Alumni Profile: Jed Willard ’96

GC: Jed, thanks for sitting down with us. First, tell us about the Foundation’s FDR Center for Global Engagement. It just celebrated its first anniversary. How did this initiative evolve from what was essentially a museum project?

There are two parallel stories here. The first is about what happens when you create the world’s only museum of Gilded Age student life, in the actual suite of the most influential American president of the 20th century, inside an undergraduate dormitory? Well, you can’t exactly open it to the public, and you certainly can’t treat it like a hotel. So, when I first saw the completed restoration, I was struck by a premier venue it could be for on-campus programming. Take FDR’s actual fireplace, for instance. Well, of course you create a “Fireside Chat” series where small groups of students can experience off-the-record conversations with amazing speakers on timely topics. Last semester alone our Chats covered Jewish-Muslim Relations, the History of Found Objects, and Counter-ISIL Communication Strategy.

The other story is about House Renewal, Harvard’s billion-dollar investment re-envisioning its unique system of residential education for undergraduates. The House system was invented in the 30s to integrate students then segregated by wealth and simultaneously create learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom. House Renewal aims to align this system to 21st-century learning models while simultaneously preserving historic character and House uniqueness. Adams, one of the twelve Houses, is attempting to serve as a locus for “global citizenship,” attracting scholars from all over the University to engage in multidisciplinary research and programming on challenges transcending national boundaries. Other Houses will have different themes, from literature to the natural sciences to the performing arts.

The Center for Global Engagement is therefore two things at once: a celebration of historic legacy and a learning node of House Renewal. The two aspects play really well together, it turns out – even in the sense of physical space. You have the Fireside Chats, of course, but there’s also a palpably different feeling to lectures hosted in a Depression-era recreation of a Florentine palace equipped with an baroque fireplace (the Lower Common Room). When international visitors mount the stairs to their “classroom,” the Spanish Renaissance-modeled Upper Common Room, under Adams’ remarkable mudejar dome, they frequently remark that the learning space itself feels absolutely unique. And that feeling highlights the essential aspect of Harvard as one of the greatest intellectual capital centers of the world. There’s simply a draw there. No matter how famous or important our guests, they all want to take a “selfie” in Roosevelt’s easy chair back in the Suite. And the truth is when I sit at his desk contemplating a deadline it’s really easy to comfort myself by thinking of all the problems I don’t have to worry about such as polio, Nazis, the Great Depression, and Stalin.


GC: But how did you personally get involved?

I volunteered! As I mentioned, I was struck by the Suite’s educational and inspirational potential when I first visited the restored rooms, and so I approached the Palfreys and Michael Weishan, head of the FDR Foundation, with some ideas about how we could project FDR’s values forward and make them relevant for a new generation. As it turned out, they had been thinking along similar lines, so the timing was perfect.


GC: What’s your background?

I grew up in New Orleans: an amazing, unique city. I don’t get back as often as I would like but, thanks to friends and family, my kids feel comfortable there (the eldest pulls for the Saints, not the Patriots, which may prove problematic in the future). The kids don’t yet really enjoy my creole cooking, though. I hope that will change at some point.

As a Freshman at Harvard I was drawn to Adams House. Due to renovations, most of my blocking group lived outside of the Yard our first year, and we were thrilled to get into the center of things. We lived in Claverly, C-Entry, and A-Entry. I concentrated in History, though I also studied anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion, and spent a lot of time on theater.

Experiencing theater, media, marketing, and exchange got me interested in public diplomacy, and after getting my master’s degree at the Kennedy School I worked with the faculty there to set up the Public Diplomacy Collaborative. One of my favorite things about working with the FDR Foundation is the opportunity to bring HKS students, fellows, and faculty to the College. To work with the undergraduates, of course, but also to draw the HKS community into the overall history of Harvard. I try to use a similar combination of spaces and academic/professional atmospheres in my consulting work, as well. There’s a real value in being able to bring together experts from all over Harvard – and, importantly, beyond. I find you can build diverse multidisciplinary teams very quickly to tackle an incredible array of global issues at a high level.


GC: Looking around the world, what worries you?

Only a few hundred years ago, the notion of near 100% literacy was ludicrous. And throughout most of history women were considered sub-human and slavery was taken for granted. So I believe in progress. I also believe that our species is in a much better place today than ever before. It’s hard to imagine given the hellish lives far too many of us still experience, but levels of violence, poverty, ignorance, and ill-health are unimaginably low by the standards of history. So I’m very positive about where we are today, and I’m a strong believer in humanity’s ability to improve ourselves.

I therefore worry foremost about catastrophic, civilization-ending processes, and secondly about terminally regressive developments. Among the former I’d include climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear and advanced biological weapons. Among the latter: genetic and cyborg technologies with the capacity to greatly accelerate already troubling levels of inequality; under-regulated, runaway automation that leaves behind a permanently unemployable majority; and the increasing popularity of illiberal or even medieval ideologies and the simultaneous loss of faith in the Enlightenment tradition. I also worry about genetically engineered, ethnically-targeted pandemic viruses; and furious swarms of tiny, fully-autonomous killer drones.

And I worry that myopic, short-term, irrational, in-group-fixated thinking won’t help us to deal with these challenges. I worry that so long as even our most intellectual conversations are based on international boundaries and the past 100 years alone, we will be unprepared for the rapid, global paradigm shifts ahead of us.


GC: What kind of realistic change do you hope the FDR Center will stimulate?

Between the World Wars, FDR and other leaders were confronted by popular and rapidly spreading ideologies that very well could have become globally dominant. Fascism and communism are compelling, and we do ourselves a disservice to imagine that liberal democratic systems are inevitable. So long as we bring new generations of humans into the world, we will have an ongoing contest of ideologies. To pick a few current examples: Violent, extreme apocalyptic religious movements; Anti-Western, anti-post-modern church-plus-state rhetoric; Anti-democratic, anti-individual statism. While it’s true that if we stand by singing “kumbaya” and believing in relativism we may continue to see countries abandon or fail to achieve democracy, I believe that by becoming more self-aware and using education, political science, and strategic communication to promote our values, we can restore faith in post-Enlightenment, liberal democratic traditions. We’ve already begun working with the US and allied governments on this issue, and I think in our own small way we can make a real difference.




Here, There and Back Again: A Tale of a Sign

A couple months ago, I received a call from a very courteous gentlemen in Santa Fe, inquiring whether or not I might want to buy an old, wooden sign. But not just any sign: An old “Adams House sign,” the caller said. “It dates to about the time of the Civil War, and originally came from Boston.” Oh, my ears perked up immediately, as I had once seen a faded old letter in the House archives a few years back…now if I could just remember the specifics… But perhaps I should tell you the story from the beginning.

You see, before there was Adams House, there was the Adams House, one of Boston’s earliest luxury hotels. Opened in 1846 on the Washington-Street site of the historic Lamb Tavern, The Adams House Hotel possessed a stern Federal stone facade — and, critical to our story — a large wooden sign above the main entrance. Later expanded with an annex in the 1850s (which still stands on Washington Street) the original structure was replaced with a much larger Victorian edifice in 1883 (now demolished).

The original 1846 Adams House Hotel on Washington Street, Boston. Click to enlarge. The sign pictured above may be the very one we acquired. (Courtesy: Boston Atheneum)

The Victorian iteration of the Adams House Hotel that replaced the orignal in 1883.

In 1889, King’s Hand-Book of Boston noted that the Adams House was “one of the finest and best-equipped hotels in the city, of which its dining-rooms and café are … conspicuous features.”

By the early 1900s, however, the Adams House clientele began to change, with short-term guests ceding way to local politicians and businessmen looking to secure cheap extended lodging near the Statehouse. Calvin Coolidge, notorious for his frugality, took a room at the Adams House for $1 per day in 1906 as a new member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In an unusual display of extravagance a day after being elected governor in 1919, he expanded his digs at the Adams House to a two-room suite with bath on the third floor for $3.50 per diem. Coolidge was at the Adams House when he received the telephone call informing him of his nomination as Warren G. Harding’s vice presidential running mate in 1920.

The Adams House Hotel fell victim to declining revenues during Prohibition (deprived of the income from all those hard-drinking politicians and newsmen) and was closed in 1927. The main building was demolished in 1931. In 1930, Harvard, anxious to name one of its new Houses after the Adams family, acquired the name and goodwill from the bankrupt establishment as a legal precaution. That signed contract was the document I had remembered from the archives all those years ago, addressed to Professor James Baxter, who would shortly become the first Master of the new Adams House:

So of course I was interested in the sign! Pictures and descriptions flew back and forth as price negotiations got underway.

The sign as seen in Santa Fe. Somewhere along the way, it was cut in two.

Based on typography and construction, the sign almost certainly dates from the 1846 iteration of the Adams House Hotel. (Whether it’s the sign you can see in the 1848 lithograph above we don’t know, but it looks almost identical, and the size and scale are an excellent match. The only real difference is that the sign in the illustration has raised capitals, but that might be artistic license. Regardless, this particular lettering style fell from fashion after the Civil War, so the sign most likely predates the 1882 Victorian incarnation.) The 18″ letters are gilt with paint, hand-carved into a single pine plank 2” thick, 2′ wide, and 16’ long, which weighs close to 80 pounds! The entire black background was then hand-chiseled to produce a rippled effect (click the picture below to enlarge). This was not an inexpensive sign, then or now. Though the exact provenance can’t be proven, a reasonable guess would be that the original hotel sign was retained as a showpiece when the first structure was demolished in 1882, and then later dispersed with the goods of the hotel during bankruptcy in the 30s. By the 1950s, the sign was documented in the hands of a Boston antiques dealer, who sold it to the mother of my caller, who also owned an antique shop — in fact, she named the business Adams House Antiques, where the sign remained over her Santa Fe door until she decided to retire this past year.

Long story short: a mutual price was agreed, the item shipped, and then I took a month or so to gently restore the sign, mending it back into its original single piece frame. Given its age, the sign’s condition is remarkable, no doubt due in part to the many decades spent in the humidity-free desert Southwest.

Here’s how it looks hanging in the Gold Room entrance to the dining hall:

The restored sign hanging in the Gold Room. Click to enlarge the image in order to see the fine chiseled detail.

So, a small piece of the first Adams House returns to its legal successor, the second Adams House, after one hundred-seventy years. A neat bit of cyclical history, don’t you think?

Adams Lore

A few weeks ago the Gold Coaster sat down with Bob and Maria Kiely ’99 to discuss their new online project

GC: Maria, tell us about Adams Lore. What motivated this project?
People who aren’t connected to Adams House are always asking what it was like to live there and people who are connected to Adams House love to reminisce about their time there. I think the creation of Adamslore satisfies both the curiosity people have about Adams and the desire people have to tell their stories. Adams House has a rich history made up of the experiences of all the people who have passed through over the years and our new blog, adamslore is a place for all these stories, memories and anecdotes to be shared.

GC: Bob, Adams House these walls most be full of wonderful memories. Are there any that stand out?

Since I mentioned a number of individual students and tutors in my earlier articles on Adams, (See: A House Remembered Part I and Part II), I’ll try to stick with events that engaged all or many in the House. We inherited some traditions and initiated others. Well established by the time we arrived were Friday Teas, The Adams Raft Race, Formal SCR Dinner in the Library before the Winter Feast entertainment, Winnie the Pooh Readings, Sophomore Dinner, Spring Waltz, Senior Dinner and, of course, optional nude bathing during certain hours in the swimming pool. We always looked forward to the Friday Teas when students could come to relax at the end of the week, sip Earl Grey tea, taste cucumber sandwiches (some piled high on their plates!), homemade brownies and cookies and about once a month hear fellow Adamsians play chamber music in the music room. They were civilized events and I often had a chance to meet and talk with students I hadn’t already met.

Bob and Maria Kiely heading for the Spring Waltz, 1998

The Raft Race was quite another matter! Raucous, loud, a little crazy. In the days before the drinking age changed, they were co-sponsored by some beer company that provided kegs and bleachers for the crowds that came down to the river to watch hand-made crafts from all the Houses and MIT. Adams usually built totally unseaworthy rafts that either sank or came in last. I handed out prizes, including one for the raft that came in last! Then we all came back to Randolph Court for a barbecue and home-made music, much more professional than the rafts. After a few years, the Dean put a stop to the whole thing because townies started throwing rotten vegetable and rocks at the rafts, someone fell into the Charles and had to be rescued and given a shot to prevent infection from the polluted river. So it was!

The SCR dinner in the library before the Winter Feast followed a pattern that had been set for years: drinks in the Upper Common Room, students singing the Boar’s Head Carol while holding a platter with a plaster boar’s head, the Master toasting his colleagues at an elegantly served dinner, and Jana and I lighting the plum pudding after it had been drenched with brandy by the Director of the Dining Hall. Afterwards in the Dining Hall Winnie the Pooh cast a kind of childhood magic over the Winter Feast that everyone loved. Masters had traditionally played Christopher Robin, but I found his lines too few and serous, so after a year or two, I assigned myself the role of Eeyore which gave me greater dramatic scope. Professor David Maybury-Lewis always was the narrator with a perfect Oxford accent; and Bob Tonis, former Chief of Harvard Police was a great Pooh who liked nothing better than to sing off-key. The mix of formal and informal, traditional and spontaneous was something I liked about Adams House and the flexibility of its residents.

Among the traditions initiated by the Kielys, usually proposed by students, were Drag Night, Cinco de Mayo, Soul Night, and Chinese New Year—all in the Dining Hall at dinner time. Drag Night was, of course, the most entertaining mainly because absolutely everybody got into the spirit, many dressed accordingly even if they were not part of the entertainment on stage. One of my favorites was performed by two roommates, one of whom threw encyclopedias at his roommate while he was dancing a flamenco. The tosser was a poor aim so no harm was done. The first Chinese New Year got off with a bang, literally. As an amazing and large papermache dragon carried by students writhed through the Dining Hall, the dragon-bearers set off firecrackers that created so much smoke that the fire alarms went off and the Dining Hall had to be evacuated until the Fire Dept came. After that the fireworks were lighted outside. Speaking of alarms, I remember too a totally unplanned event one very cold night when new alarms that had been placed in Randolph Court rooms were so sensitive that a tiny bit of dust would set them off. They were so loud that it was unbearable to remain in the building. When my wife and I looked out our bedroom window, we saw the courtyard filled with students in various forms of undress shivering under sheets and blankets. We rushed downstairs, opened the doors of Apthorp House, invited them in and made pots of hot chocolate. I wish I had taken a picture of the study. It was funny yet moving. It looked like the deck of a sinking ship with passengers huddled together to keep one another warm.

Of course, Adams House was NOT a sinking ship. Anything but! That’s what I loved about it.


GC: Maria, I think you’re unique among Adams House alums in that you were actually born here. What was that like?

The thing about being born at Adams House is that I never knew anything different so it all seemed very normal to me. It is only when I tell people about things that happened at Adams House or when I think back on certain experiences that I realize how very special and unusual it was.

When I was in sixth grade, some Adams House students put on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Randolph Court. I would sit in the window seat of the second floor living room in Apthorp House with the window open and watch them rehearse every day for several weeks. I was totally fascinated by the whole process. I loved hearing them recite the lines, work out the blocking, bring in set pieces and costumes (or lack there of, I believe Puck was nude for most of the play.) I also just loved watching all the students interact. They were an endless supply of cool big brothers and sisters to spy on. By opening night I knew every line of the play. I had learned an entire Shakespeare play backwards and forwards without even realizing it. The next year in my seventh grade English class my teacher assigned everyone a passage from Shakespeare to memorize and recite. I was given Puck’s final speech. I was thrilled and told her I already knew it. She sort of rolled her eyes and said something like, “Of course the English professor’s daughter has already been taught Shakespeare.” If only she had known that my teachers were a group of young, enthusiastic, budding actors who were totally unaware of my presence.

When I was twelve I was playing pinball in the tunnels by the laundry room and a male student came running down the tunnel wearing a blue sequined mini dress and black patent leather stilettos. He smiled as he passed me at a full sprint and I remember thinking, “Wow, he looks so cool. I hope someday I can run that fast in heels like that.” Growing up in such an open, welcoming and diverse community it never occurred to me as a child that anyone seeing that guy would have had another type of reaction.

Living in Apthorp House meant that I was used to people coming in and out all the time. Students lived upstairs on the third floor, tutors used the basement as their art studio and practiced for hours a day on the piano in the music room. I always felt very safe and comfortable in Apthorp House but I was a kid with a big imagination and, even though I tried to convince myself otherwise, I was still afraid that there might be monsters in the basement. Doug Fitch could not have known about my fears when, a week before Halloween when I was six years old, he burst through the basement door into the breakfast room wearing a ghoulish mask that he had just made. I screamed at the top of my lungs and fled for the safety of my bedroom. He must have felt bad for scaring me because he came to apologize but I was too freaked out to see him. Later that week he gave me a peace offering of little pink and purple felt toys he had made that could be snapped together to form different animals. I loved the toys but I was wary of the basement door for a long time after that.

Adams House was my neighborhood, Apthorp House was my home and many Adamsians (students, tutors and staff alike) were my extended family. The year after I graduated and my parents left Adams House, I was having a meeting at the Barker Center and I suddenly felt exhausted and feverish. At the end of my meeting all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. Without thinking, I hurried home and found myself at the front door of Apthorp House. Realizing I no longer lived there I burst into to tears and went straight to the House Secretaries offices in C-Enrty. The comforting figure of Otto Coontz rose to greet me with a hug. I told him what had happened and he helped me to lie down on a couch and said, “You might not live in Apthrop House any more but Adams will always be your home.” That is still and always will be true.

GC: Bob, do you think the House changes when the Masters change, or does it simply evolve on its own? Obviously randomization is now a factor, yet the Houses still maintain elements of personality. At least, Adams does.

Surely the main character of the House in the days before randomization was due to the students who chose to live there. During our 26 years, Adams was either the number #1 choice or in the top 3 among freshmen. The House was always racially, geographically very diverse. We had some talented soccer and hockey players, rowers, squash champs, but rarely anyone from the football or baseball teams. Concentration in the humanities, arts, music, literature was high even among pre-meds and pre-law students. Actors, actresses, singers, Crimson, Advocate and Lampoon staff were always well represented.

Although now professor emeritus, Bob still teaches a freshman seminar, Beauty and Christianity. Here are Bob and his freshment in the Kiely Conservatory fall, 2014

How much the Master influenced that is hard to say, but I have a few concrete examples of the kinds of influence that could be exersized. I chose the Senior Tutors— preferring Assistant Professors rather than administrators— because I wanted the House to be an extension of students’ education at all levels. I also chose the tutors in consultation with students. My preference was always former Adamsians. I knew them and knew they would be great. When I first arrived there were no resident tutors in art, music, or drama. I changed that right away. I always looked for a good mix of gender, background, and ethnicity, but put academic excellence first. I encouraged all our tutors to think of their positions as primarily academic, disciplinary secondary and only when necessary. I’m proud that so many of our former tutors in all fields—including medicine and law— are now at the top of their professions.

There were unexpected opportunities for leadership. In the ’70’s before there was a BGLSA or any open discussion of gender preferences, a small group of students sat down with me at lunch, described their difficulties at Harvard, and asked whether they could form a student association that could meet at Adams. Since that required the Dean’s approval, they needed a faculty adviser and asked if I would serve. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was deeply honored that they trusted me. The Dean approved; they held meetings and dances at Adams and set up tables in other Houses inviting people to join. Some Masters welcomed them. Some didn’t. A few said that “This was an Adams House problem because there were no gay students in their Houses.” Ha!

At another time, a group of Adams students were leading a student movement to try to persuade the administration to withdraw investments in apartheid South Africa. These were brilliant, idealistic, crafty kids. I didn’t want them to get into trouble—as had been the case in the late ’60’s. So I gave advice about how to make themselves heard without breaking College rules. They listened carefully and now and then asked me to be their emissary to the Administration with petitions, etc. I gladly did that and hope it helped. They eventually built a “shanty town” in the Yard one night and escaped before the Harvard Police could catch them. I suspected something like this was in their planning, but kept quiet about it.

There are other specific examples, but it probably all comes down to the fact that the definition of House Master that I liked best was “professor in residence.” I have always believed that conversation is a powerful part of education. I really liked talking to students and hearing what they were thinking, reading, studying. I liked hearing about their backgrounds, where they came from and where they wanted to go. I also think getting to know people is the way prejudice of all kinds is overcome. I accepted the fact that some students centered their lives outside the House—in the lab or Crimson or just with their own ways of working and playing. That seemed fine to me. Adams was never a Gung Ho place. Rah! Rah! Adams. Our color was black. We liked it that way. When students came to Senior Common Room lunches, they sat with some of the brightest junior and senior professors at Harvard. I wanted people to get to know one another. One of my favorite jobs was introducing people who I thought would have a lot to share. Projects, plays, concerts, team taught courses came from this, but mainly true friendships. I rarely brought in lecturers, because that’s what students and professors heard or gave all the time. We often had music and poetry, but mainly people—even shy ones from very different fields and backgrounds— learned the pleasure of talking to one another in a civilized respectful way and the importance of LISTENING. I’d like to think that was a way that a Master helped set the tone and character of a place filled with talent.

Editors note: Adamslore is always looking for new memories. You can contribute yours by emailing: adamslore.entries@gmail


What the Titanic Can Teach us About Surviving Climate Change

(Editors Note: This past fall, Adams House and the Foundation produced a three day conference Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilizaiton Through Turbulent Times. This article is one of the first work-products of that effort.)

The Titanic leaving Belfast shipyard, one day old. Exactly two weeks later she would lie on the bottom of the Atlantic.

The time is 11:39 PM April 14, 1912 and the largest moving object mankind ever created is about to rendezvous with destiny.
In a little more than 60 seconds, a several-thousand-year-old piece of ice will scrape along the hull of a two-week old liner named Titanic, dooming the glittering pride of the White Star Line. She carries on this her maiden voyage 885 crew catering to 1317 pampered passengers, with just 20 lifeboats, enough to hold roughly half of those on board. Why so few? A little noticed lobbying effort a decade earlier by the major shipping lines had successfully argued that lifeboats (expensive to build and maintain, and worse, consuming revenue-generating deck space) were unnecessary in an era of water-tight doors and wireless communication. Modern technology, shipwrights claim, render their vessels virtually unsinkable, a view shared by three of the most competent nautical experts of the age, now hastily summoned to the bridge of the suddenly silent liner. In command is Captain Edward Smith, the commodore of the White Star Line. His presence aboard this crossing is intended as an honorific farewell: on reaching New York, he will retire from a largely uneventful 50-year career at sea. With him, naval architect Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, aboard to fine-tune last-minute details and make notes for improvements to the Titanic’s two sisters, the earlier Olympic, and a behemoth still in the ways, to be christened Gigantic. Finally, the man who had envisioned and willed this transatlantic trio into existence, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line. These three, with a over a century of nautical expertise shared between them, know more about the Titanic than anyone else on earth.

Yet despite this vast know-how, they are utterly powerless to alter their shocking circumstances: having quickly surveyed the ship after the collision, designer Andrews reports to a stunned Smith and Ismay that the Titanic will be on the bottom of the Atlantic within two hours.

Setting aside this tragic narrative for a moment, let’s examine our own present situation, as we recently did at the
Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilization Though Turbulent Times conference at Harvard University in October 2015, co-hosted by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation and Camino Arts. Speaker after speaker, Ambassador Bruce Oreck, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, and NASA historian Erik Conway among others warned that we, as a nation and as a planet, are in dire trouble; embarked on a one-way journey that will end at best badly, and at worst tragically; and that we now face critical choices that must be met with courage and resolve. A ripple of disquieting realization washed over the conference participants, many of them students just beginning their lives, as each struggled to find a balance between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Surely, many asked, it can’t be as bad as all that?

Above, top to bottom: Captain Edward Smith, Thomas Andrews, and J. Bruce Ismay

The reaction was eerily the same that starlit April night in 1912. Early on, before the Titanic’s wounded bow began visibly settling into the 29º F water of the Atlantic, few passengers cared to leave the glowing decks for the dark cramped lifeboats now dangling from the davits. (Had the passengers known there had never been an evacuation drill and that many crewmen were unfamiliar with the process of lowering the boats, even more would have resisted.) As it was, the first few lifeboats were lowered pitifully under-filled, most of the passengers preferring to wait in the luxurious warmth of the library, the smoking room or the grand first class stairway, where the large clock portraying “Honor and Glory Crowning Time” relentlessly tick-tocked down the seconds, poignant counterpoint to the beat of the ragtime tunes being played by the ship’s orchestra. It was a scene of surreal calm, the last moment of peace many there assembled would ever know.

“Surreal calm.” Does that strike a foreboding yet familiar note? Down deep, most of us know that our planet is in trouble. Whatever your political stripe, your belief set, or whether you think the sea will rise 2 inches, 2 feet, or 10 feet over the next century, all you have to do is take a critical look around — like Thomas Andrews — and “sound the ship” to realize the proverbial engines have stopped and we’re taking on water. A sampling of alarming facts:

• 80% of the Earth’s original forests are now gone, and in the Amazon alone we lose 2000 trees a minute.

• 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are now distributed across the world’s oceans, with a half-life that exceeds hundreds of years for many types of debris.

• The desert has claimed one-third of the globe and is advancing into fertile dry lands on four continents.

• Species extinction has risen from a normal rate of 1-5 per year to 20 per day. By 2050 half of all Earth species will be threatened.

• Because of increased C02 uptake, the pH of the world’s oceans has fallen from 8.2 to 8.1, a 25% increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to reach 7.8. Fossil records reveal that such drops have previously triggered global mass extinctions.

• While energy demand in the West is projected to remain relatively flat, global energy demand will increase by 70% in the next 25 years due mostly to a rise in developing-world consumption.

• By 2050, even with sustainability initiatives in place, the human race will need 50% more energy, 40% more water, and 35% more food.

Of course, the great unspoken bugaboo behind all these figures is overpopulation, but few of even the most vocal climate change campaigners dare address this topic, and certainly none of our current crop of spineless politicians has the courage to do so. The issue is far too politically and religiously charged, and telling ugly truths never wins votes. But no prescient talent or special technological expertise is required to understand that adding an additional 3-4 billion people to our planet in the next several decades will overwhelm an already overburdened ecosystem. Even if climate change were entirely dismissed, these and many other indicators from across the planet show that the planet simply can’t maintain 10 billion humans, each trying to increase his or her share of a petroleum-soaked consumer-driven pie.

Add effects of climate change back into the picture, with millions of people from Boston to Bangladesh displaced by flooding and storms; critical infrastructure like our antiquated electric grid crippled; food supply distribution networks disrupted or destroyed by climate-induced sectarian strife; and vast tracts of formerly bountiful farmland in the American West, Central China and Northern Africa reduced to desert, nd you have an almost 100% surety of societal collapse. To quote lines from James Cameron’s movie version of the Titanic tragedy:

Ismay: [incredulously] But this ship can’t sink!
Thomas Andrews: She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can…and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.

Let me then be equally clear: The Western lifestyle we enjoy in America in 2015 simply cannot be sustained, and it especially cannot serve as a model for the developing world. It is “a mathematical certainty.”

We have at last met our iceberg, and it is us.

So now what? Will it be “women and children first” as they did on the Titanic, or infinitely more likely in this self-centered age, “every man for himself?” As our species faces the grim realities, we can benefit from the lessons learned on a doomed transatlantic liner in 1912.

First and foremost: we must candidly and immediately acknowledge the full extent of the crisis.

Given their staunch Edwardian belief in the infallibility of human progress, Captain Smith, Andrews and Ismay may be forgiven for doubting that their “unsinkable” wonder could founder beneath their feet. One minute all was well, and the next, disaster. Yet the ship’s command quickly and accurately assessed the situation, overcame very powerful disbelief — especially hard because physical manifestations of the growing tragedy were not yet generally visible — and made the critical decision to abandon ship. At best, this would mean a highly perilous operation, which would subject passengers to a harrowing descent 70 feet down the side of the ship in tiny open boats only to strand them a thousand miles from shore in a freezing sea, surrounded by icebergs. If for some reason they were wrong, that things weren’t as dire as Andrews believed and the ship somehow remained afloat, they would have subjected their passengers to a potentially fatal ordeal that would destroy the reputations of all three men and damage the White Star Line irreparably.

But Smith did not hesitate. The order came to lower the boats, and it was this rapid acknowledgment that the impossible was in fact probable that saved the 710 passengers who eventually made it to New York. Despite the risks, despite the incredulity, despite the open resistance from passengers, one by one tiny boats began to drop into the frigid North Atlantic. Companion to this dreadful acknowledgment was another more frightful realization, silently admitted by only a select few, but equally valid today: not everyone would be saved, but every second spent in denying the realities of the present meant even more casualties. Our Internet-linked society has no excuse to deny or ignore the severity of our ecological crisis. Unlike those in 1912, we can see the iceberg. In fact, we’ve known about it for decades. We, in 2015, must follow the example of these three men: we must admit that the impossible has occurred and begin to make our plans based on worst-case scenarios, not the best. This was the basic premise explored at the Beyond Tomorrow conference.

We cannot use looming disaster as an excuse to do nothing.

In the Victorian era, the model of gentlemanly sangfroid was to meet one’s fate with silent resolve and grim reserve. But to modern eyes, going down with the ship simply yields another corpse. Picture millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim, who returned to his cabin, donned formal gear, and told everyone who would listen that he and his valet (who seemingly was offered no other choice) “we’re dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen.”

Really? Was that all a gentleman could do, dress in white tie and tails to passively await the end?


Benjamin Guggenheim and valet awaiting their fate in James Cameron’s movie version, Titanic.

History is pretty clear on this point: fortune favors the brave, and the brave favor action. As members of our planet’s privileged educated elite, we all become Benjamin Guggenheims when we intellectually acknowledge the coming crisis, but continue our carbon-soaked lifestyles unabated and unaltered, on the theory that we will either be dead before the worst comes, or, that small changes won’t matter anyway, so why bother? Small changes DO matter, then and now. On the Titanic, witness all those who fought to free the last collapsible lifeboats; or who like the artist Frank Millet, went below decks to aid steerage passengers who didn’t speak English; or the wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who stayed at their posts frantically signaling for aid until the power failed minutes only minutes before the ship foundered. Even a few of the passengers already in the lifeboats rose to the fore, including the soon-dubbed “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the rough-and-tumble Colorado mining heiress who shared her ample clothing with shivering survivors, took an oar to help row, and then verbally bullied the lifeboat’s reluctant crew until they agreed to return and search for survivors in the water. None of these valiant actions altered the trajectory of the main event, but they did mitigate the degree of the disaster in many ways. Those who were saved, were saved through action, not inaction.

The same is true today. While truly “sustainable” environmental policies are a myth (sustainability is defined as “continuing indefinitely” and no current technology or program comes even close to meeting that mark) the net effect of these initiatives is positive as long as they don’t lull us into believing that the crisis isn’t upon us. The water is still creeping up the decks, but every direct action that attempts to mitigate the problems confronting us multiplies the scope of possible outcomes exponentially.

Don’t depend on technology to rescue us.

One Beyond Tomorrow participant, New York Times columnist David Brooks, expressed a commonly held skepticism about doomsday scenarios. “Challenges to civilization have occurred before, and always something comes along to save the day,” he stated. Many people clearly want to agree, cherishing the hope that some sort of technology will be invented to reverse global warming or drastically lower carbon emissions. This is a conveniently comforting sop, which we must immediately abandon.

The plan of the watertight doors on the Titanic, indicated by the bold vertical lines. The ship could remain afloat with first four watertight compartments flooded, which Andrews imagined the worst possible outcome of a direct head-on collision. The iceberg however had other ideas. Skipping along the hull of the ship, it damaged each of the first five compartments, cutting just far enough along the hull to allow the sea to spill from one compartment to another, dragging the ship down by the bow. Human technology has a poor track record when pitted against the forces of nature.

The Titanic clearly demonstrates the fallacy of putting too much credence in miraculous salvation. Repeatedly Captain Smith and others aboard the doomed liner thought they saw the lights of a ship just over the horizon, and they tried everything they could think of to signal this phantom-like vessel — Morse lamp, rockets, wireless. All in vain. The mystery ship, the Californian, was indeed there, just 10 aching miles away, but her commander inexplicably dismissed the Titanic’s signals as “company flares.” (Why any liner would be sending up gratuitous rockets mid-ocean he never explained.) Even worse, the Californian had a sole radio operator, asleep in his cabin when the distress calls came through. If the passengers and crew of the Titanic had hesitated to board and launch the lifeboats, expecting instead salvation from that almost tangible glimmering hope, no one would have survived the sinking at all. Yes, it’s possible some future technological advance may save us from ourselves at the last minute. It’s equally possible one won’t. We can’t afford to wait and see.

Don’t expect our national leaders to save the day.

After the grim decision to lower the boats, the three men most responsible for safety of the Titanic reacted in remarkably different ways. J. Bruce Ismay, who early on helped passengers into the lifeboats, inexplicably hopped into one himself and stepped off the deck of his sinking ship with thousands still on board. Captain Smith, after an initial burst of decisive action, became unresponsive and withdrawn as critical decisions mounted, and was last seen standing alone on the bridge, silently waiting as the water crept over the raised threshold of the wheelhouse. Thomas Andrews did what he could, going from stateroom to stateroom, urging passengers into the boats. According to one survivor’s testimony, he met his end in the smoking room, staring into a painting over the fireplace ironically entitled “Approach to the New World.” Another account has him frantically throwing deck chairs into the ocean to use as floats. Regardless, over a thousand people remained clinging to the rapidly sloping decks, and all but a few would be dead within the hour. The lesson here is clear. When confronted with overwhelming crisis, the leaders we so depend on may be unable to act effectively, and it falls to individuals and small groups to save themselves and others.

A perfect example: our own US government’s dysfunctional response when confronted by the early and evident signs of climate change as much as 40 years ago, a response which remains woefully lacking today. Democratic and Republican administrations alike might have moved decisively on environmental legislation when it could have been highly effective, but failed to act, as both parties were (and continue to be) held captive by special interests that reap huge short-term profits from the status quo. This same paralysis is evident across the globe, as time and time again world leaders sound an alarm, then fail to agree to practical steps. However, as our speaker Dr. Erik Conway pointed out, local, state and regional initiatives have been proven highly effective in changing national and international patterns of behavior. Dr. Conway cited California’s insistence on cleaner emissions standards for cars; this legislation, which was fought by auto manufacturers for decades in the courts, was eventually upheld. Loath to lose the lucrative California market, the manufacturers gave in, and shortly thereafter these rules became the national standard. Corporate America reacts to one thing only, the almighty dollar, and if enough dollars move to one side of the scale, even the most reluctant corporate players will switch sides. Another example: the organic/local food movement, which was pooh-poohed by government and business alike 30 years ago, but because of bottom-up pressure by consumers has become an important force that now shapes issues of health and lifestyle, as well as affecting economic decisions about land use and urban planning across the US and Europe. It’s clear that micro actions like these, especially when backed by purchasing power, often can and do have macro effects.

Lastly, don’t allow civilization to become another casualty.

In times of crisis, especially when human lives are at stake, it’s easy to push thought of saving elements of our culture — history, the arts, music, literature, language — to the side. But it is these very elements that constitute our human civilization, which, along with the rule of law, form the basis of the liberal Western democracy we enjoy. The value of art in a time of tragedy was clearly demonstrated on the Titanic by members of the ship’s band who calmly set up their instruments on the open deck as the lifeboats were loaded all around them. One might be excused in thinking that this was done from duty: they were crew after all. But they weren’t, which makes their actions all the more noteworthy. The White Star Line, in an effort to save money, carried them as private contractors in 2nd class. As such, these eight men had as much right to save themselves as any other passenger, but instead remained and played, according to many survivor accounts, until the decks became too steep to stand upon. The scene must have been almost unimaginable: the brilliantly illuminated Titanic, sinking by the bow into an absolutely flat black sea, so calm in fact not a crest rippled the mirror of a million stars that crystal night. There is absolute stillness other than the low rumble of people on the decks, punctuated by the shouts and creaks of the davits being lowered, and the periodic report as emergency flairs whistle into the sky, burst, then fade. Suddenly, through the frigid air, clearly audible to those on deck and even to those a quarter-mile away in the boats, arrive the first cheering notes of the “The Merry Widow’s Waltz,” the jaunty beat of ‘“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Silver Heels,” or “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” and then, towards the end, more somber tunes like the wistful serenade “Songe d’Automne.’” Almost every survivor account mentions the music, and the effect this had in suppressing panic almost to the end: while the music lasted, hope remained. The eight musicians of the Titanic knew this instinctively, and because they did, surrendered their lives to a man. Music, the arts, literature, history — these are the elements that bind the veneer of civilized behavior to our lesser natures. As a species, we move forward without them at our utmost peril.

The sad truth is that no single resolve will get us off the fateful voyage we’ve embarked on. Like the passengers on the Titanic, we’ve long since left the safety of the harbor, and now we find ourselves in peril mid-ocean, without hope of external rescue. Today, our Titanic is the planet, our sea, this empty part of the universe, where we are truly alone. And like those luckless souls of a century ago, it’s becoming rapidly clear to even the most ardent naysayers that we’re not going make our intended landfall.

Lamentably, we brought this tragedy on ourselves, and we will have to endure it to the end. But how we survive, how many survive, and how well, is still up to us.

Time to man the boats.

One of the Titanic’s lifeboats as photographed from the rescue vessel Carpathia, April 15th 1912.

Author, historian and PBS Host Michael Weishan is the Executive Director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard, a co-sponsor, with Camino Arts, of the Beyond Tomorrow Conference at Harvard University, October 16-18 2015.


A copy of this article suitable for printing may be obtained HERE in PDF format.

The View from Apthorp: Changing Times

These are difficult but healthy times here at Adams, at Harvard and on college campuses throughout the country. Difficult because the world is difficult. Terrorists attack homes and restaurants, hospitals and schools. Families die fleeing the violence in their homelands. Innocent people are shot in their neighborhoods. Homeless men and women, girls and boys sleep each night on the city streets. Students confront stress, confusion, loneliness, stigma and sometimes, interpersonal violence. Difficult times.

But healthy. These are times when hard subjects are raised. These are times when people all around the House and the College are learning to listen – to hear each other’s voices, lives, experiences, fears and joys. House life is at its best when it is about healthy dialogue – honest discourse, even vigorous debate. This year, as much as any since we have been here at Adams, the House has served as a place for those honest and healthy discussions. And for those totally silent minutes when words make no sense and get in the way.

Healthy too are the exciting Global Citizenship programs sponsored in collaboration with the FDR Foundation. This fall’s meetings on “Beyond Tomorrow: Safeguarding Civilization in Turbulent Times,” “Sharing our Story” and the Adams House WinterSession on “Using the Built Environment for Social Change’ brought together a fabulous array of artists, historians, designers, social scientists, policy makers to delve into questions about our globe’s health and life – both what we can learn from the past and what we must prepare ourselves with for the future. The multigenerational audiences in these programs are one of the joys of Adams House. We love having the alumni join us and we all benefit from the wide range of talent and experience.

Judy and Sean

Letter From Cambridge: Backwards Forwards

Given that we are by far the oldest Harvard House, and certainly the most idiosyncratic, it’s not unreasonable to expect that things don’t always progress in a linear fashion at Adams. That’s certainly been the case with several recent Gold Coaster initiatives. The oldest, and still ongoing, is the Historic Room Database. You may remember I announced the effort over three years ago with great fanfare, and requested your five-line bios. Well, much like President Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement from the deck of an aircraft carrier, I was well ahead of reality. Let me count the problems. It turned out we were missing quite a number of Adams Facebooks, and those had to be located or purchased on E-Bay. Then, the online database program that we selected was designed by a very well meaning CS-50 student who hadn’t thought through the complexities of this old house — room numbers have changed, entries are listed varyingly as C-entry or C entry, some rooms have even had their floor plans merged. This data mish-mash wasn’t helped by one of the students we hired who very cleverly off-shored her work to India for two dollars an hour and pocketed the difference. This would have been fine if not so cleverly the data hadn’t come back with a slight formatting differences that we didn’t notice in time.  However, these problems are well on their way to being ironed out — with the exception of the WWII years where the College shifted to a year-round three-term schedule. There may eventually have to be a separate database for that period, but we’ll tackle that later. Once we get this up and running — and notice please I am not saying precisely when — you will each have a short period to add or emend your bios before the database is locked. Stay tuned.

Regarding our beloved football flag project, over three hundred Adams alums indicated that you would like to purchase flags. So… we worked with a manufacturer in China to develop a successful prototype, which we did, and came up with a beautiful sample. We were about to put the flag into production when the manufacturer suddenly demanded a minimum 5000-unit order, plus substantial tooling costs. Now granted, we could probably sell 5000 flags eventually, but I am not sure the Foundation wants to be in the flag business long-term, nor could we afford the upfront costs which ran to 15K or so. So if any of you have a clever idea of how to move this project forward, we’d love to hear from you. I looked into repatriating production, but sadly couldn’t locate a single manufacturer interested in making these flags in the US.

Finally, and most significantly, I regret to report that contributions to our Global Fellowship program have fallen off sharply, threatening the existence of the program. Over the past four years we’ve sent some remarkable individuals to do some very remarkable things that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve, but unfortunately this kind of program is very expensive to run, on avegerage 10K per individual. We REALLY need your help to keep this wonderful Adams initiative going.

However, on one front we have made great progress, and you are reading it as we speak. An entirely newly redesigned Gold Coaster sits before you, which can be viewed on any type of device, from phone to tablet to desktop. This required entirely re-engineering the site, but the visual results, I hope you agree, are spectacular, ranging from rotating banners of Adams history to a new, easy-to-read article layout.

So a few steps backwards, a few forward, and still our grand old house marches on.