Oct 27 2008

Jean and I wrote a letter…

by at 12:58 am

…and the Seattle Times published it (in their online edition), signed, Jean Yang, Cambridge, Mass., and Seth Flaxman, Switzerland. What are we doing in the Seattle Times? Here’s the story: Darcy Burner, Harvard ’96, is running for Congress in Seattle. Burner first ran in 2006, narrowing losing to Republican Dave Reichert. This year is a rematch, and Burner is neck-and-neck in the polls with Reichert. Burner, who used to work at Microsoft, is outspokenly progressive: she favors net neutrality, led the charge for A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, opposed the FISA compromise, was endorsed by J Street, on and on.

And on a gut level, here’s a picture of Darcy Burner taken at 7am the morning that a fire destroyed her home (her family was okay):

Darcy Burner wearing a shirt that says </war>

(for those who don’t understand the shirt, which she was apparently wearing as PJs, </war> would be a rough way of writing “end war” in HTML.) In short, this is the kind of person we want in Congress.

Last Thursday, the Seattle Times published a tendentiously reported story originally headlined “Darcy Burner’s claims of a Harvard degree in economics aren’t true.” The story as reported was clearly biased against Burner and almost certainly fed to the reporter (off-the-record) by Republican operatives. The thrust of the story is that Burner has been misrepresenting her degree, which is in computer science, as being in computer science and economics.

The truth is that when Burner got her bachelor’s in computer science in 1996 the degree requirements required her to pick a subfield of specialization. She chose economics and took five upper-level economics courses. This does not appear on her transcript, since her degree is in computer science, and she did not precisely spell this out everytime she mentioned the fact that she studied economics in college. Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis (for whom Jean and I were both TFs) was quoted in the original article in a misleading way which he subsequently clarified online, ultimately filming an ad for Burner:

Meanwhile, the push-back from Harvard students, faculty, and alumni came quickly and the newspaper started back-tracking, changing the headline to “Darcy Burner’s claims of a Harvard econ degree an exaggeration” and publishing a hastily written story about Rep. Reichert only having a two-year associate degree (which some sources erroneously report as a four-year bachelor’s degree).

As former Harvard compsci concentrators, Jean and I (follow the link for her take) wrote a letter which they finally published online yesterday. Here’s the original version we submitted—I think it has some nice parts they edited out, like my highfalutin use of the word “highfalutin.” You can read the edited version on the Seattle Times website:

As recent Harvard graduates, we have a shocking revelation we would
like to share with your readers. Darcy Burner may have received a
degree from Harvard in 1996, but she was neither a computer science
major nor an economics minor, and she was certainly not both! Let us

The terminology our university uses can be tricky when we try to
explain it in everyday conversation, so sometimes we’re not as precise
as we could be. It’s not that we’re trying to hide something (except
at parties, where the fact that we went to Harvard is something of a
conversation-killer). It’s just that as graduates of Harvard College
(which is part of Harvard University, but actually predates it), we
received artium baccalaureus (A.B.) degrees, also known as Bachelor of
Arts degrees in English; instead of majors, we have concentrations. We
call teaching assistants “teaching fellows.” And despite the addition
last year of secondary fields, there was and is still nothing called a
minor at Harvard.

As her profile on the Seattle Times website correctly state, Burner’s
education is, “Harvard University, B.A. in computer science with a
special field of economics, 1996.” And as she explains on her own
website, at Harvard Burner “earned a degree in computer science and
economics.” There is no contradiction here, no exaggeration, and
certainly no lying.

At Harvard, we have joint concentrations, which are like double
majors. As of this year, we also have primary and secondary fields,
which is like a major and a minor. And to make matters even more
confusing, when Burner was at Harvard, the computer science department
required students to choose an area of specialization. Burner chose
economics. As a result, Burner completed five upper-level economics
courses, in addition to significant coursework in computer science and
mathematics. With apologies to our many friends who majored in
economics, Burner’s course of study was almost certainly more
intensive than that of the majority of economics concentrators at

Voters in Washington’s 8th District have more important issues to
worry about than the silly, highfalutin terms in use at Harvard. We
hope that the Seattle Times recommits itself to investigating issues
that really matter as the election draws near.

— Jean Yang, Cambridge, Mass., and Seth Flaxman, Switzerland

The bigger picture of all of this, at least as Matt Stoller has been arguing, is that various groups (like insurance companies, telcoms, and big media) who have been enjoying the Bush years are beginning to come to terms with the inevitability of an Obama presidency, but they’re hoping to continue wielding power through a bipartisan coalition of pro-business Democrats and Republicans in Congress, thus restricting Obama’s ability to govern as a progressive. Candidates like Darcy Burner pose deep challenges to this power structure because they’re not beholden to it. And it’s not just an abstract idea, a vague hope or fear that once elected Burner’s going to “speak truth to power”; last year Burner successfully co-chaired the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, forcing the Seattle Times to shell out $24 million to keep its competitor, the Seattle PI, alive.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One response so far

One Response to “Jean and I wrote a letter…”

  1. Josh Wertheimeron 27 Oct 2008 at 6:59 pm

    That’s awesome, Seth! It’s funny, when I saw Matt Yglesias link to that story I was thinking about sending it to you, but of course you were already totally on the ball. Nice job sticking up for truth, justice, and the American (and Swiss?) way.
    Hope all is well,

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply