Cocktails With Charles Eliot

One hundred years later, the former president of Harvard alights on an alumni event. Mark Drozdowski fills him in on MOOCs, the Ivy League, and the university's female president.

May 10, 2013

Mark: President Eliot! I didn’t realize you’d be attending this alumni event. You know, given that you’ve been dead for almost a century.

Charles: Yes, it’s the strangest thing. Last I remember, I was skating on Fresh Pond….

M: Cryogenics are quite wonderful. Didn’t do much for Ted Williams, though.

C: Who?

M: Not important. I’ve read a lot about you. Harvard’s president for 40 years. You really were (air quotes) “Charles in Charge!”

C: (blink…)

M: Well, you’d never last that long today, especially spouting controversial views on education and society like you did. Didn’t work out so well for the last guy here.

C: Our positions demanded that we take leadership of the intellectual and moral issues of our day.

M: Now you’re just expected to raise money.

C: We did that as well.

M: Oh, it’s a different ballgame these days, a lot more complex. Higher expectations and greater accountability. But more perks and better pay, too. Some university presidents make over a million bucks a year. Can you believe it?

C: That’s preposterous.

M: You should ask President Faust about what today’s presidency entails.

C: Yes, I’ve been meaning to speak with him.

M: Her.

C: What?

M: Her. President Faust is a woman.

C: (air quotes) “Drew” is a woman?

M: Oh, yeah. Harvard’s first female president.

C: A woman president. Astounding.

M: Not really. Half the Ivy League has had female presidents.

C: Half the what? What’s an Ivy League?

M: It’s an intercollegiate athletic conference with Harvard and its peers.

C: Harvard has no peers.

M: Uhhh…

C: And that’s an idiotic name, Ivy League. Who coined it?

M: A sportswriter, I believe.

C: Figures. I detest collegiate sport, especially football. Barbaric. And the hooligans who play it. What a scourge on the academy. Have they done away with it yet?

M: Not exactly.

C: To me, exercising the intellect is far more important. I started the elective system, you know.

M: Yes, I know. And now we’ve taken that concept, a pragmatic extension of the curriculum, to a new level. Thanks to MOOCs, colleges are bringing courses to the masses, and often at no cost to the student.

C: Free courses? That’s truly preposterous. And who are these mooks you speak of?

M: MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course.

C: Another idiotic name. Why not Free University Course Content? Oh… never mind. And I won’t bother to ask you what online means.

M: Just as well.

C: Surely no reputable institutions are in this business.

M: Princeton, Penn, MIT, Stanford…

C: That upstart out West?

M: That’s the one. And Harvard.

C: Heresy. Harvard cannot allow just anyone to feed from its trough. We must maintain impeccable academic standards and grant entry to only the brightest minds. Consider the possible damage to our…

M: Brand?

C: Reputation.

M: That ship has sailed. These days anyone can say they’re studying at Harvard, even though for now they won’t be getting degrees. Or even course credits. Again, for now.

C: (gulping martini…)

M: Of course, employers know the difference. Saying “I attended Harvard” doesn’t always mean the same thing.

C: It did in my day.

M: A lot has changed, Mr. President. You need to catch up on the last 90 or so years. Higher education is a different world. It’s more democratic and inclusive, but at the same time it’s even more selective than in your day. You’ll be pleased to know that Harvard routinely places first or second in U.S. News, a magazine that purports to rank colleges based on quality.

C: Second?

M: It doesn’t mean much to those ranked near the top, but the wannabes make a big deal out of it.

C: You’ve lost me.

M: Places like Harvard don’t worry about attracting the best and brightest.

C: Except that these MOOCs will attract all form of cretins who wish to suckle from Harvard’s teat in a shameless attempt to profit from our good name.

M: I…um…wouldn’t exactly put it that way.

C: So you approve of these MOOCs, do you?

M: Let’s just say I’m in favor of expanding educational opportunity, and that I doubt the reputation of places like Harvard will suffer as a result. At least not yet. If elite institutions start making relatively cheap degrees available to anyone with a computer, I might change my mind.

C: Computer, MOOCs, online, women presidents. It is all very perplexing. I suppose you will next tell me that we no longer require literacy in Greek and Latin for college entrance.

M: Let’s get another drink, Mr. President. This might take a while.


Mark J. Drozdowski is director of university communications at the University of New Haven. This is the latest installment of an occasional humor column, Special Edification.

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