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Friday Water Cooler: Harvard Is The Epicenter of Screw-Ups

(Photo Credit: Campus Media Group Blog)

It's an old story, but still a great one: at a classic meeting of Harvard and Yale - you know, that Game where the Crimson and Eli try to catch up to Lehigh and Lafayette in terms of most played college football rivalry - a group known as the Yale Pundits convinced many Harvard fans at halftime that their poster boards would spell out "Go Harvard" - but instead spelled out the words you see to your left. As old as the prank was, it never fails to make me smile.

Less obvious that the truism that the Pundits exposed on that fateful November day is a dirty little secret: that there are an awful lot of folks who have passed through Cambridge and have been screw-ups. Behind that demeanor of faux-competence, over-confidence and just flat out arrogance, Harvard folks screw up a lot.

This matters, too: for if I screw up on my blog, maybe a dozen people are offended, and never hurt. When one of these yahoos screws up, the entire global economy can be run into the ditch, or - worse - a guy like Carl Palladino can credibly run for Governor of New York and not have an incumbent to challenge him.

Let's look at the top Ten Harvard Screwups. (more)

10. William Randolph Hearst (1885). Best known for becoming a newspaper tycoon, ruiner of the film career of Orson Welles and creating a castle in southern California chock full of priceless art, Hearst rose to fame by lying to the American people. As noted in their book Unreliable Sources, Hearst "routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures and distorted real events." This "yellow journalism" approach fostered military adventures in Cuba and elsewhere, which prompted the author Upton Sinclair to say that Hearst's papers "willing by deliberate and shameful lies, made out of whole cloth, to stir nations to enmity and drive them to murderous war." It made Hearst rich, but it cost us dearly in military screw-ups and treasure.

9. Fred Gwynne (1951). While it's easy to say that this president of the Harvard Lampoon is more of a regular guy type than most of his Harvard brethren - starring in a multitude of schlocky TV episodes of The Munsters and Car 54, Where Are You? - but his royal screw-up was showing up in the critically-loved but viewer-avoided movie Ironweed, and giving actors Merryl Streep and Jack Nicholson badly-needed gravitas to further their own repellent, arrogant movie careers. For shame, Fred. For shame!

8. Larry Summers (Ph.D, 1982, also, President of Harvard). A long and storied career in academia, Dr. Summers will be best known for not one, but two massive screw-ups: one, making a statement at a conference as president that, in an effort to explain why there were fewer women in tenured science positions at universities, that (paraphrasing) that "small differences (between sexes) in the standard deviation [between genders] will translate into very large differences in the available [research] pool," enraging pretty much every "high end" female scientist in the world. Largely because of this, Summers resigned as Harvard president in 2006.

But even that pales in comparison to his role in deregulating derivatives contracts, which one could make an argument unbalanced risk in the markets so severely that it was a major cause of the financial crises of 2007, and whose reverberations still appear to be rippling through markets today. Surprised that a former president and Ph.D at Harvard was a major reason the economy crashed? I'm not.

7. Derek Bok (Harvard Law 1954, also former interim and acting president of Harvard). While Mr. Bok does not have ruining the world economy on his resume, this quote from the New York Times shows how he's screwed-up about a postseason spot for the Ivy League in the FCS playoffs: “Once you start worrying about a national football championship, then you begin to worry about getting the quality of athlete, and the numbers needed, to win a national championship,” Bok said when asked why football is kept out of the postseason playoffs. “And that worry leads to pressure to compromise academic standards to admit those athletes. That’s how even responsible institutions end up doing things they don’t like doing.” A noble sentiment - until you sit and think for a microsecond about how the Ivy League sidesteps these principles in, notably, men's basketball and lacrosse, two sports that have lots more money and prestige than the FCS playoff system.

6. Bill Gates (attended but did not graduate) Need any more be said about the guy that brought us the floating paperclip, stole Steve Jobs' operating system, and runs an operating system on the great majority of computer systems in the world that is the No. 1 choice of hackers? Mr. Gates did bring a standardized operating system to personal computers everywhere, but has also put a vulnerable piece of software on most computers in the world. That, to me, counts as a screw-up.

5. Steve Ballmer (1977). Could some new blood have saved the Windows operating system from feature bloat, insecurity and Windows Vista? The world will never know, since instead of looking outward to see who can fix Windows, when Gates "retired" from Microsoft he instead looked to the guy who lived down the hall from him at Harvard (and who, incidentally, was manager of the football team as well). Ten years later, the Microsoft operating system is no more secure and a Harvard undergrad is running the show.

4. Jeffrey Immelt (Harvard MBA, 1979). After taking over from slash-and-burn CEO Jack Welch, Immelt was unable to hold GE shareholders' value since 2001 - the conglomerate's stock price has tumbled since he took over in 2001. Less publicized is that an underrated player in the global economic meltdown was GE Capital, which was allowed to print money for GE in the early 2000s, and that Immelt came from GE's healthcare division, where the conglomerate made a mint making medical devices and profiting from a bloated healthcare system. Nobody says "status quo" than Immelt, who made over $5 million dollars as CEO in a year when GE announced they were shedding 75,000 jobs.

3. George W. Bush (Harvard MBA, 1976). No really, do I have to go over this again?

2. B.J. Novak (2001). While folks know him now for his stint on The Office as Ryan Howard, temp-turned-technologist-to-guy-plotting-his-revenge, before he worked as an actor he was known for wasting Taco Bell's money - getting them to rent a ship, pay a crew, unfurl a target and pay millions in insurance if the spaceship Mir, which was entering Earth's atmosphere, would hit the target and would cause Taco Bell to give everyone in America a free taco. While it worked out extremely well for the "prankster" Mr. Novak, the trend that it spawned - "viral" marketing - has caused an awful lot of money being wasted by companies to make their products seem "edgy" and "cool". Thanks a lot, B.J. Thanks so much.

1. Elliot Spitzer (Harvard Law, 1984). It's unclear whether the former governor of New York learned his hypocritical behavior from Cambridge, Massachusetts or no, but the former attorney general who made his name going after the excesses of Wall Street fell from grace after it was learned that he had a taste for high-priced prostitutes, and even using campaign funds and state funds to cover up the dalliances. In stark contrast to his "ethics and integrity" platform, the scandal showed that perhaps Harvard's MBA program maybe should rethink that part of the MBA curriculum.

While CNN - obviously desperate for ratings - has allowed, inexplicably, for Spitzer to re-enter the public arena with pundit Kathleeen Parker, how anyone can see Spitzer as anything by "Client 9" and a world-class hypocrite is beyond my level of understanding. Perhaps if I'd went to Harvard I would, I guess.


Villanova head coach Andy Talley has a reputation for sometimes disrespecting his opponents, especially in the Patriot League.  But his latest quote in the Philadelphia Inquirer really took the cake:
The Wildcats didn't hold practice for much of last week. Now, well-rested and healed, Villanova is eager to make a run at another FCS playoff appearance.

"[Maine] is an important game for us, because there is no margin of error with two losses right now," Talley said. "And we haven't played well on the road yet. I don't consider Temple [a 31-24 setback] and Lehigh [a 35-0 victory] on the road."

I had to read this twice to confirm I wasn't just seeing things.  Hey coach Talley, was the Lehigh game in September so filled with throngs of Nova fans that it really felt like a home game?  I have pictures that prove otherwise.


Worthy of reprinting are some lead-ups to the Harvard game from the Express-Times and the Morning Call:

Morning Call: Lehigh Defense Would Like To Change Its Label

"I don't like the 'bend, but don't break' phrase and it's something we need to work on," junior LB Colin Newton said at the team's weekly media luncheon on Wednesday. "We need to come out from the first play and put it on the other team right away instead of waiting to make it stop. We've been pretty good once teams get in the red zone, but we have to keep them out of the red zone."

Express-Times: Lehigh Travels to Play Harvard

"It's huge. Confidence is everything in the game of football," Lehigh junior linebacker Colin Newton said. "Getting a win and a win streak of two before we head into our league play and home games is a big deal."

Morning Call: Nonleague Games Haven't Gone Well for Patriot League

Indications are that the league presidents aren't that concerned with one-year records or lopsided scores because the issue of deciding to give scholarships goes much deeper.

But right now, there's little evidence to suggest that the Patriot League is going to end its seven-game, six-year losing streak in the first round of the FCS (I-AA) playoffs.

It's one thing to lose to Colonial Athletic Association powers like UMass, Villanova and New Hampshire, but what has to be disturbing is its 4-9 record against the Ivy League, which is of course, the academics-first league the Patriot compares itself to and models itself after.


Anonymous said…
And Steve Jobs stole the O/S from Xerox.

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(Photo courtesy

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