Harvard fail

Back in the day, the president of Harvard stood up to an unaccountable, unAmerican, evil conspiracy.  I also count Joseph Welch, a Harvard Law alum, (and coincidentally, another Iowa boy) as one of my heroes in the same national battle.  Of course, the stakes then were limited: only the survival of American liberty and the constitution, and academic freedom were on the table.  Now Harvard has the chance to take a stand against another oppressive, unaccountable, force.  Like McCarthy, the NCAA is mistreating a powerless youth as is its conventional practice ,and with its pervasive and typical stupidity, but to do the right thing puts the prosperity of the big-time college sports industry, not to mention Harvard’s own teams’ legitimacy as determined by this secretive cabal, at risk.

It is a “well-known fact” that a university without a top-class, winning, intercollegiate sports program is doomed to academic mediocrity.  I am on a search committee at my own school, and we only had 370 applications for the position, (including a batch of star, top-class finalists).  This pathetic showing must be attributable to our football team’s losing season, right? (What great scholar, after all, would deign to be associated with a place like Chicago, or Cal Tech, or MIT?)  As Harvard has caved on this one, it would appear they either believe this nonsense, or they think college sports as ordained by the NCAA is a higher value than the ones Pusey defended. But they are wrong either way: if Nocera’s reporting is correct, things have changed a lot in Cambridge, and not for the better. [Disclosure: I have four degrees (don’t ask) from Harvard and my daughter has another.  I’m not ‘proud of Harvard’, because I didn’t make it or even change it much when I was there; I hope Harvard is proud of me.  I spent some of the best years of my life there as a student and on the faculty.  I wish Harvard well, and I think it’s a wonderful institution, but I know it to have flaws and shortcomings, and it will have fewer if they are ventilated and confronted.]

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

20 thoughts on “Harvard fail”

  1. You sneer at CalTech, but our basketball team won a game last year. It made the national news.

  2. So what exactly happens if Harvard lets Fagbenle play anyway? They forfeit the games on paper, I guess, but the team still plays. Anything else?

  3. Some of the comments have less sympathy for the player, who they feel is also guilty of gaming the system by repeating a year of high school to get marks high enough for Harvard – and Harvard would probably not accept marks raised in this way except for an exceptional athlete (or the offspring of a prominent graduate). However, the NCAA does not seem to be putting any weight on *why* Ms Fagbenle took “too long” to go to university after high school, just that she did take too long. The NCAA’s equating the British CGSE (formerly O-levels) with high-school graduation is remarkably stupid, and its internal appeals processes – the article says Harvard has gone through four levels of appeal – must be far beyond obtuse, or meaningless.

    But short of taking the NCAA to court, what can Harvard do? (And has it *legal* grounds to complain? Stupidity is not illegal, and that’s probably just as well.) If it plays an ineligible player, its games don’t count – and probably the results don’t count for their opponents either. So they prejudice a lot of people, not just their own players, by defiance even of the grossest stupidity, such as here.

    1. If they play an ineligible player, or one later determined to be ineligible, they forfeit the game, which means the other team is deemed the winner. So the results definitely count for the opponents, as a victory.

      1. If they play an ineligible player, or one later determined to be ineligible, they forfeit the game, which means the other team is deemed the winner.

        Um . . . you sure about that? I don’t think that the NCAA considers Oklahoma the winner of the 2005 BCS title game, despite the fact that USC had to vacate that win. I don’t think Oklahoma even considers itself the BCS champion.

  4. Maybe they were being diplomatic and waiting until all hope was lost, before calling out the NCAA?

    Sounds like it’s a boycott that’s needed, if there are no grounds for suit. It would be nice to see that kind of sportsmanship today. And I think kids need to believe in it more than ever.

  5. Nocera is doing good work, which is not unusual. Obtuseness on the part of the NCAA is never unusual. What is unusual is that a student basically failed a year of high school, repeated the year with good grades, and then was admitted to Harvard as if the missing year vanished into the ether. Nice work if you can get it.

    1. The Ivies only offer need based scholarships. As those of us who are hockey fans say, “Do they need a goalie?”

      1. Amen to Neal. Hockey, from my experience, attracted the dumbest Ivy students. Football wasn’t nearly as bad.
        For those of you who haven’t been to the Ivies, a few points:
        1. The Ivies take varsity athletics very seriously, even though they are not too good in most sports. This comes from history, in part. There’s also the well-known propensity of ex-jocks to give their money to alma mater.
        2. Athletes (and legacies) aren’t nearly as bright as the others as a group, although they ain’t dumb. (Hockey excepted?) And some of the jocks are affirmatively smart, by Ivy standards. Arguably, the ex-jocks make more money than the etiolated crowd. Which feeds into point #1.
        3. Ivies have this weird policy: “Our admissions office never makes a mistake.” It is almost impossible to flunk out of an Ivy. Most of the students are pretty bright and work like dogs, but it’s easy to skate by and get a degree, if you want to. Back in my day, most of the students would pretend not to work hard, although they were mostly lying. I’ve heard they’ve become more honest recently.

    2. Students with iffy academic records being admitted to Harvard is also not unusual, always providing those students are elite athletes. Non-athletes do not get admitted to Harvard after having a year of poor academic performance, no matter how glittering their other extracurriculars are.

  6. Yeah, the NCAA made the wrong decision, so she won’t be able to play freshman year. Maybe instead she’ll focus on Expos and Ec 10, do some other extracurrics, hang out with friends.

    In other words, I’m having a really, really hard time caring.

  7. As to any NCAA or college athletics discussion, never lose sight of the core problem, which is a fundamental design flaw. Big time college athletics is a substantively professional sport crudely bolted on to officially amateur college extracurricular activities. It should never have been done that way, and well-nigh incurable problems flow therefrom. This particular incident is on the fringes of the “big time” regime, although women’s basketball does get growing TV coverage and has some very prosperous professional stars. Wherever this incident lies, the infuriating enforcement regime under discussion is a direct outgrowth of the defect structure of the “big time” system.

    1. Ken,
      I only wish it were a design flaw. It’s not. The system may be evil, but it is intelligently designed. Let me explain.

      College athletics is not nearly as good, in quality, as the pros. And yet, in a field of human endeavor that mostly rewards excellence, it continues to flourish. This is true only because college athletics is not a minor league sport. Instead, through a bit of social magic, we can pretend that it is something different.

      To understand this better, women’s tennis is exemplary. It is now about as popular as the men’s sport, and rewards excellence in much the same way. (Not quite: top women don’t have full endorsement value unless they are straight and pretty.) Women’s tennis might even be more popular than the men’s sport. However, top women are not nearly as good at tennis as top men. #50 man could probably beat #1 woman, most of the time. Women’s tennis, however, is not considered minor league tennis. It is women’s tennis; a different sport than men’s tennis, and maybe a more lucrative one. Except for a few sports like shooting and equestrian stuff, we socially construe women’s sports as something different from–not necessarily lesser than–men’s sports. This wouldn’t work unless we construed women as very different than men. (And physiological differences are not at issue: there is no special game for those with less upper-body strength. It is the gender category “woman” that keeps this distinction going, not sex-related physiological tendencies.)

      So for college sports. We construe student-athletes as very different things than professional athletes. Anybody with half a neuron knows that this is bogus, but it is still the social consensus, carefully tended by the revenue-hungry NCAA. There is no way to view college sports as pro sports while maintaining big college sport revenues. Minor league teams, after all, only enjoy minor league revenues. So count on this indefensible and illogical regime to continue. Changing it to something more defensible would cost too many powerful people too much money.

      1. The system in many ways works very well, or it wouldn’t have survived, one could even say thrived. It serves the interest of a lot of people, often but not always including the athletes. However, higher education institutions should never have been in this large scale entertainment industry. They have slowly blundered into it over more than a century, and are stuck with it. The anomalies and frustrations are frequent, and many are effectively insoluble. I agree with your last paragraph, except that the NCAA as a specific institution draws more focus than it really deserves. The problems might very well actually be worse without some similar central authority.

      2. The counter-observation here being that Division III college sports works quite well. Admittedly there aren’t any billion dollar TV contracts involved.


        1. Division III sports are true extra-curricular activities, closer on the spectrum to the more intense high school sports than than to big-money, top-division college football and basketball.

          1. Ah, yes, I am aware of that. Scholar-athletes, strong body/sound mind, that sort of thing. Which as I noted does not generate TV contracts in the 10e9 range, nor provide free development leagues for professional sports leagues – neither of which seem to have anything to do with the mission of a university.


  8. “the survival of American liberty and the constitution, and academic freedom were on the table”
    I’ll grant the last, but the rest seems an exaggeration.

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