, any more than Harvard's email searches and MIT's cooperation with the USAO were analogous. But, like in the winter of 2013, I think that it's profitable to consider the plights of the two schools -- and their actions -- with each other for reference and scale.

And, like in the winter of 2013, I think that members of both school communities have reason for disappointment and shame in their respective institutions -- and that even so, Harvard has lessons to learn from its cousin to the east.


The short version of the Gov 1310 / email searches debacle of 2012/2013 is something like:

  • Many students submitted suspiciously similar answers to the take-home final for Gov 1310, "Introduction to Congress". Cases varied in severity from 'identical typos' to 'similar structure of argument'.
  • The Secretary of the Ad Board wrote an email to the 16 resident deans, covering students' options and potential outcomes re: the ongoing Board investigation.
  • One resident dean forwarded the email to two students. Harvard being what it is, the text found its way to the Crimson, and from there was picked up by outside media.
  • Administrators authorized multiple searches of administrative and academic email accounts to find the 'leak'. The owners of said accounts were, for the most part, not notified. [Lewis; Globe; Harvard Magazine]
  • Uproar, predictably, ensued.


content warning: mention of suicide. (next section)

The story of Aaron Swartz's prosecution and suicide are almost too heavy to be summarized. I have talked around the edges of the story before, and I won't try again here. [Lewis; Lessig; more links]

One thing that came out of it, after MIT waffled its way into complicity with a tragedy, was the Abelson Report. When the report was first commissioned, Harry wrote that "MIT Does It Right":

Yesterday I asked, in the context of the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz, "what was MIT's rationale for going after Swartz for exactly the kind of hack at which the Institute has traditionally winked?"

Hallelujah. MIT has asked itself the same question, and has chosen to answer it, not by referring the matter to its lawyers and communications professionals for an analysis of the risks and rewards of various public postures, but by asking a beloved, student-friendly, information-libertarian professor to investigate and report back. The Institute could not have picked a better person for the inquiry than Hal Abelson, co-author with me of Blown to Bits. First, the job will be done impartially and correctly, without undue influence from any side; second, it will be done in a way that is wise and sensitive to the realities of student culture; and third, Abelson is such an MIT mensch that the community will believe whatever is reported.


I would venture to say that the New, run-like-a-business Harvard would never handle a similar situation with such existential soul-searching. Let's look at the Gov 1310 "cheating" case.


Harvard needs to be as honest with itself as MIT is being. In some ways the tragedies are disproportionate; the Gov 1310 mess has cost no lives that I know of, though I understand that some students were under severe psychological stress, lost weight, and so on. On the other hand, it seems that many dozens will have their lives permanently altered by the experience and the black mark that goes with it on their transcript.

From my conversations with families and students involved in the Gov 1310 case, what strikes me is how un-family-like they feel their interactions with the university have been. Harvard's disciplinary process is meant to be paternalistic; to be sure parents must sometime discipline their children while still loving them. There is not much sense out there among the Gov 1310 students I know that Harvard loves them.

Good for MIT for recognizing that its reputation will, in the long run, be enhanced if it tries to figure out if and where it went wrong with Aaron Swartz, and that the best way to do that, in a family setting, is to ask a wise uncle to figure it out and report to the community. I wish Harvard had the same attitude. (...)

Harry was right; the Abelson Report [pdf] did not disappoint, and Harvard's Keating Report [pdf] did. Harry again:

The Harvard and MIT cases are different in important respects, so the responses to them could not have been identical. As I noted in January, nobody at Harvard seems to have died because of Gov 1310 (though I am not so confident that no one came close to dying). As a result, there is probably no single thing about the Gov 1310 mess that everybody in the Harvard community would agree is regrettable, in the way that the sad memory of Aaron Swartz hangs over every page of the MIT report.

Still, this report shows that Harvard could learn a lot from MIT about how to run a university.

The quality of the final report stems from President Reif's charge letter. I have already suggested what the first part of the charge was--to figure out what happened when. But the charge has two other parts:

(2) review the context of these decisions and the options that MIT considered, and (3) identify the issues that warrant further analysis in order to learn from these events.


[N]either the Keating report nor any other Harvard report researches the entire sorry affair and asks what lessons can be learned from it. (A committee on academic dishonesty made a preliminary report to the faculty which has not been made public as yet, but it specifically disavows being a response to the Gov 1310 mess.)

By contrast, the MIT report raises broad questions, and those questions begin a process of introspection unlike anything that has happened at Harvard. What we most needed in the aftermath of the Gov 1310 case was report on (2) and (3). What were the key decisions on the road from the first charges by the Gov 1310 professor to the issuance of a press briefing, the comparison of every exam paper to every other, and the severance of scores of students?

All that has been said is that we followed our procedures scrupulously, as though there were no decisions to be made at all; everything that happened was entailed by the actions of those cheating students. I doubt anyone thinks that is really true; the board could have decided that the professor had made such a mess of his course that there was no sense in trying to untangle it all. So decisions clearly were taken. Without an analysis of what happened and how the key decisions were reached, open for scrutiny and debate in the community like the MIT study of the Swartz case, the community can have no confidence that we have learned anything.

Having analyzed the decisions, the MIT report asks, in various ways, "What does all this tell us about what kind of Institute are we becoming? Is it what we want? Is it inevitable?"


As I suggested back at the beginning of the Gov 1310 mess and suggested again when it was all over, there are many questions about Harvard's institutional culture that need to be asked. How could a department allow a professor to be so negligent year after year in the conduct of his course? If the same thing happened again, would Harvard again throw out scores of students, teaching them all the wrong lessons about power and integrity and souring them on the University forever?

Are we really so afraid of being sued that we dare not learn anything from our mistakes, or even follow MIT's example by publicly asking if we made any? (...)


Hold that in your head; jump-cut back to the present day.

Sabrina M., MIT ’19, co-president of Senior House:

MIT is so special because of its student governance and autonomy. At what other institution do students have so much power? In their dorms, in their campus life? Dorm presidents aren’t just figureheads given arbitrary choices by administrators to give them a glimpse of governance, but agents of real change. REX is entirely student run. Steer Roast, Senior Haus’ annual weekend-long party, and other large events signature to MIT (Piano Drop and Dance Til You Drop come to mind) are student run.

Student government has been a huge part of my MIT career, and has shaped my entire experience here. Most of my friends are involved in it, whether through their fraternities or sororities or dorms. It makes coming to MIT feel so worth it, even when I felt beaten down by the stress of it all. And, there are some cool perks. How many people can say they’re on a first name basis with some of MIT’s most powerful administrators?


I got my first taste of the real power students at MIT had when the MetX happened. For those of you who are unaware, the MetX is what DormCon had used to refer to the Metropolitan Warehouse building, which MIT had planned to turn into a new dormitory. Starting from October 2015, the Student Housing Advisory Committee, or SHAC, and DormCon had closed door discussions about the logistics of it all: how could students live in a virtually windowless building whose facades couldn’t be touched because it was historical, expanding the residential advising structure, and the most controversial, the possibility of it being freshmen-only housing. Because of how MIT’s residential system works, that last one became an even larger conversation that frustrated all of us. We struggled with the trust and confidentiality we thought we had to uphold, the balance being advisors and being activists: being inside or outside the room where it happened, and were constantly afraid we would lose our bargaining power if word got out.

Inch by inch, we negotiated the terms of the MetX closer to a point that we could both agree on. The conversation began to shift. What if, instead of being freshmen-only, we had freshmen clusters on halls? Or avoid all that and improve residential advising? Inches were all we ever got. We had focus groups in all the dorms, musing over windows and light channels and eating pizza, collecting feedback from students on floorplans that would be brought back to the Chancellor. The process was controversial, and eventually, the project was cancelled because it was going to be too expensive to renovate anyway. And despite all the backlash we got for wrongfully believing that we had to keep this a secret, the frustrating conversations that didn’t seem to go anywhere, and the fact that the only thing that could stop a dorm most students didn’t want was money, I didn’t lose hope in the power of student governance. I savored those inches as a freshman, eager for the next conversation that could yield a foot, yards, miles.


That summer, the Chancellor announced the Senior House Turnaround, citing low graduation rates among other things as a cause for concern that had to be addressed. The original plan included the ban on freshmen, and the removal of two of our GRTs to make way for additional live in staff. This was a work in progress we could get through together.

No freshmen? Our GRTs being fired? An alarming amount of administrators living with students in a half-empty undergraduate dorm? I stood in the sidelines as our president at the time, Sarah M. ‘18 (now UA president!) and other student leaders met tirelessly with administrators to make this plan more palatable to the residents. By the end of it all, Sarah didn’t just get inches, but full-blown feet into a positive direction. Sure, we didn’t get freshmen, but we got our GRTs back, and there was student involvement at every step moving forward with the Turnaround. Residents had decided to stay, and there was a feeling of camaraderie, a sense that we could do this, if only with the support of each other. I was amazed.


On April 20th, the news finally broke. Sarah, J. and I were pulled into a meeting that afternoon, and I was hopeful. Could this be the meeting? The one where we’d be drafting press releases together about all our progress and how Senior Haus would be getting freshmen again?

...despite significant effort and countless hours on the part of many students, faculty and staff, it became clear this spring that the turnaround had failed. We learned that dangerous behavior -- behavior explicitly prohibited by MIT policy and completely counter to the spirit of the turnaround -- was taking place in the house.

When we actually got into that room, and were told about the dangerous behavior that had been discovered, I was at a loss for words. Just a few days prior, we had been discussing joint public statements about how well the Turnaround was going. J. and I had finally gotten our foot in the door. And then, once again, I could feel it closing in on us. Everything we had planned had been thrown out of the metaphorical window. Now, all we had were vague statements from administrators and a spoken promise to keep things confidential. This wasn’t misused survey data or assumptions, anymore. (...)

There's more to the story of Senior House -- misuse of statistics and lack of transparency; ethics of group punishment; transparency around administrative motivations, and the link to adminstrative actions; and questions of whether depopulation will (or is intended to) solve problems, or just make them statistically invisible. But I can't speak as authoritatively on many of those issues as others have, so I'll move on.


Meanwhile, at Harvard, different lines of power are under dispute:

To Government professor Eric M. Nelson ’99—who expressed frustration that Faculty members were not consulted before the policy was rolled out—Faust responded that, to her understanding, the Faculty has not traditionally been involved in shaping undergraduate life and played little role in decisions like the derecognition of the final clubs in the 1980s and the randomization of House assignments in the late 1990s. (...)

Lewis replies:

This is account of the history is wholly, utterly wrong. The faculty were directly involved in both decisions. In fact, the deans of that era would not have dared make such policy decisions without a thorough faculty vetting.

So twenty or thirty years ago, the Faculty was deeply involved in policy-making with respect to undergraduate life. Indeed the Faculty's interest in such matters is the reason why the Faculty annually votes the entire Handbook for Students, not just the academic rules.

The President is wrong to suggest that it is now incumbent on the faculty opposing the motion to devise alternatives in the next three weeks:

In the interview Thursday, Faust said the next meeting in December would be an opportunity for concerned professors to propose alternatives to the controversial policy.

Alternatives should be devised cooperatively, by faculty, students, and the administration, by a well-informed, smaller group, in a thoughtful, collegial, deliberative process. The full faculty does not have the facts available to it and it has been given no background with which to debate the importance of restricting sororities, fraternities, and final clubs. The proposed policy was not developed in three weeks, nor was it thrashed out in a room with hundreds of people; no alternative proposal should be slapped together on that time scale in preparation for an unwieldy debate.

I wholly agree with the President's preference for shared governance. So let's again govern Harvard that way -- appoint and charge a group to come up with a proposal and then have it vetted through the properly constituted Faculty governance committees -- exactly as was done in 1984 and 1994, and exactly what was not done with the matter at hand. (...)

edit: Professor James Engell has added a very detailed, procedural take on the governance angle in a guest post on Harry Lewis's blog.

There are, of course, appeals being made to higher moral principles than procedure and law. But those are more numerous and lengthy than this blog post can contain.


To gloss over some fine details, both schools' debates are operating on two levels simultaneously: First, what is to be done about the situation at hand? And second, more generally, whose opinions matter?

Not 'whose opinions are are paid lip service', but whose opinions are, in practice respected -- and deferred to -- by the administration, even when administrators are not wholly convinced? Who, when competing ideas conflict, must convince, and whose convictions are trusted in good faith?

On the first, object-level question, debate rages apace on at both schools -- should the University teach by example that rule by absolute power is right and just if your cause is right and just? Does Senior House negatively affect students' trajectories, does it serve as a safe home for unconventional students, or both, or neither? Beyond the extremely superficial, the cases share few similarities. And in both, the details are myriad, the debates are tangled, and I won't rehash them here.


But, as for the question of 'whose opinions matter', which both schools are now facing:

MIT is grappling with the question of the value the administration places on student governance of Institute-run housing. The advocates of free association have lined up to defend the right of students to define their own community within MIT dorms. The question at the bottom of it, in some sense, is: If students claim that they are best served by communities operating in one way -- and the Institute doubts them -- does it nevertheless respect their judgment? Or, if it cannot see for itself the students' wisdom, does it instead impose what it believes to be in their best interests?

It shouldn't be a surprise that my sympathies here are broadly on the side of Senior House -- and any dorm so inspired -- remaining weird, even if it leaves MIT's administration with the occasional awkward question to answer from a concerned parent -- or Institute trustee. On the whole, I suspect the educational mission is strengthened by variety, diversity, experimentation, and frequent and repeated experience with failure in a supportive community.

cf. Harvard -- the question on our docket is whether the Faculty have the constitutional power to determine College policy over off-campus, unaffiliated, non-residential social organizations. Professor Lewis's pointed questions about the text of the statutes of the University are deflected by vague administrative comments. The question of whether student opinion holds any sway over College policy has long since been decided in the negative -- undergraduate respondents in a 2016 nonbinding College-wide referendum voted 2-to-1 in favor of repealing the original sanctions.

The very idea that the College might trust students to make decisions about their college lives and learn by facing the consequences of their own mistakes is -- despite Harry Lewis's decades-long and tireless support -- currently very far out of fashion. Harvard has wandered so far from questions of student self-determination, we've gotten to the question of whether anyone but the administration has any say in governance of the College.


In 2013, the contrast between the Keating and Abelson reports made it clear that MIT was institutionally able to look inside itself and see its own flaws, where Harvard was not. And from then on -- while I'd pretend a friendly rivalry for "the three-letter school down the road" for admissions tours -- I took seriously the praise of people I trusted, for the Institute's moral core.

So this line stuck out to me from the Clark--Khurana committee's report:

Peer institutions that have restricted students from joining fraternities, sororities and similar organizations include Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams... It is unlikely that Harvard can improve upon the policies of these peer institutions. Given the success of the policies of these institutions in achieving similar goals, the Committee recommends that Harvard University adopt an equivalent policy to those of Williams and Bowdoin, adapting the language as appropriate to Harvard’s social climate. (pdf)

With all respect due, Amherst, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Williams are not Harvard's peer institutions. Harvard, despite the common euphemism, is more than "a small liberal-arts school in Boston". Far more than social climate distinguishes us from those schools, and while it's not polite to acknowledge the differences, Harvard has been "America's university" in a way that no one else would claim they are, or have been.

But the mess we find ourselves in now suggests that Harvard could still learn a lot from MIT about how to run a university. In 2013, Harvard was (or should have been) humbled when MIT saw through questions of institutional blame to a deeper question of institutional identity -- of institutional soul, as Harry put it at the time. Today, it's much less clear that Institute administrators learned anything from the process, but one may still hope that they come around, I suppose.

But even if MIT remains on the wrong side of this one, it's still worth noticing that even as cracks begin to show in their notion of shared governance, it still puts Harvard's to shame.

MIT isn't a peer institution of Harvard. But if Harvard raises its sights, chooses to govern by reason rather than power, and begins to trust students to experiment and fail and learn by experience and consequence to build their own lives in the safest years they'll ever have to try things -- perhaps then the University could rise to be the Institute's peer. Is it telling that the authors of the Clark--Khurana report feel differently?

disclaimer repeats: All of these issues are much deeper than I'll cover here. Other commentators have covered them with greater precision, or emotional depth, or both. When possible, I've linked to some of those in-line.

I'm merely trying to make a small point of critical commentary around the edges of some large, complicated issues, and I don't pretend that I'll do the issues themselves justice. And though perhaps the historical parallel isn't particularly deep, I personally found it striking, especially having seen the pieces of it play out from so close.

Tesla Wells helped edit an early version of this post. The views expressed are still mine.


As usual for almost any topic regarding the modern college, there's timely and relevant wisdom for both schools to glean from the century-and-a-half-old words of Charles William Eliot, namesake of my house, MIT professor, and president of Harvard:

There are certain common misapprehensions about colleges in general, and this College in particular, to which I wish to devote a few moments' attention. [F]irst, in spite of the familiar picture of the moral dangers which environ the student, there is no place so safe as a good college during the critical passage from [childhood] to [adulthood].

The security of the college commonwealth is largely due to its exuberant activity. Its public opinion, though easily led astray, is still high in the main. Its scholarly tastes and habits, its eager friendships and quick hatreds, its keen debates, its frank discussions of character and of deep political and religious questions, -- all are safeguards against sloth, vulgarity, and depravity. Its society and not less its solitudes are full of teaching. Shams, conceit, and fictitious distinctions get no mercy. There is nothing but ridicule for bombast and sentimentality...

The petty discipline of colleges attracts altogether too much attention both from friends and foes. It is to be remembered that the rules concerning decorum, however necessary to maintain the high standards of manners and conduct which characterizes this College, are nevertheless justly described as petty. What is technically called a quiet term cannot be accepted as the acme of University success. This success is not to be measured by the frequency or rarity of college punishments.

The criteria of success or failure in a high place of learning are not the [childish] escapades of an insignificant minority, nor the exceptional cases of ruinous vice. Each year must be judged by the added opportunities of instruction, by the prevailing enthusiasm in learning, and by the gathered wealth of culture and character... The manners of a community cannot be improved by main force any more than its morals. (...)