Saturday, November 5, 2011

Diamonds are forever; or, Institutional arrogance, 1970s edition

[title revised on 11/7]

A Crooked Timber thread about a recent student walk-out from Harvard's intro economics course (Ec 10), currently taught by Gregory Mankiw, elicited comments from a number of people who had taken the course in the past, sometimes the quite distant past. I was one of those commenting, having taken Ec 10 sometime in the mid-1970s (no need to get too specific for these purposes).

Late in the CT thread, one commenter suggested that having so many students in one course, albeit with numerous TA-led sections, was evidence of institutional arrogance. My response, which I'm posting here rather than at CT: if you think Harvard officialdom is arrogant today, you should have been there in the late 60s -- which I did not experience but have read a bit about -- or a decade later in the 70s.

Emblematic of the latter period for me, and no doubt for others, is a statement by the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rosovsky. I remember this statement one way; I just discovered that Google (or, more precisely, an article I found via Google) remembers it slightly differently. Thus I'm going to give it in two versions. As I recall it, Rosovsky, probably responding to a question from a probably disgruntled student, intoned: "You are here for four years, I am here for life, and the institution is here forever."

Typing "you are here for four years..." into Google produces, among other things, a Feb. 28, 2005 NYT piece by Adam Cohen about the controversy then raging over Lawrence Summers's remarks about women in science. Here is how the piece opens:
"You are here for four years," Henry Rosovsky, who long served as Harvard's dean of faculty, once told a group of students. "The faculty is here for life. And the institution is here forever." The quote became part of Harvard lore: a campus film society promoted a James Bond movie with the slogan, "You are here for four years; Dean Rosovsky is here for life; and Diamonds Are Forever." But it also came to embody, for my generation of students and alumni, Harvard's imperious view of its place in the world.
It hardly matters whether my version or Cohen's version of the Rosovsky quote is correct. The point is that one would be rather unlikely to find a university administrator making a comparably patronizing, dismissive statement today, not because administrators necessarily have become more benign and enlightened but for reasons of survival in a changed climate in which, among other things, student opinion probably matters more than it used to. Btw, if you read down to the end of Cohen's piece you'll see that he managed to riff neatly on the statement in his last paragraph.

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