Extension School students and the “Extension Studies” controversy

crimson harvard extend 2021There’s a really good feature in The Crimson about Harvard Extension School students. The writers, Associate Magazine Editor Sophia S. Liang and Staff Writer Ashley R. Masci, did a lot of research, and also took the time to interview current students and faculty. Some relevant excerpts:

Plenty of instructors come from outside of academia, too, ranging from filmmakers to art theft investigators to pharmaceutical executives. Among the instructors who taught Extension School courses during the 2020-21 school year, only about a third held concurrent teaching positions at other Harvard schools. Of these, 40 percent were professors, while 60 percent were non-tenure-track lecturers or preceptors.

I expected these numbers to be lower than 1/3, as some of the professional degree programs have almost no access to Harvard instructors, such as the ALM Management degree (see The number of Harvard Extension degrees triple in 13 years. Why?). On the other hand, other programs have better Harvard faculty numbers, including the Extension School’s undergraduate ALB program, the liberal arts ALMs, and the powerhouse Harvard Extension Post-Bacc program for people interested in going to medical school.

Another interesting finding I was not aware of:

The College’s Undergraduate Council went so far as to analyze the entire Extension School course catalog and concluded that the classes were extremely similar, in content and quality, to those offered at the College.

No other information was given. And:

The faculty handbook for HES instructors calls the school’s easy accessibility “a wrinkle,” reading: “Open enrollment and reasonable tuitions have long been cornerstones, but they mean that we ask you to provide a Harvard education without the initial screening provided by a Harvard admissions office. Quality control is in your hands.”

Nevertheless, Harvard faculty love teaching the Extension School. I knew this from personal experience – one of my professors, the late Phillip Kuhn, was very passionate about extending his classes on modern Chinese history to Extension students at night. Here’s what some others had to say in the Crimson feature:

Regardless of their background, instructors report feeling deeply fulfilled by their work at the Extension School. Across the board, those interviewed for this piece found that the remarkable diversity of students in their classrooms translated to clear benefits: a more collaborative atmosphere, broader perspectives on course content, greater intrinsic motivation for learning. Those who teach at Harvard’s other schools also maintain that the quality of education offered at the Extension School is virtually identical (sometimes literally — John T. Hamilton, a professor of German and Comparative Literature, livestreams his College lectures and supplements them with Zoom office hours for Extension School students).

Or, as Puchner puts it, “Some of the best Harvard College students are as good as my Extension students.”

The feature delves into some uncomfortable issues around Harvard Extension School programs that I have written about previously, such as the misleading and demeaning “Extension Studies” designation that causes real problems for some graduates. The Crimson talked to one such student:

Stull has been told that she would need to redo some of her HES classes at a different institution in order to qualify for the Navy psychology Ph.D. program she is hoping to enter after earning her master’s. Although it may be the course content that misaligns with the Navy program’s requirements, Stull feels that her degree’s contrived name works against her.

“My diploma doesn’t necessarily reflect their expectations of what a psych student should have,” Stull says. “The Harvard name helps me seem like I’m capable and prestigious enough to be a good asset to that particular school, but my accreditation, when it comes to the courses I’ve already taken, is questioned — the integrity of it is questioned.”

Another Navy officer and Extension School graduate had similar questions about the “Extension Studies” designation:

Going into the Extension School, Johnson was unaware that he would walk out with a “Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies” degree. Though the strange name has raised a few questions from employers thus far, it hasn’t posed a major barrier, he said. Still, Johnson acknowledges that his established career in the military put him in a unique position, and he could easily imagine a situation where the name would matter much more.

“I took no courses ‘in extension studies,’” he says. “It’s very odd to have a degree in something you never took a course in. I don’t know who in the IT world, who in the medical world, who in the nonprofit sector is going to look at that without a raised eyebrow, to say, ‘Exactly what does this mean?’”

The reporters did not get much from Dean Coleman about the Extension Studies issue:

In an emailed statement, Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Nancy Coleman wrote that she and other administrators have engaged in conversations with students and alumni about the issue. She denied the characterization of this topic as a “controversy,” maintaining that the DCE is not “necessarily in disagreement” about the proposed degree name change.

I disagree. Coleman and some Harvard officers at the Extension School have done everything in their power to bury this issue, going so far to prevent a student activist (the founder of the Extension Studies Removal Initiative, quoted in the article) from running for student government by rigging HESA elections. Per an April article in The Crimson, Jura Wins Extension School Student Government Election, Commits to Transparency After Election Rules Dispute, and the statements made by HESA and Extension School officers:

The outgoing HESA director of communications, told The Crimson last week that the Extension School’s Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes, though Division of Continuing Education spokesperson Harry J. Pierre has repeatedly denied the DSO was involved. … Downey Jr. said the Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes and referred to statements made by [DSO staffer] Addison during a virtual “Meet the Board” event posted on HESA’s Facebook page on April 14. ‘HESA does not oversee any of the elections,’ Addison said during the event. ‘They [HESA] don’t make any decisions with regards to elections.’”

When multiple people – including Harvard DCE employees – are saying the same thing, backed up by a video clip and a detailed explanation from the DSO dean defending the new HESA election policies, I am strongly inclined to believe that evidence, rather than the official spin put out by the Extension School.

But this shouldn’t detract from The Crimson’s interviews with Extension School students and graduates sharing their stories. It really makes us seem more human than the Harvard Extension School stereotypes that used to be the focus of Crimson coverage.

Fuller vs. Sangiolo: Campaign donations and the development question in Newton’s mayoral election

The mayoral election in my hometown is coming up November 2, and in the final weeks of the campaign incumbent Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller is using the tools at her disposal to gain an edge over her opponent, former Newton City Councilor Amy Mah Sangiolo. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the flood of newsletters from Mayor Fuller’s office, which were accompanied by a flurry of positive social media announcements and Facebook friend requests from Newton’s Public Buildings Division. The online communications onslaught was ostensibly part of a “listening” exercise, but to me looked more like a stealth PR campaign launched in the wake of Sangiolo filing her papers to run for mayor in June. This week, I wanted to explore another effective tool in the Newton mayoral election: Money.

In late August, I pulled 2021 data from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance for the three declared candidates for Newton mayor. One of them, Al Cecchinelli, lost in the September preliminary race, and had only a handful of contributions. By August 23, Sangiolo had two months of active campaign fundraising and 196 donations – not bad, considering Mayor Fuller (246 donations in 2021, plus additional donations in 2020) had a huge head start. Here’s how 2021 donations looked for both on August 23, segmented by donation size and total value:

Ruthanne Fuller mayoral race donors

 

Sangiolo donations

Here’s the breakdown by number of donations:

Sangiolo count

 

Fuller count

The pattern was clear: By late August, Fuller was getting the biggest donors (73 giving $1,000 or more vs just 12 for Sangiolo) and doing far better overall in terms of overall contributions ($111,097 for Fuller vs $39,123 for Sangiolo) and total counts (246 for Fuller vs 196 for Sangiolo).

But Sangiolo was doing far better with smaller contributions. Even though her campaign had started much later, she had 121 contributions in the $1-$100 range, 30% more than Fuller’s 93 contributions in the same category.

Campaign donations from outside Newton

Almost all of Sangiolo’s campaign donors resided in Newton. Only one of her twelve $1,000 donors was from outside Newton.

By comparison, of the 73 $1000+ contributions to Fuller’s campaign by August 23, 31 Fuller donors (43%) were not from Newton, with about 1/2 that number (15 donors) listing out-of-state addresses. If all of Fuller’s non-Newton campaign donations in the OCPF list are tallied, including smaller donations from elsewhere in Massachusetts and beyond, they are greater than what Sangiolo received for the entire period ($40,125 vs $39,123).

(Notes about the data: 2021 data includes donations recorded between January 1 and August 23, even if the contributions were marked as 2020 donations. In addition, there was a $2800 amount on Fuller’s list from Nationbuilder in Los Angeles in July which was listed as a “non contribution” in the OCPF data. Nationbuilder appears to be associated with a software application for processing donations).

Regardless, we’ve already begun to see the impact of Fuller’s fundraising success. Our household has received three flyers from the Fuller campaign since late August, but only one brochure from Sangiolo. Mailings and other paid publicity can have a huge impact on elections, as we saw with the Northland referendum, which was decided in favor of Northland Development Corporation after the developer dumped more than $300,000 into the campaign (see “As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy“).

Explaining the Fuller/Sangiolo fundraising divide

Back to the mayoral election in Newton. Why are the patterns of donations so different?

Name recognition has certainly played a part. As mayor, Fuller is known across the city, whereas Sangiolo’s name recognition is more concentrated in north Newton, including her home village of Auburndale. Personal and professional networks play a role as well.

But another way of looking at the Newton’s mayoral race: Donors are aligning with the candidates who represent their values. Wealthy donors gravitate to Mayor Fuller. Donors of more modest means gravitate to Sangiolo.

For instance, in the OCPF report, I am one of the 121 small donors in the $1-$100 contributions to Sangiolo.

Why?

She aligns with my values.

For instance: I agree with Sangiolo’s campaign regarding zoning and development in Newton:

I have quite a bit of experience with zoning and development in Newton, having served on the Newton City Council for 20 years — including 18 years on the Zoning and Planning Committee and 2 years on the Land Use Committee. I believe that our City’s current work on zoning needs a fresh focus to better reflect what residents want.

First, I do not support the elimination of single-family zoning. I believe we need a diversity of zoning districts throughout our city to meet the needs of all who want to call Newton home.

Eliminating single-family zoning without adding strict dimensional controls will not make Newton affordable. We can see by the existing multi-family zones throughout the City that developers are tearing down modest-sized homes by-right and replacing them with out-of-scale units selling for over $1 million each. This does not improve affordability.

I’ve written about this very issue for years on this blog. Teardowns of modest middle-class homes and apartments to make way for McMansions, million-dollar condos, and luxury apartments is a chronic problem in Newton, especially in the north-side villages. Very few politicians are willing to truly stand up to developers. Sangiolo, when she was councilor, actually did try to introduce a teardown moratorium in 2014 but was rebuffed by other councilors and then Mayor Setti Warren:

“I’m trying to jumpstart something; make something happen. Development is a real issue. I just want to get something done.”

By contrast, Mayor Fuller (and before that, Ward 7 Alderman Fuller) has been a reliable supporter of zoning reform to encourage high-density “market rate” housing as well as giant luxury developments like Trio in Newtonville, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and 28 Austin Street in Newtonville. These projects are multimillion-dollar ATMs for the developers who build them, with the mayor and allied Newton city councilors ensuring that developers’ demands are met.

Case in point: the 99-year lease granted to the 28 Austin Street developers Dinosaur Capital for just $1,050,000. (Update: Meryl Kessler, the spouse of the developer behind 28 Austin Street, is running for a Ward 3 councilor-at-large seat, currently occupied by Andrea Kelley and Pam Wright. Kessler’s platform includes “revitalizing Newton’s village centers”) Or, Mark Development being allowed to repeatedly rip up signed agreements by claiming they’re not making enough money – with the acquiescence of Mayor Fuller, who said in the October 14 mayoral debate that she doesn’t want to “push a developer away” so projects “become uneconomic.”

In other words, no attempt is made to verify developer claims about profitability. With the precedent set by Riverside, developers know all they need to do is claim poverty to get Fuller and many city councilors to agree to their demands for even more luxury units.

Mayor Fuller’s listening problems

Sangiolo has also taken issue with the mayor on schools, noting that Fuller “fails to elicit input” from stakeholders when it comes to Newton’s schools:

Sangiolo transparency

This is yet another example of the mayor’s “listening” problems. In some cases she and her administration merely pretend to listen to residents. In others, they don’t even bother.

And not just about schools. It’s about development. Roads. Public buildings. How many times have we seen Fuller’s administration plow forward with some project, then backpedal after outcry from residents and groups who were ignored or never even consulted?

This especially seems to happen on the north side of town. There was the aborted 2019 plan to place NewCAL in Albemarle, rescinded after sustained pushback. In 2020, the city unilaterally eliminated hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street to make way for bike lanes. The many small businesses along the route came to work one morning to discover parking spots for employees and customers were no longer there. They were flabbergasted, to put it mildly. The response from the city was classic – we don’t need to listen!

“City officials said the project was always meant to be temporary, and thus doesn’t need to go through the stakeholder process.”

As for development, Mayor Fuller is good at putting on a show of sympathetically “listening” to Newton residents, but then going along with the plan she, the planning department, city consultants and well-connected developers wanted in the first place.

I participated in the “Hello Washington Street” exercise that the Fuller administration’s planning department and consultants put together to elicit residents’ input. It was clearly an act of political theater, with the city creating a plan that seems almost tailor-made for Mark Development:

According to the draft, the maximum height by right for all of these designations will be 5 stories. If developers successfully apply for special permits at any of those sites (a requirement to maximize the value of their investments) they will be able to place gigantic buildings between 6 and 10 stories tall.

This represents thousands of new units of housing (most of it market rate/luxury), and millions of new square feet of office and lab space. That’s not what residents asked for, but that’s what we’ll be getting if city councilors approve the plans for Washington Street. Similar zoning designations will likely be applied in other neighborhoods all over the city — a handout to developers worth billions of dollars, and a nightmare of traffic, massive infrastructure and school costs, and lost quality of life for the residents of Newton for decades to come.

The trend, on Washington Street from West Newton to Newton Corner, Riverside in Auburndale, Northland in Newton Upper Falls, and elsewhere, is clear:

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

It’s not just big developments, either. In the mayoral debate, Sangiolo challenged Fuller’s claim that she wants to eliminate single-family zoning in the city (Fuller: “No one is suggesting that we eliminate single family zoning in the city. I don’t know anyone who is supporting that, period.”) Sangiolo responded:

“Eliminating single family zoning is not off the table. I believe it was tabled until after the election, until next year. The other issue I have to push back with you, is you keep using the phrase ‘special and unique neighborhoods’ that we seem to want to protect. Everyone thinks their neighborhoods are special and unique and trying to figure out whose neighborhoods can have more density is not an easy task. There are already multifamily zones that we have throughout the city. And what we are seeing now are the teardowns and replacement of moderately sized homes to luxury units and that’s not making the city affordable. That’s what drives the biggest distrust in the city about eliminating single family zones and doing that trickle down housing theory.”

Sangiolo is right. And if these trends continue, Newton will become unrecognizable within a decade or two. From a collection of unique villages, the city will be transformed to a developer-controlled syndicate of high-density luxury apartment enclaves separated by acres of condo conversions and McMansions. Family-owned businesses will give way to chain stores, lab space, and high-end amenities.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at what happened to the Orr Block businesses in Newtonville, including institutions like Newtonville Camera, sent packing after Mark Development got what it demanded on Washington Street with an assist from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce. Then there’s Russo’s just over the border in Watertown, destined to become expensive laboratories. This process will accelerate if things continue as they are in Newton City Hall and the Newton City Council.

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When hundreds of Newton families were displaced by construction of the Mass Pike

I’ve been reading a fantastic book on the history of the Massachusetts Turnpike: Building the Mass Pike by Yanni K. Tsipis. Growing up in Newton, this road has been a part of my life since an early age. It was the main road into Boston and west to New York. Walking to and from Newton North High School I would cross over the Lowell Ave. bridge. One summer, I even worked in the Star Market suspended over the Turnpike.

But Tsipis notes the dark side of the Turnpike’s history: From Auburndale to Newton Corner, hundreds of families and small businesses were uprooted by construction, many of whom were bullied by staff and contractors on the way out:

Families whose properties stood in the way of the new highway received only 30 days’ notice to vacate before the Turnpike Authority took title. The extension’s construction displaced some 550 families in Newton. … One irate neighbor cited their ‘terror, nastiness, and insults.’

Nowadays, this type of abuse is not possible when it comes to new construction. That said, one thing has remained pretty much the same: developers always seem to get what they want, no matter what residents say.

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Why does someone in Newton’s Public Buildings Division want to be my Facebook friend?

In the middle of the summer, a strange thing happened. Someone in Newton’s Public Buildings Division sent me a Facebook friend request.

I get friend requests from time to time from people I don’t know, but this was suspicious, as the same person had recently started relentlessly spamming practically every community Facebook group across the city, including Auburndale Village, Newton Community, and the Newton Civic Action forum. The posts were trumpeting public announcements from the Mayor’s Office about various public works projects, such as this one:

newton fuller public buildings employee post newton facebook aug 4 2021

 

This post was immediately shared or cross-posted on other Facebook groups, including People who grew up in West Newton and Newton Parents.

Looking at the Newton Community Facebook group, the posts by the same Public Buildings Division employee commenced on July 22 (Gath Pool). It was followed by similar posts relating to these projects:

  • July 23 – Newton Free Library’s Children’s Room Expansion
  • July 26 – Lincoln Eliot
  • July 27 – Franklin School
  • July 29 – Newton Center for Active Living Project Community
  • July 30 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • August 2 – Horace Mann
  • August 4 – Athletic fields city wide
  • August 11 – Gath Pool
  • August 12 – Carbon Neutrality
  • August 19 – NewCAL
  • Sep 1 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • Sep 3 – Newton Early Childhood project
  • Sep 10 – Lincoln Eliot
  • Sep 15 – Oak Hill
  • Sep 16 – Gath Pool

Many of these were cross-posted in other more local Newton Facebook groups, along with other positive announcements. I don’t know if they also appeared on Nextdoor or other local forums (comments welcome below, if you know the answer).

In addition to the municipal employee, one other city official has also been very active on electronic media, too. I have subscribed to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s weekly newsletter for years, but a funny thing happened around the same time the Public Buildings employee began touting all of the great news from the Mayor’s Office. On July 21, the day before the Public Buildings Division employee started excitedly posting on Newton’s Facebook groups, the mayor sent five newsletters in less than five hours:

Newton mayor newsletter

It’s no coincidence that Fuller and one of her employees started sending out so many messages at the same time.

The first one – “Welcome to the Interactive Newton Network” gives a clue as to what’s going on (emphasis mine):

We know people are hungry for information about what is going on in our neighborhoods, villages and across our City. We in City government are also eager to hear from all of you. City projects are always better when we listen carefully to the people who live and work in Newton and shape the projects accordingly.

To that end, welcome to the INN, an interactive map that allows you to focus in on your neighborhood or any place of interest across the City and see what improvements and investments are in the works.

The mayor has been hammered for years by complaints that she doesn’t listen. She was put on the defensive on this point in the past, as the Newton Tab reported in 2019:

“We are listening,” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in response to questions about whether the community’s feedback will be taken seriously. “We all care desperately about Newton. We care about this site. I, too, want the right size here,” referring to the green “RightSize Riverside” stickers distributed by the Lower Falls Improvement Association’s Riverside Committee.

I’ve also criticized the mayor on this blog for putting on a charade of listening and then doing pretty much what she, her consultants, and luxury housing developers seek to have built:

Another side of this trend is the tactics used by some of our own elected officials and the city planning department to steamroll opposition and discussion. A few years back, it was holding neighborhood feedback sessions (“Hello Washington Street“) in which the mayor, planning department officials, and highly paid consultants made a big show of listening to local residents in West Newton and Newtonville about the plans. After the sessions were over, they promptly turned around proceeded to ram through the high-density plan that they and big developers wanted all along.

Then there’s the issue of the Fuller administration not even bothering with “stakeholder input,” as local businesses in West Newton and Newtonville discovered last fall when hundreds of parking spaces along Washington Street suddenly disappeared to make way for bike lanes. Even the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, which has loved having the mayor on its side when it comes to high-density luxury development in Newton, was surprised:

Greg Reibman president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce said he thought the city made a mistake by not communicating the decision in advance or giving stakeholders a chance to weigh in.

But the Fuller administration claimed that it didn’t need to “go through the stakeholder process” because the project was temporary. It was forced to backpedal owing to the outcry.

Why now?

Keep in mind that the flood of social media posts this summer from the Public Buildings Division employee haven’t just been about listening, they’ve also been shouting to the rafters the accomplishments of the Fuller administration:

“In less than 18 months we completed the design and construction of the fossil-fuel-free addition to the Oak Hill Middle School”

“We’re hard at work with our design team, friends from Newton Public Schools, City Council, and parent community to deliver a wonderful project for the Lincoln-Eliot School.”

“It was a beautiful morning as we set the new temporary pedestrian and bicycle bridge at Albemarle in place.”

Regardless of the posts’ contents, the longstanding concerns about Fuller’s listening habits kind of makes one wonder why INN, the coordinated social media press releases, and Facebook friend requests didn’t get going years ago. Why did the communications frenzy start in July?

Maybe it has something to do with this announcement on June 16 that Fuller has a serious contender (former Auburndale city councilor Amy Mah Sangiolo) in the Newton mayoral race this November?

I read through the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission Advisory 11-1: Public Employee Political Activity and did not see how a flood of positive social media posts about city business by a Newton municipal employee reporting to the mayor running for reelection would constitute an ethics violation.

But it still doesn’t feel right.

Harvard Extension School success stories from the past year

A question that comes up a lot about Harvard Extension School degrees is whether they can lead to better opportunities in academia and working life. They absolutely can, and frequently do. Harvard Extension School graduates have gone onto get advanced degrees at Harvard and elsewhere (even Yale!), and have taken high-profile jobs in government, science, and the non-profit world. The Harvard Extension School website and Harvard Gazette sometimes feature wonderful success stories, but in the course of writing about the Extension School a number of people have shared their own experiences in the comments on this blog. Here are a few from the last year:

Leonard, February 2020:

My ALM degree in government proved extremely useful in getting an entry-level position as a CIA analyst. Several hiring officers commented positively on my thesis on Yugoslav politics. I initially served as an East European analyst and later spent a decade following Middle East politics. The Agency loaned me to the Dept. of State on several occasions and I served in Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon. I retired from the CIA after 25 years.

Myles, July 2020:

I graduated with my ALM in 2017 with a concentration in History. I had the opportunity to work with a highly respected emeritus historian from the Divinity School, who supervised my thesis. I am active duty Air Force, and my HES master’s degree enabled me to get hired on to teach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. I’ve been on the faculty at USAFA for the past two years. The Air Force selected to me pursue my PhD in History, and I’ll be started at Oxford University in October.

Roger, June 2020:

My son completed the [post-bacc] program in 2011 with a near 4.0 GPA. He worked his butt off to maintain those grades! His undergrad was in Computer Science and, following a lay-off during the Great Recession when his job was off-shored to a low wage country, he enrolled in Harvard’s program as a career re-direction. He subsequently received a full-ride scholarship to attend Med School and is now a third year Pathology Resident.

These are not exceptions. A cursory search through the Harvard alumni directory shows many people who received advanced degrees from other Harvard schools after finishing their Extension School ALB or ALM degrees. The Extension School bulletin used to publish about a dozen such names every year, often from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences or the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but also from the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Publishing on Amazon KDP: Use a free ISBN, or pay Bowker?

Someone asked: “I’m about to publish on Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing … should I just use the free ISBN, or pay for one?” It’s a good question, and one that has real financial considerations, as ISBNs registered with the “official” U.S. ISBN registry are very expensive (see “Bowker ripoff: A 12,500% ISBN markup for new authors“). On the other hand, using Amazon’s free ISBNs come with a cost, too. Here’s my take on how to navigate this question.

First, KDP ebooks (Kindle editions) don’t require ISBNs. Amazon will assign its own numbering system known as an ASIN to the ebook.

But if you are using KDP to print paperback books, you will need an ISBN. As a publisher with long experience dealing with Amazon and Bowker (the U.S. ISBN registration agency) I would say use the free one Amazon provides only if you anticipate this being a one-off book with low sales. This is what happens to almost all self-published titles, no matter how good the book is. Amazon is swamped with self-published books, and most of them will languish in obscurity without superior marketing or promotional efforts.

If, on the other hand, you are a U.S. resident and have serious plans for bookstore distribution, a series, or an imprint, bite the bullet and pay Bowker’s outrageous registration fees for ISBNs. The current price for a single ISBN is $125, rising to $295 for 10 and $575 for 100. As a publisher with multiple titles, it makes sense to purchase 10 or 100 to start.

bowker isbn ripoff pricing

For people or companies with serious publishing aspirations, the Amazon KDP-provided ISBNs will be a liability. Why? Amazon is a dirty word in this business (see “Why Amazon’s Buy Box policy attracts counterfeit books and cheaters“). Bookstores have been decimated by Amazon for 25 years. Many will never order titles from Amazon on principle, even if it is from a famous author on an Amazon imprint. I once listened to Tim Ferriss lament this issue on his podcast – he discovered when he published one of his books on an Amazon imprint that bookstores wouldn’t touch it, for the most part.

As for series and imprints, any serious publishing venture should have free and clear control over their own ISBNs. Amazon-assigned ISBNs will forever be associated with Amazon in databases and may interfere with future legal agreements, including distribution via wholesalers (see “Pros and cons of traditional book distributors“). If series/imprints/ part of the publishing plan, it is advisable to register ISBNs via Bowker, despite the rip-off pricing.

The number of Harvard Extension degrees triple in 13 years. Why?

In 13 years, the number of degrees awarded by the Harvard Extension School has nearly tripled to 1,340 degrees in 2021, most of them ALMs. What’s going on?

Here’s a screenshot of the Gazette article from my 2008 graduation, showing the breakdown of degrees.

2008 Harvard Extension Degrees

“In Extension Studies” are liberal arts ALB/ALM degrees; at the time professional ALM degrees were labelled by concentration. Certificate programs no longer exist.

How did HES go from 481 to 1,340 in 13 years?

  • First, it dramatically expanded online courses.
  • Then, it added more concentrations outside of the liberal arts.
  • Finally, it reduced or eliminated “Harvard Instructor” requirements, greatly increasing faculty and class pool.

According to a letter sent to me by the Extension School in July 2010, the professional programs’ “Harvard affiliate requirement” was replaced by “advisory board oversight,” which the Extension School suggested would provide “better quality control”.

The letter stated the change would allow the Extension School to recruit more talented faculty from other area schools as well as working professionals from outside Harvard, which is exactly what happened.

The Harvard Extension School did this because it wanted to expand the professional programs but couldn’t do it, even with the loose “Harvard Affiliate” standards at the time, which included Harvard’s professional staff counting as a Harvard instructor.

The 2010 letter, which came out during the tenure of former Dean Michael Shinagel, was addressing a problem HES encountered in expanding its professional degree programs. Unlike the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which includes Harvard College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, some professional Harvard schools did not want its faculty or instructors to participate in any Extension programs, even if it was at night.

This was the case with the Harvard Business School. For years, the only HBS faculty teaching HES classes in finance, management, or business were retired. Even now, there is only a single faculty member listed in the Extension School instructor list:

V.G. Narayanan is the Thomas D. Casserly, Jr., Professor of Business Administration and has been teaching accounting at Harvard Business School

The Extension School also decided to offer degrees in areas in which no Harvard faculty exist, such as journalism and digital media arts.

Expansion of learning opportunities across the globe has been a positive trend, as has new degree types serving the needs of students and industry. The HES biotechnology degrees are a great example of this.

But the idea that you can receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty members is a major mistake. It’s a sharp deviation from the Extension School’s mission to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members, and opens up the school and alumni to criticism that HES degrees aren’t “real” Harvard degrees.

I’m not knocking the hard work of students or the non-Harvard faculty teaching such classes. I too have taken classes with non-Harvard faculty that counted toward my degree, and some were top-notch and truly global experts in their fields, such as the late Thomas J. O’Connor. This was sometimes through the Harvard Summer School, which is also open to Harvard College students. And Harvard certainly has a long history with visiting faculty from other institutions.

But the idea that it’s possible to get a Harvard degree without taking any classes with Harvard faculty? The school might as well just let students transfer in 100% of class credit from other schools.

And that’s not right. As I stated in my final post on the old Harvard Extended blog:

While recruiting professors from Boston University, Bentley, Boston College and UMass will improve the quality of the instruction in these programs, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

Harvard Extension School students are already treated like second-class entities by the University and even the Harvard Extension School’s own leaders and staff. Watering down requirements may make things more convenient and profitable for the Extension School, but it hurts the goals of matriculated students and alumni who want equal treatment, respect for our hard work, and a true Harvard educational experience.

What can the Extension School do to make things right? The solutions should be obvious.
First, double efforts to encourage faculty from other Harvard schools to participate in HES programs. This is particularly an issue for the Harvard Business School, which has its own priorities, competitive considerations, and brand considerations. But dangle revenue shares or other profitable incentives/partnerships – such as requirements that ALM degree candidates must successfully complete an HBS certificate – might help in this regard. This latter scenario would also align the ALM Management degrees with some of the cutting-edge research and teaching at the Harvard Business School.
For programs that don’t have any available Harvard faculty, hire dedicated HES instructors responsible for teaching, curriculum, and research. HES has money, thanks to the growth of the degree programs, and it has done this in the past for some liberal arts fields. However, as it’s also part of the Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences, there may be some additional considerations for instructors outside of the liberal arts.

 

Ray Kurzweil on long-term document storage and the genealogy connection

In 2008, I interviewed author, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil for Computerworld. The focus of the published interview (no longer online, sadly) were some of the more startling concepts in his book The Singularity Is Near. But there were a few other bits and pieces that were just as interesting to me, including his thoughts about long-term document storage.

In my mind, I’ve gone back to that interview several times in the past 13 years, mulling over the implications for innovation in my own genealogy business, which sells paper genealogy charts and forms as well as genealogy PDFs. I decided to dig it out the transcript and share an excerpt below, and give some follow-up commentary about the implications for long-term document storage for genealogists.

Ian Lamont: In the Singularity is near, you also discussed an intriguing invention, which you called the “Document Image and Storage Invention”, or DAISI for short. But you concluded that it really wouldn’t work out. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Ray Kurzweil: That’s interesting. I don’t usually get asked about that, because it doesn’t seem like that interesting an issue.

Ian: It’s interesting to me, because I think I fall into the same category as your father, someone who likes to save all the documents and things related to their lives. I’d buy it!

Ray: Well, we have the same inclination, I inherited that from my father, and I inherited 50 boxes of his documents which was all his letters and so on. And I’ve kept … I have several hundred boxes of documents, and now of course I have a lot more stuff electronically, which is also not very well organized.

The big challenge, which I think is actually important almost philosophical challenge — it might sound like a dull issue, like how do you format a database, so you can retrieve information, that sounds pretty technical. The real key issue is that software formats are constantly changing.

People say, “well, gee, if we could backup our brains,” and I talk about how that will be feasible some decades from now. Then the digital version of you could be immortal, but software doesn’t live forever, in fact it doesn’t live very long at all if you don’t care about it if you don’t continually update it to new formats.

Try going back 20 years to some old formats, some old programming language. Try resuscitating some information on some PDP1 magnetic tapes. I mean even if you could get the hardware to work, the software formats are completely alien and [using] a different operating system and nobody is there to support these formats anymore. And that continues. There is this continual change in how that information is formatted.

I think this is actually fundamentally a philosophical issue. I don’t think there’s any technical solution to it. Information actually will die if you don’t continually update it. Which means, it will die if you don’t care about it.

That’s true of our own lives. People don’t care about themselves, don’t in fact survive very long. We have to continually maintain ourselves as biological entities, when we can make that transition to nonbiological, we’ll still have that same issue.

Ian: You said there’s no technological solution. What about creating standards that would be maintained by the community, or would be widespread enough that future …

Ray: Well, that helps for awhile. We do use standard formats, and the standard formats are continually changed, and the formats are not always backwards compatible. It’s a nice goal, but it actually doesn’t work.

I have in fact electronic information that in fact goes back through many different computer systems. Some of it now I cannot access. In theory I could, or with enough effort, find people to decipher it, but it’s not readily accessible. The more backwards you go, the more of a challenge it becomes.

And despite the goal of maintaining standards, or maintaining forward compatibility, or backwards compatibility, it doesn’t really work out that way. Maybe we will improve that. Hard documents are actually the easiest to access. Fairly crude technologies like microfilm or microfiche which basically has documents are very easy to access.

So ironically, the most primitive formats are the ones that are easiest.

So something like Acrobat documents, which are basically trying to preserve a flat document, is actually a pretty good format, and is likely to last a pretty long time. But I am not confident that these standards will remain.

I think the philosophical implication is that we have to really care about knowledge. If we care about knowledge it will be preserved. And this is true knowledge in general, because knowledge is not just information. Because each generation is preserving the knowledge it cares about and of course a lot of that knowledge is preserved from earlier times, but we have to sort of re-synthesize it and re-understand it, and appreciate it anew.

As a genealogist, I have thought a lot about solutions to preserve data for the long term that don’t have physical limitations of microfiche or paper media, or the problem of computers crashing, subscriptions lapsing, or for-profit online services shutting down (see “Ancestry deleted 10 years of my family’s history“)

Maybe 10-15 years ago, a few people in the Silicon Valley futurist community came up with the idea of a ball or disc etched with gradually smaller text an excerpt from the Old Testament, translated into multiple languages. It was actually called the “Rosetta Disc.” The plan to seed the discs across the world so even if there was some great calamity or the loss of written languages, future civilizations could resurrect them. Here’s what the disc looked like:

rosetta disc concept photo

Here’s how the concept was described:

The Rosetta Disk is the physical companion of the Rosetta Digital Language Archive, and a prototype of one facet of The Long Now Foundation’s 10,000-Year Library. The Rosetta Disk is intended to be a durable archive of human languages, as well as an aesthetic object that suggests a journey of the imagination across culture and history. We have attempted to create a unique physical artifact which evokes the great diversity of human experience as well as the incredible variety of symbolic systems we have constructed to understand and communicate that experience.

The Disk surface shown here, meant to be a guide to the contents, is etched with a central image of the earth and a message written in eight major world languages: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.” The text begins at eye-readable scale and spirals down to nano-scale. This tapered ring of languages is intended to maximize the number of people that will be able to read something immediately upon picking up the Disk, as well as implying the directions for using it—‘get a magnifier and there is more.’

On the reverse side of the disk from the globe graphic are over 13,000 microetched pages of language documentation. Since each page is a physical rather than digital image, there is no platform or format dependency. Reading the Disk requires only optical magnification. Each page is .019 inches, or half a millimeter, across. This is about equal in width to 5 human hairs, and can be read with a 650X microscope (individual pages are clearly visible with 100X magnification).

The 13,000 pages in the collection contain documentation on over 1500 languages gathered from archives around the world. For each language we have several categories of data—descriptions of the speech community, maps of their location(s), and information on writing systems and literacy. We also collect grammatical information including descriptions of the sounds of the language, how words and larger linguistic structures like sentences are formed, a basic vocabulary list (known as a “Swadesh List”), and whenever possible, texts. Many of our texts are transcribed oral narratives. Others are translations such as the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. …

I looked into the details of this project, and wondered if it could be applied to genealogy. I was also thinking about the ancestor tablets found in many home shrines in Taiwan, long-lasting physical manifestations of a person’s lineage which are brought into people’s religious beliefs and ceremonial practices.

However, whether it’s stone, wood, or high-tech micro-etchings, there are practical limitations of applying this idea to genealogy or any written record, including cost and the inability to update the text. For instance, a separate project, NanoRosetta, is a fantastic application of microetching digital images on nickel to create a permanent archive, but it can’t be updated and requires a fair amount of file preparation (PDF and TIFF) that not everyone is capable of doing.

It made me think that a more realistic solution to the genealogy preservation problem aligns with Kurzweil’s “most primitive” take: Preserve core records on paper, share them widely with relatives and cousins, and use an easy-to-understand versioning system. This could also be applied to other family records, including letters, manuscripts, and more.

We know high quality paper can last hundreds of years. It can be easily copied and spread, potentially allowing the information to last thousands of years, as evidenced by Roman, Greek, and early Chinese dynastic records and literature that can still be read today.

The Harvard Extension School teaches a terrible lesson in democracy

I write a lot about the erosion of democracy in my hometown of Newton Massachusetts, but today I am going to switch things up and talk about the erosion of democracy at the Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA), the student government organization of the Harvard Extension School.

Bottom line up front: The Harvard Extension School has rigged HESA elections to exclude a certain activist from running this year, and will prevent other idealistic students from running for leadership positions in the future. As a student of modern Chinese history, it mirrors (on a far smaller scale) the abuse of democracy taking place right now in Hong Kong, in which Communist leaders in neighboring China rewrote the rules to eliminate activists and rivals and maintain political control (Quoting the New York Times: “New rules imposed by Beijing will make it nearly impossible for democracy advocates in the territory to run for chief executive or the legislature.”) It’s a terrible lesson for Harvard Extension School students, but is also yet another example of how HES students get second-class treatment that other Harvard schools would never impose on their own students.

Student government is not glamourous. There are no perks, leaders oftentimes find themselves criticized by students for not doing enough on certain issues, and school administrations tend not to take them very seriously. Nevertheless, groups like HESA are an opportunity for students to come together and work on issues that are important to the student body. For many, it is their first elected leadership role, experience that will serve them in their future careers or volunteer activities.

I never participated in HESA when I was a student at the Extension School. We had two young children at the time, and between home life, my full-time job, and my studies, I didn’t have the extra bandwidth. But I did vote in elections, and watched the organization under successive administrations.

Over the years, I have seen some fantastic HESA leaders and volunteers come and go. I have also seen a lot of drama. But nothing compared to what happened in the past month, in which Harvard Extension School administrators under the Dean of Students Office (DSO) and several staffers forced HESA to adopt a new set of election rules that effectively prevent new students from running for leadership positions.

This was clearly done to exclude a certain student activist from running for HESA President or Vice President or any board position. This student is the founder of the Extension Studies Removal Initiative, which seeks to remove the ridiculous and demeaning “in Extension Studies” designation from Harvard Extension School degrees. But the new Extension School rules, forced on HESA by the Harvard Extension DSO, will affect hundreds of other students in the years to come, disenfranchising a large segment of the Harvard Extension School student body.

Signs that something were amiss came in March with the news that the HESA president had abruptly left a few months before his term ended. No explanation was given. Then came the bombshell at the end of March that, just as the new HESA elections were getting started, a new set of eligibility rules were being instituted. Here’s what they said:

 Going through the highlighted sections above, the first shocker is ALB students (undergraduates) were excluded from running for HESA President. Note that almost all matriculated ALB students are working adults, including some who are older and have more life experience than their ALM (graduate) counterparts. A typical ALB academic profile is someone who is returning to school to complete a college undergraduate degree later in life.

The next point: Two full terms are required. Because the first rule says only admitted degree candidates can participate, this must mean two terms after matriculation, which requires completing three courses with a B or higher. Practically speaking, this means students would need to have at least three terms and at least five courses to participate in HESA elections.

This would be roughly analogous to the Harvard College Undergraduate Council suddenly announcing (at the direction of Harvard College administrators) that first year students are no longer eligible for the Executive Board, the central leadership org within the council. Currently, 3 of 5 Harvard UC EB members are from the class of 2024. Of course, there would be outrage from every first year student at the College if this were forced upon them.

The third point about not mirroring DCE organizational efforts can mean a few things. Before this year, I would have assumed it means HESA leaders can’t campaign on a platform to improve, say, online educational tools used for distance classes because that’s the bailiwick of the school itself. But I now think this line was inserted to specifically exclude the ESRI founder from running – because according to the DCE’s new dean, Nancy Coleman, removing “extension studies” from degrees is one of the goals of the Harvard Extension School.

The fourth point is clearly designed to prevent people like the ESRI leader – or a leader/board member of any other Harvard club – from concurrently serving in a HESA leadership role. It would be akin to the Harvard Law School suddenly declaring that leaders of Disability Law Students Association or Environmental Law Society couldn’t also run for elected representative positions in the Harvard Law School student government.

Keep in mind these HESA rules weren’t implemented by an inexperienced student leader who is vague on democratic concepts. It’s not even within the new HESA constitution or bylaws for HESA leaders to unilaterally rewrite the election rules. It came directly from the Dean of Students Office (DSO). When students pushed back, DSO walked back the rule against ALB students from running, but kept the other restrictions in place. Here is a screenshot from the DSO explaining the reasoning:

Neugeboren Harvard comment

If ensuring “leaders are knowledgeable about the needs of the students they serve and about the School,” then by the same bizarre logic Dean Nancy Coleman and her predecessor Dean Huntington Lambert – both outsiders who had zero experience with the Harvard Extension School before being hired – should never have been tapped for leadership roles here. Similarly, if this is part of Harvard’s culture, then every school at Harvard – including Harvard College and the Harvard Law School – should have similar rules in place to keep out the inexperienced first-year students. Of course, only the Extension School does.

What the Extension School should immediately do is rescind these discriminatory eligibility rules for HESA leadership positions and reschedule a new election.

One final thing: In the course of researching this post, I discovered that the Harvard Extension School DSO Dean and at least one other DSO staff member are listed as Title IX coordinators at Harvard with responsibility for overseeing an important federal civil rights program that governs gender discrimination. I find it hard to believe that people who were assigned such important roles to protect the civil rights of Harvard students, can turn right around and deny the rights of Harvard students by rigging election roles to exclude an entire class of people from participating in elections for student government.

Update: The Harvard Extension School reached out to me after I contacted FAS to complain. The response:

Elections for leadership of the Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA) are student-run, and the Dean of Students Office (DSO) serves in an advisory role, only. Hence, changes made to this year’s eligibility requirements were not orchestrated by the School or the DSO, as you suggest.

This was immediately contradicted by more reporting from The Crimson, “Jura Wins Extension School Student Government Election, Commits to Transparency After Election Rules Dispute,” and statements made by HESA and DSO staffers:

Kenneth “Ken” Downey, Jr., the outgoing HESA director of communications, told The Crimson last week that the Extension School’s Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes, though Division of Continuing Education spokesperson Harry J. Pierre has repeatedly denied the DSO was involved. … Downey Jr. said the Dean of Students Office was responsible for the changes and referred to statements made by [DSO staffer] Addison during a virtual “Meet the Board” event posted on HESA’s Facebook page on April 14. ‘HESA does not oversee any of the elections,’ Addison said during the event. ‘They [HESA] don’t make any decisions with regards to elections.’”

When multiple people – including DCE employees – are saying the same thing, backed up by a video clip and a detailed explanation from the DSO dean himself defending the new policies, I am strongly inclined to believe the evidence in front of me, rather than the spin from the Harvard Extension School.

Very disappointed in the Extension School and its officers.

Newton City Council candidate Bryan Barash pledges to reject developer and lobbyist donations, takes it anyway (Updated)

Updated: Two donations were returned weeks ago. He indicated he won’t return the rest. Details below.

“Follow the money.” It’s practically a cliche in legal, government, and journalism circles, but it truly is a powerful technique for exploring relationships and motivations at all levels of society. Earlier this year in Newton, we saw how developer money was used to make a referendum turn in its favor through a massive cash injection to a supposedly grassroots community group (see As sole donor of the “Yes” campaign, Northland’s deep pockets try to steamroll Newton’s democracy). That developer subsequently got the green light to build more than 600 units of luxury housing in Newton Upper Falls, off Needham Street.

Now with two city council seats up for grabs in a special election (following the election of Ward 2 Councillor Jake Auchincloss to Congress and the tragic death of Ward 1 Councillor Jay Ciccone), we see candidates stressing their integrity and dedication to serve the residents of Newton. One candidate, Bryan Barash, even pledged to refuse money from developers and lobbyists on the transparency page of his campaign website, stating:

bryan barash newton developers pledge

When I first heard about this, I thought, good for him. I honestly hope every other candidate for Newton City Councilor now and in the future can make a similar pledge and keep corporate cash out of our elections and local democracy. I love my hometown, and am tired of seeing so many of our elected officials bending over backwards to accommodate developers and other corporate interests.

A recent history of developer influence in Newton

It’s one thing to say you are going to follow high-minded ideals and listen to the citizens of Newton. But when the rubber hits the road, I have learned that in Newton local politicians often disguise their true intentions.

In particular, there is a lot of doublespeak and false promises when it comes to real estate development. For many Newton councilors and candidates declaring “we support affordable housing,” they actually mean “we’ll support a sliver of affordable only if there are thousands of luxury condos and boutique apartments.” They’ll use phrases like “housing with a range of price points,” or “abundant housing,” not letting on that the range skews heavily toward the most expensive units, and the primary beneficiaries of this abundance are rich developers as opposed to the ordinary citizens of Newton.

The result of this ongoing deception: gigantic luxury developments Riverside in Auburndale, Trio in Newtonville, and Northland in Newton Upper Falls. In these developments, there is next to nothing for the following groups of people:

  • Seniors and disabled people living on fixed incomes
  • Teachers, firefighters and other public workers
  • Recent immigrants
  • Young people who grew up in Newton trying to move back to their hometown
  • Anyone earning the Massachusetts median income of ~$77,000 per year or less

The numbers show what’s happening. Here’s the breakdown for Riverside:

  • 582 units total
  • 102 affordable (18%)
  • 480 luxury (82%)

Here’s the breakdown for Northland:

  • 800 units total
  • 123 affordable (15%)
  • 677 luxury (85%)

Affordable vs luxury housing in Newton Massachusetts

Successive Newton mayors have also made false promises, making a big show of listening to residents but prioritizing the profit-focused needs of developers. Over the protests of many Newtonville residents, former Mayor Setti Warren and many city councilors gave the green light to develop 28 Austin Street in Newtonville, where the developer paid a mere $1,050,000 for a 99-year lease. It now offers “luxury boutique living” where a two-bedroom apartment requires an annual income of nearly $150,000.

It happened again across the Pike in the Orr Block. Warren and allies on the Newton City Council, with assistance from the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, went to bat for developer Mark Development to force through a mostly luxury development on the corner of Washington and Walnut Street. Renters and small businesses that had been in Newtonville for decades were sent packing. The new complex, Trio Newton, now promotes “luxury apartments in Newton” with prices starting at $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio (I did the math; your income needs to be at least $104,000 per year to rent an apartment at Trio). 75% of the 140-unit complex are similarly priced. The remaining 35 units (25%) are affordable via lottery.

More recently, a similar farce took place with “Hello Washington Street,” Mayor Fuller’s exercise in building community buy-in for high-density, market-rate housing from West Newton to the Lake. The plans put forth by Mayor Fuller, her planning department, and their consultants ignored the wishes of residents, as demonstrated by the thousands of comments from residents and the survey conducted by the Newtonville Area Council. Not surprisingly, one influential and experienced stakeholder — the powerful real estate developer behind Trio and Riverside — stands to benefit even more from the proposed zoning changes on Washington Street.

Now we are seeing a “debate” about rezoning Newton. I put “debate” in quotes because it appears the Newton City Planning Department has already decided in favor of high-density housing activists, developers, and their proxies in the Newton City Council.

Not coincidentally, the beneficiaries of this high-density housing strategy will be developers – any house that can be torn down, chopped up, and divided into overpriced multifamily units will be. The result: thousands of more “market rate” apartments, condos, and townhouses that are out of reach to any household making less than $100,000 per year. In the midst of the pandemic, most residents have no idea of what’s being forced through by activist councillors and the Planning Department.

Are there any projects which favor the needs of ordinary residents over luxury housing? Yes: The conversion of the West Newton Armory into housing. I support this project, which will turn an unused National Guard facility into 100% affordable housing. This type of project is the exception, unfortunately.

Following the money to Ward 2

There is a database of campaign donors for local races in Newton and other cities in towns in Massachusetts. I decided to check it out, not only to see who is donating money to the candidates running for the Ward 1 and Ward 2 seats, but also to determine how my own recent donation shows up in public records.

This useful state-run resource is operated by The Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and as I will shortly demonstrate, helps improve transparency in our democracy. It’s a searchable database that shows donations from different corporate and individual campaign contributors, from local council races to mayoral contests to campaigns for state positions.

Here’s how to display all of the donors for a particular Newton City Council candidate:

  1. Go to https://www.ocpf.us/Reports/SearchItems
  2. In the field that says “Provide part of the filer’s name,” enter the first or last name of the candidate.
  3. For the next field, “then select a filer,” chose the correct candidate (sometimes there is more than one with a certain first or last name)

You can also search for specific campaign donors using the “Contributor” field.

The resource is not perfect. Donors self-identify their occupation and other details, which can be left blank or fudged, or data transfer problem may arise when the campaigns attempt to upload information to the state database. I discovered for my own small donation of $50 to Barash’s competitor, the occupation and employer information I submitted via an online form (“small business owner” and the name of my company) did not show up in the OCPF database. The date was also wrong, showing a date in early November when the donation was actually one month later.

But other people donating to Newton political candidates do have more complete information attached to their records. The database shows that the Ward 2 candidate who made a pledge to refuse money from developers and lobbyists has in fact received donations from property developers, lobbyists, and others attached to luxury housing initiatives, high-density zoning reform, and businesses that are regulated at the municipal or state level.

I’m leaving donors’ names out of this post. But I will share some other details about their backgrounds and relationships.

The self-identified real estate developer has made regular donations over the years to candidates for state representative, mayor and city council in midsized cities, and the mayor of Boston.

One lobbyist’s website lists a realty and development corporation as a client. There are other businesses and organizations both big and small on his client list and the state lobbyist database.

There are registered lobbyists for retail marijuana and transportation.

There is a person who is listed as a “consultant” and puts his employer as “self employed” on the OCPF database, but his name matches the name of a registered lobbyist in the Commonwealth’s lobbyist database. Update: this donation was returned weeks ago, per Barash’s “No Fossil Fuels” pledge. This was not reflected in the state campaign finance database when I looked at it in mid-December.

Several attorneys donated to the campaign. One of the attorney’s firm’s website lists government relations and lobbying at the top of its list of specialties. The second firm specializes in real estate development law, including zoning, permitting and “neighborhood grassroots outreach.” Its website lists specific projects in Newton, including dozens of townhouse condos and tens of millions of dollars worth of commercial property.

Another donor works for a nonprofit group seeking to reform planning, zoning, and permitting laws.

And so on.

This candidate is not a bad person, and has a right to ask for donations from followers. Those donors also have the right to donate money to their preferred candidates for Newton City Council, just as I and many other residents are doing. But it’s a red flag when those donors may conceivably have business in front of city officials or councillors, including high-profit housing projects and commercial initiatives worth millions.

It should be noted that lobbyists aren’t bad people either, and in some cases promote important work or advance good and worthy causes. Quoting a 2014 OECD report titled Lobbyists, Governments, and Public Trust:

[Lobbying] can provide decision-makers with valuable insight and data and facilitate stakeholders’ access to the development and implementation of public policies.

But lobbying also grants power to the entities paying for it, and in some cases that power can be abused. The same OECD report states:

However, it can also lead to undue influence, unfair competition, and regulatory capture to the detriment of the public interest and effective public policies.

In my view, Newton residents should indeed be worried about the pernicious influence of  money in our local democracy.

Feel free to leave comments below.

Update 12/14/20: Someone has accused me of posting misinformation and says I should “not be allowed” to write about a public candidate for Newton City Council taking money lobbyists and developers. A reminder to readers that this is a blog, hosted but not controlled by Harvard University (through my affiliation as an alumnus of the Harvard Extension School), and everyone has a right to disagree and express their opinions (I invite anyone to do so in the comments below). It is not illegal or wrong for me or others to post facts obtained from a public database, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable they may be. If there is something factually incorrect about those donations, please let me know and I will update the blog post accordingly.

Update 12/15/20: In a closed Facebook group, Bryan criticized negative campaigning but explained that his pledge only applies to donors “who [are] paid to lobby at the city level in Newton or [have] a special permit for a development in Newton” and called on other candidates to do the same. Barash said he did return donations from two people who violate his No Fossil Fuel pledge – these lobbyists were apparently connected with the Weymouth gas compressor station that was the subject of a front-page Boston Globe article this month (“In Weymouth, a brute lesson in power politics“). As for his call for other candidates to not accept certain contributions, I would call on Tarik Lucas in Ward 2 as well as Ward 1 candidates Madeline Ranalli and John Oliver to go even further, and unequivocally reject ALL campaign contributions from for-profit developers and registered lobbyists. The Northland Investment Corporation’s approach to the March 2020 referendum set a terrible precedent for elections in Newton, in which winners can be decided by which side (or which candidate) has the biggest for-profit sponsors. These three candidates can do the right thing and set a new precedent that keeps special interest cash out of our local democracy.

Update 12/17: Removed the graphic referencing a donor who no longer works for the listed real estate firm. The donor also said the firm only operated in Cambridge, not Newton. I apologize for the error.