Thursday, April 4, 2013

Should Harvard Be More Like MIT?

The New York Times on  Friday, April 5 had a front-page story by John Markoff on edX (which the Times insists on spelling EdX).  It was announced last year by President Deutsch ( The NY Times story has about 1,000 comments.

Basically, edX has developed a way to grade exam essays without human intervention. It looks at concepts etc. In principle, with on-line lectures and on-line exams, a course can be designed and taped, and  put on autopilot, with no further involvement by the professoriate. Just IT guys to make sure everything is password-protected and identity-certain. 

The edX project is a joint Harvard-MIT project and it seems to be moving Harvard in the direction of MIT, just by virtue of the need for more IT people to make it all happen. 

What's going on? Here are some theories:
  • Harvard has to become more of a place that enterpreneurial students like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg won't leave after a couple of years. MIT and Stanford know best how to turn students into startups and, if all goes well, billionaires.   
  • The loss on the Harvard endowment in 2008 was about $11 billion, one-third of the total. As of 2012, the Endowment was down about $4 billion, but the $6 billion of debt to keep things running is costing about $0.5 billion a year in interest. 
  • Raising more money is better than cutting, but cutting is more reliable. 
  • The edX idea is sufficiently interesting and complex and potentially revolutionary that it may distract attention away from budget-cutting in the wake of the deficits.
Where is all this heading? Here are some possibilities to be on the lookout for, in the form of budgetary-relief recommendations to the administration. (It must be said that I do not necessarily endorse all these hypothetical recommendations!)  

1.Decentralize and privatize intra-mural athletics. This will save $3 million per year. The houses should fund their own programs with alumni appeals. Few people attend these events and they are a luxury Harvard can’t afford any more. If alumni object, let them pay for this stuff. Instead,  offer every student (1) a multi-purpose elliptical trainer in every living unit and (2) one free hour per month with a trainer. This will start a lifetime wellness program for each student. MIT has this right.

2.Invest in intercollegiate sports. This will eventually generate $3 million more per year. Savings from intramural sports should be invested in the major sports teams and Olympic-eligible athletes. We must encourage them. Sales of tickets to Boston-area fans will eventually generate $3 million more than we spend. Those state colleges know this.  

3.Step up scholarships in intercollegiate sports. This will generate $5 million more per year. Harvard needs professionals on the playing field. The pursuit of amateurism is nostalgic but antiquated. Amateurism discriminates against the poor by denying them an alternate track to Harvard. It also means we lose students to colleges with a more serious athletic program. Our stadiums are half-filled at best. We need world-class players, on the basketball court or on the football field. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

4.Cut staff in departments like modern languages, with too many professors. This will save $10 million per year. The best way to learn a modern language is to go to the country or countries where is spoken. Or buy a Rosetta Stone DVD. Average research productivity of foreign-language instructors is pathetic.  

5.Consolidate overlapping departments like History and English.Save $10 million per year. Today’s history is simply yesterday’s journalism, which is taught in the English department – or on the job. Some biographers’ work transcends journalism, but how many people can be as successful at it as Robert Caro, and even he spent years earning little money. In the free-content Google world, books don’t sell as well, and Wikipedia shows that thousands of people are willing to write and edit biographies and histories for nothing. Should Harvard be encouraging its students down this road to rags?

6.Cut out the small courses. Save $10 million per year. Department major requirements force students into wasteful apecialized courses – like Old English, which just provides employment for Old English professors. Elementary and remedial courses are inappropriate for a great university.  Unemployed English majors who teach basic English composition should be doing this in high school. In any case, Spell Check means spelling is just less important because if I get it wrong, Bill Gates will tell me.

7.Bury the dead languages. Save $10 million per year. Leave the dead languages like Latin and Ancient Greek – not to mention Old Russian, Old Anything - to the European and religious-based universities, where their value is better appreciated. The study of philosophy actually interferes with output. Every course that a student takes in philosophy is correlated, ceteris paribus, with a 5.4% decline in subsequent lifetime income. In a world where we are in a life-and-death struggle with India and China, we cannot afford to put distracting existential questions in the heads of our entering freshmen. Years 1-3 - Transfer all arcane languages to the Divinity School. Years 4-5 – Sell the Divinity School to a religious institution or some other narrowly based institute that wants another school to become more like a university.

8.Use money saved to strengthen STEM Faculty. This will initially cost $10 million per year, but will be made up by grants. The money we save by eliminating waste in other departments we can use to ramp up the departments that will make America more competitive, the so-called STEM departments:
- Science, especially biotech.
- Technology, primarily computer languages, aps and hardware.
- Engineering, primarily Internet initiatives.
- Mathematics to support the other three areas.
We need to institute a required freshman course on innovation, which will cover angel investing, venture capital, social entrepreneurship, initial public offerings, executive compensation, matching gifts, charitable lead trusts, charitable remainder trusts, naming opportunities and the lifetime  responsibilities of alumni. Books are being prepared for free distribution to explain the full range of charitable opportunities for those who have successfully mastered the innovation sequence.

9.Rethink the Allston Science Center as an incubator. This will save investing $6 billion over 5 years. The Endowment loss means the Allston Science Center had to be stopped. It should be rethought as gates to science and engineering, as an incubator or innovation center, open even to freshmen. Ample spaces should be provided for our growing number of business partners to kibitz on the ideas that are percolating inside. They need playbooks – a photo of every freshman’s face, books of biographies, and students’ output on specific projects, to be provided by much-expanded Harvard Tech-Transfer and Placement-IPO Offices. Maybe the new Science Complex will be named after a woman. How about the Marie Curie Center?

10.Move ahead cautiously with distance learning options. Maybe $50 million  per year. The collaboration with MIT on the edX program is an exciting way to get past William Baumol’s cost disease problem. We are still teaching the way Socrates did centuries ago! The huge lecture hall was one innovation, but we can reach so many more people with on-line videos. One charismatic professor on line – and we then put our graduate students to work grading the exams and papers! A concern is that competition among on-line programs may drive down price. How do we maintain the integrity of the Harvard brand? If Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg had been on-line students, would they have been as successful? We don’t know, do we?