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Harvard as First Mover

For the second time in three months, Harvard has moved aggressively to stake out a leadership position at the intersection of higher education, public policy, and distributive justice.  Whether or not you agree with the merits of Harvard’s positions, in some very specific ways it is interesting to watch Mother Harvard assert itself, both on its own behalf and in the name of “the university.”  More after the jump.

Back in December, Harvard announced a dramatic revamping of its financial aid policies with regard to “middle class” applicants, seeking to ensure that Harvard remains economically accessible even for the (relatively) well-to-do.  Yale and Wellesley have falled in behind Harvard.

Yesterday, as Deven recounts below, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted to adopt a policy that, by default, permits the University to make faculty scholarship available under “open access” terms.

What’s going on?  In a broad sense, there’s nothing really new here, but that may be precisely the point.  Some very old forces are still very important.

One of these is the university itself, which is among the oldest of surviving human institutions.  Globalization, distributed peer production, and wireless networked communications (including online course content, archives, and collections distributed by universities themselves, alone and in partnership with certain large for-profit enterprises) all have tended to undermine the notion of the traditional university.  Yet the university as such, the university as institution, the university as place, and the university as “a company of scholars” still matters very, very much.  The university as such remains a crucial context through which American society processes anxieties about access to knowledge, access to status, and access to wealth.  No one should mistake Harvard’s financial aid or open access decisions for a disregard or abolition of hierarchy.  The scales of distributive justice here do not tilt automatically in favor of the historically disenfranchised.  Harvard is adjusting its hierarchies in response to some novel interests and novel demands.  But this is the university itself at work, not individual buyers and sellers or authors, publishers, and scholars.

Two is the very specific Universitas Harvardiana, which is among the oldest American instances of the species.  Harvard is one of the very few universities in the world with the resources and hubris to believe that it can and should — that’s an important point — shape the very culture that it inhabits.  With its financial aid policy, Harvard literally wants to shape markets, and because of its size, and its prestige, and its wealth, it likely will succeed.  (As I noted above, whether or not that’s a good thing overall is a separate question.)  With its open access policy, indirectly Harvard is doing something similar for the market foracademic publishing.  Publishers who don’t like what Harvard is doing may have to submit — or stop publishing Harvard scholarship.  Both in the interest of uniform publishing policies and because Harvard’s prestige may embolden other faculties to take similar positions, open access may someday become a publishing default, rather than an exception.  I suspect, however, that Harvard also has something more selfish in mind:  Like many colleges and universities, Harvard would very much like to reduce the huge administrative and clearance costs associated with producing online content.  Its faculty may simply be taking a first big collective swipe at solving this problem on their own behalf.  Harvard is going to move its own market or, to borrow a different cliche, make its own weather.

More generally, note the conceptual similarities between Harvard, as an elite university — a quinessentially medieval institution — and Google and other 21st century network intermediaries.  The conventional legal and policy questions asked of each these days are:  What is it liable for?  (Congress is getting especially antsy about campus-based filesharing.)  The unconventional questions are:  What can it do?  Here and there, we see what they can do.  Beginning with the first filesharing lawsuits filed by Metallica, I wondered years ago whether and when universities would stand up and push back.  They could seize the rhetorical high ground and rely on their histories and institutional heft.  Not many American colleges and universities can afford to do that — in the filesharing context, it’s not clear that even Harvard can.  Harvard’s elitism gives it unexpected strength, notwithstanding the populist antipathy towards the Ivy League.  If you want an American university to be the first to take a principled stand for access to knowledge, don’t expect to hear that message from Moosylvania State U.  Often, Harvard can afford to be (and needs to be) a first mover.  Intermediary instutitions can move affirmatively to shape the culture.  Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.