Posts tagged ‘Harvard President’

A Letter to the Harvard President on COVID-19 Response (Wherein Coyote Actually Sortof Makes An Intersectional Argument)

I got this note from the head of alumni affairs (or something like that) at Harvard:

I write to share with you a message President Bacow sent this afternoon to Harvard faculty and staff. He also sent a similar message to students. His message is one he and I would like to extend to all of you.

This is an unprecedented moment for Harvard and for the world. The last week has brought uncertainty, but also great resolve and resiliency. I am heartened by the way members of the broader Harvard community, extended beyond the campus, are coming together to support each other.

I have never been prouder to be a part of the Harvard community.

Attached was a letter (sorry, no online version but this roughly mirrors its content) from the Harvard President about bravely making the decision to send all the students home.  There is a lot of uncertainty in the right response to COVID-19 and so I am generally open to difference of opinion, but the smug tone of making a brave decision in the face of adversity just rubbed me the wrong way.  So I wrote this in response.  Note I am not an expert, just one person's opinion:

FWIW, since you sent this, I will say that I think what Harvard has done is exactly the wrong thing and its actions are a victory of virtue-signaling over rational responses.

In particular, it is clear that the mortality rates for people aged 18-25 from COVID-19 are trivial -- and would be even more trivial except that we don't measure most of the COVID-19 cases in this age group because they are so mild (this from the South Korean experience where they had more measurement and they found many asymptomatic cases in this age range). When in university, these students are gathered together in a pocket of other people in their same age range and also with minimal mortality risk.

By sending these kids home, you have created a massive diaspora of folks from one of the US viral hotspots (Boston) all over the country. Students that would have been living with other low-risk people are now living with parents and grandparents who are very much at risk. Add to this the anecdotal evidence I see on the news and social media of young folks of college age flaunting quarantine and social isolation rules, and I believe that Harvard and other institutions have increased risk rather than decreased it. Also, given that Boston may have the best hospital network in the country, for those of your students who might get sick you have sent them from this location with strong medical services to one which almost certainly has an inferior medical network. Finally, given just how low the risk is to people of this age, it is amazing how panicked people in this age range are today, perhaps because they have a stronger presence on social media where there are panic positive feedback loops. An adult response would have been to tell the kids that they are going to be fine, and that their job was to stay clear of their family members who are far more vulnerable.

A better solution would have been to keep students in school and then to minimize their exposure to the older administration and professor body through online classes. Students if online but still at university could still have access to educational resources and could still hold group discussions that are much harder to do online.

I will add as a final note, because Harvard today seems to be inordinately focused on issues of class and intersectionality: I believe there is an ugly class issue built into the current panic. You can see a class gradient in the panic itself -- AJ's and Whole Foods in San Francisco have empty shelves, whereas everything is normal at the Family Dollar in rural Alabama. What I see are rich people with good amounts of savings and professional jobs at well-capitalized companies where they can work remotely asking that the jobs of low-wage restaurant, factory, and retail workers be sacrificed through quarantine for their incremental safety. I will make my assumptions explicit -- for a variety of reasons from under-counting asymptomatic cases to academic and media incentives that cause skeptical voices to self-censor or be overwhelmed, I believe the US potential mortality from COVID-19 is being grossly overestimated. One might say that it's better to be safe than sorry, but in public policy (I assume they teach this at the Kennedy School) there are always tradeoffs. What, for example, is the human misery and mortality associated with, say, 20% unemployment? I can't remember CNN interviewing many out-of-work restaurant employees about why we should quarantine cities for 2 months. I will bet you that those Harvard professors who are focused on intersectionality will be writing about exactly this a year from now -- and when they do, remember this old white cis European dude told you first.

Warren Meyer
MBA 1989

The Number One Reason the Ivy League Schools Are Broken

Ivy League schools are broken, at least to the extent they are true to their word that they are trying to serve mankind and not simply their own prestige.  Consider this from the WSJ:

Harvard hit a new low this year—in terms of its acceptance rate.

The university admitted 4.6% of applicants, or 1,962 students for the class set to begin this fall. Last year, it admitted 5.2% of applicants.

The eight campuses making up the Ivy League notified applicants on Wednesday evening about who will make up their first-year undergraduate class come fall. Seven of the eight posted record-high application numbers, while Dartmouth had its highest number in five years; seven recorded their lowest-ever acceptance rates, as Yale tied with its prior record.

Many of the applicants looked perfect on paper. At Princeton, more than 14,200 of the 35,370 applicants had a 4.0 grade point average. Brown boasted that 96% of its admitted students are in the top 10% of their high school classes, while at Dartmouth that rate hit 97%.

Yale admissions officers were “impressed and humbled” by the volume of qualified candidates, said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. That school tied its record-low 6.3% admission rate this year.

These schools invest the vast majority of their impressively-large capital funds in continuing to improve the quality of education by some fraction of a percentage.  In contrast, none of them have made meaningful investments in increasing their capacity to bring their already super-high level of education to more students (by this I mean doubling or tripling the size of its school-- Princeton to its credit did increase its capacity several years ago by something like 15%).   The number of clearly Ivy-qualified students has increased perhaps by an order of magnitude over the last 30 years but Ivy capacity has increased only trivially.

Let's say an Ivy has 5,000 students and a 10 point (on some arbitrary scale) education advantage over other schools.  Let's consider two investments.  One would increase their educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 11 (an increase I would argue that is way larger than the increase from investments they have recently made).  The other investment would double the size of the school from 5,000 to 10,000 but let's say that through dilution and distraction it dropped the educational advantage by 10% from 10 to 9.   The first investment adds something like 5,000 education points to the world (5,000 kids x 11 minus 5,000 kids x 10).  The second adds  40,000  points to the world (10,000 x 9 minus 5,000 x 10).  It's not even close.  In fact, the expansion option is still favored even if the education advantage drops by 40%.

I have written this suggestion in various forms to every Princeton President in the last 20 years and have finally just given up trying.  I have come to the conclusion that the administration and faculty don't actually care so much about Princeton's net contribution to the world, and care more about prestige.  In their hearts, I would bet that most of the administration and faculty -- very rationally from their personal incentives -- want to be associated with what is arguably the top undergrad school in the country, and might even consider cutting the class size in half if that is what is required to get stay there.  They get rewarded for being associated with a school with an educational advantage that is as high as possible, and no one's evaluation of that associated prestige is affected by whether that education is provided to one person or one thousand. If you buy Bryan Caplan's argument that college education is mostly all signalling, then we alumni should have the same attitude.

I did have one Princeton President engage me on this (Shirley M. Tilghman, who also oversaw the modest growth in Princeton's size I mentioned above).  The counter argument I hear is that it is really hard to keep these institutions great while tripling them in size and taking online students or whatever.  But that is a cop out, in my view.  The people who run these institutions preen that they are the thought-leaders in education.  Well any fool can run a capital campaign at Yale and build a new molecular biology building.  One of these folks should take on a harder task.   I have had my issues in the past with Arizona State (ASU) President Michael Crow, but I think it can be argued that he is contributing more to the world trying to figure out how to improve the education of 100,000 kids than is the Harvard President educating the same hand-picked 5,000 undergrads with incrementally-increased intensity.