Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility releases 2018 report

Posted: 15 Jan 2019 08:00 AM PST

The 2018 Annual Report of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (CCSR), a subcommittee of the President and Fellows, is now available on the Shareholder Responsibility Committees' website.

The report provides a detailed description of the CCSR's actions on shareholder proposals regarding issues of social responsibility that came to vote during the 2018 spring proxy voting season (the period between March and June when most publicly traded corporations hold annual meetings). This year, the committees considered 38 proposals dealing with issues of social responsibility that were addressed to corporations whose securities were owned directly by Harvard. Issues raised through the proxy process this year included corporate political contributions and lobbying; executive compensation; labor standards; human rights; equal employment; and corporate environmental reporting and practices on issues including greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability reporting.

New topics addressed in 2018 included digital media content management and fair tax policy.

The CCSR receives advice from the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, a 12-member committee made up of Harvard faculty, students, and alumni.

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Scholar uncovers Virginia Woolf’s desire to ‘re-create sacred community’

Posted: 14 Jan 2019 11:55 AM PST

Stephanie Paulsell is a scholar of religion and a person of deep faith, but when deciding on a subject for her latest research, she chose one of literary history's most committed atheists.

"Virginia Woolf was raised by Victorian agnostics to think that people who believed in God were not facing reality," says Paulsell, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "She once wrote to her sister that 'there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.' But her novels are full of religious language: consecration, revelation, soul, spirit. For me, she is a generative religious thinker."

Religious work is something Paulsell knows well. As the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies — a chair established through Swartz's landmark 2012 gift to the Campaign for Harvard Divinity School (HDS) — she is a core member of HDS's multireligious ministry education program. In both her teaching and research, Paulsell often explores transcendence in experiences that are not formally religious, not unlike the one she had reading Woolf in her first year at Greensboro College.

"The first novel of hers that I read was 'To The Lighthouse,'" she remembers. "I didn't fully understand it, but there was something there that felt religious to me. She has a way of opening up the hidden moments of our lives, returning our own experience to us, illuminated. It felt like a spiritual experience to read her."

In her forthcoming book, "Religion around Virginia Woolf," Paulsell explores the ways that the novelist's engagement with religion went far beyond the question of belief to include "studying the history of religions; reading the Bible … studying religious art and thinking about her own art in relation to it; drawing in complex ways upon religious language and religious themes both in her novels and in her reflections on the practices of reading and writing; and creating a literature that did, and continues to do, a kind of religious work." Moreover, Woolf was an insightful, often scathing critic of clergy who failed to deliver in ritual the kind of transcendent, meaningful experience she strived for in art, and in life.

"After the funeral for her friend Ottoline Morrell," Paulsell writes, "[Woolf] bemoaned 'the lack of intensity' in the service and the ways in which symbols of British power, in the form of medals on the clergyman's robe and the presence of the Union Jack in the sanctuary, undermined the solemnity of the occasion and the sacredness of the space. What did any of this have to do 'with Ottoline, or our feelings?' she asked when she reflected on the day in her diary. And when she read a bishop's empty musings on heaven in the newspaper, she despaired at how unequal the representatives of religion were to the task of articulating religious hopes and desires. 'The duty of heaven-making,' she wrote, needs more than a bishop can bring to it: 'it needs time and concentration. It needs the imagination of a poet.'"

Paulsell's last book, co-authored with the HDS theologian Harvey Cox, was a commentary on the Bible's Song of Songs. She says that she finds a connection between the Song and Woolf's work. Both are concerned with intimacy — and the ways in which it frequently falls short of human longing.

"The lovers in the Song of Songs are always asking 'Where are you? Who are you?'" Paulsell says. "I think Woolf gets at that experience in books like 'The Waves' and 'Three Guineas.'

"We miss each other. We try to communicate. We fail. We can't understand what's going on with the other. But then sometimes we can. Sometimes we look together at something or, through very ordinary gestures, we know each other for a moment. Like the Song of Songs, Woolf reveres those moments."

Woolf's work is particularly relevant in the age of "the nones," Paulsell says, when formal affiliation with religious organizations is on the wane and young people in particular look for new ways to identify and mark the sacred in their lives.

"Woolf was raised by people who had lost their faith and were trying to construct life practices and ethics that could sustain them and help them interpret the world," she explains. "She was trying to create a new form for modernity, when we know much more about the world, and evolution, and even where the Bible came from. She's part of a project to re-create sacred community."

At a time when mainline Christianity has been on the decline in the U.S., Paulsell says there is also an opportunity to chart a new course for spiritual life in the modern world. Woolf's work and life make a rich resource for that project.

"We have a chance to look at the resources of all our traditions and see the ways in which they do speak to the deepest, fiercest hopes and aspirations and fears that we have," she says. "Woolf thought that the religion around her did not often offer responses to those hopes and fears that were equal to them and explored in her writing other spiritual alternatives. We have the same challenge today. The question is, 'How do we marshal the resources of religion toward these very human longings?'"

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A new vision for Harvard’s Houghton Library

Posted: 14 Jan 2019 10:00 AM PST

An upcoming renovation to Houghton Library will modernize its research and teaching facilities, expand its exhibition galleries, improve physical access to its spaces and holdings, and create a more welcoming, inviting, and accessible environment.

The renovation represents a key component of a larger vision for the rare books library, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. It serves as a research center and teaching laboratory for students and faculty across many disciplines that use primary sources, hosting nearly 300 class visits each year and programming a series of exhibitions and events that draw a range of visitors from across Harvard and surrounding communities. To expand its reach vastly, the library's digitization efforts have placed its collections within reach of researchers around the world.

"We want all of Houghton Library — the collections, the building, and our expert staff — to generate interest in and passion for the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, and more," said Thomas Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library. "Our efforts to create a more inclusive atmosphere and to increase access to Houghton's collections and services will ensure the library becomes an even more active and highly valued resource for Harvard and the world at large."

The renovations were made possible through generous donations, including a major gift from philanthropist and bibliophile Peter J. Solomon '60, M.B.A. '63, and his wife, Susan, whose extensive collection of rare and treasured children's literature and illustrations provided the catalyst for the renovation. The Solomon collection includes a copy of the suppressed first edition of "Alice in Wonderland," as well as additional works by Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, and other authors. The Solomons' promised donation sparked an effort to make Houghton more welcoming to the Harvard community and visitors alike.

Rendering of Houghton Library showing ramped entrance, landscape design.

Plans include a fully accessible entrance with ramped walkways and new trees and plantings.

Renderings courtesy of Ann Beha Architects

Rendering of Houghton Library renovation, exterior, view from Loeb House.
Rendering of Houghton Library renovation, exterior.

"Peter's gift is a testament to his profound love of books, his belief in the power of literature to change lives, and the essential role of the library in the life of the University and in society at large," said Sarah E. Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and University librarian and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "There are so many people his generous support will affect: students, faculty, researchers, and visitors from around the world, and of course the staff who support the critical work of the library. I know our gratitude is deep."

"We wanted our collection to be where it would join similar holdings and be enjoyed by the widest possible audience," Solomon said. "Houghton houses extraordinary material and enjoys a prime location within the Yard, but more Harvard students should explore its treasures.

"Redesigning the entrance, integrating the building more prominently into its surroundings, and creating a more dynamic set of interior spaces will encourage greater appreciation of the library," he added.

Construction will begin next September, and the building will be closed until September 2020. During renovations, the Houghton Reading Room will return to its original location, the Periodicals Reading Room in Widener Library. Classrooms in Widener Library, Pusey Library, and Lamont Library will accommodate courses that use Houghton collections for teaching.

Houghton is working with Ann Beha Architects and partnering with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Office of Physical Resources and Planning on the two-year project. The renovation will include redesigning the landscape between Quincy Street and the library entrance; replacing the daunting main entrance staircases with elegant paths at a wheelchair-accessible gradual incline; and connecting a plaza to the entrance, creating more space for people to gather outside. Natural light will be introduced to the entrance lobby, which will feature a dynamic exhibition gallery displaying materials drawn from the library's collections. A new elevator will take visitors to the teaching spaces, exhibition gallery, and special thematic rooms on the second floor. Ground-floor restrooms will be remodeled and expanded. Improvements to Houghton's reading room will include a soundproof entry and help-desk area, and an adjacent room where library users can work with materials in collaboration with library staff.

The plans have the enthusiastic support of the University, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Harvard Library.

"Today's libraries are much more deeply engaged in teaching and outreach, and in an era where digital information is so prevalent, connecting people with our special collections and original materials which resonate with the context of their time and form is a key goal of Harvard Library," said Thomas. "As a member of the Harvard College Library and Harvard Library, Houghton plays an important role in opening up the magic of collections and libraries to all visitors, as well as supporting research and teaching."


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Researchers able to determine the effects of genes and environment in 560 common conditions

Posted: 14 Jan 2019 08:00 AM PST

When it comes to disease and health, which is more powerful — ZIP code or genetic code?

The degree to which nature and nurture affect disease and health remains one of the eternal — and still unanswerable — questions in medicine.

Now a team of investigators from Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the University of Queensland in Australia have tackled this question in a decidedly novel way.

In what the researchers describe as a coup for big data and a scientific first, the team has used a massive insurance database of nearly 45 million people in the U.S., including thousands of twin pairs, to determine the effects of genes and environment in 560 common conditions. The diseases analyzed span 23 categories, ranging from cardiovascular illness and neuromuscular diseases to skeletal conditions.

The work, published Jan. 14 in Nature Genetics, is thought to be the largest assessment of U.S. twins to date, the researchers said. It is also the first one to go beyond the traditional one-disease-at-a-time approach and analyze hundreds of the most common conditions among more than 56,000 twin pairs. To date, most twin or familial studies of genes and environment have looked at just a single disease or environmental factor.

Many diseases are neither purely genetic nor purely environmental, but rather the result of a complex interplay between the two. Unlike classic inherited conditions — those caused strictly by mutations in a gene or a set of genes — environmentally fueled conditions are the sole result of factors external to an individual's biology. Most diseases do not fall neatly in either category but have elements of both. Disentangling how genes and environment contribute to multiple diseases in the same population has been astoundingly difficult, the researchers said. The new study aims to solve this challenge by developing a large-scale analytical approach.

"The nurture-versus-nature question is very much at the heart of our study. We foresee the value of this type of large-scale analysis will be in shining light on the relative contribution of genes versus shared environment in a multitude of diseases," said senior study author Chirag Patel, assistant professor of biomedical informatics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS.

The new method, the team said, underscores the value of large-scale analyses in informing national research efforts such as the National Institutes of Health's All of Us program, part of the Precision Medicine Initiative that aims to tease out biologic, genetic, social, and environmental factors in disease and health as a way to inform individualized therapies. The findings of the new study can help direct research efforts by clarifying the relative influence of genetic versus environmental factors for a range of diseases.

"Our findings can provide signposts that inform subsequent research efforts and help scientists narrowly focus their pursuits," said study first author Chirag Lakhani, a postdoctoral research fellow in biomedical informatics at the Blavatnik Institute. "For example, if our study of twins shows that there is very little heritability effect in a certain family of eye disorders, then future research should pursue alternative explanations."

Using the database of 45 million-plus patient records — which also included more than 724,000 sibling pairs — the investigators estimated the influence of genes and environment in fraternal twins, who share half of their genome, or DNA, and identical twins, whose DNA is 100 percent the same. Same-sex twins can be either identical or fraternal, while opposite-sex twins are always fraternal, but the researchers did not know which same-sex pairs were identical. To circumvent this hurdle, they developed a novel statistical method that inferred the probability that a pair of twins was fraternal (non-identical) or identical. In doing so, the researchers were able to separate purely genetic from nongenetic contributions.

All the patients had been part of the insurance database for at least three years, giving the researchers more than just a snapshot in time. The newly published study, which involved young twin pairs, newborns to 24 years of age, was not designed to follow disease development over time, so the researchers were unable to assess the genetic and environmental influences of diseases that tend to develop in middle and older age, such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative conditions.

The analysis included variables such as clinical diagnoses, imaging test results, blood chemistry tests like red and white blood cell counts, cholesterol levels, and many others, as well as environmental factors such as air pollution levels, climate conditions and socioeconomic status, all extrapolated from the patients' ZIP codes.

Nearly 40 percent of the diseases in the study (225 of 560) had a genetic component, while 25 percent (138) were driven at least in part by factors stemming from sharing the same household, social influences, and the like. Cognitive disorders demonstrated the greatest degree of heritability — four out of five diseases showed a genetic component — while connective tissue diseases had the lowest degree of genetic influence. Of all disease categories, eye disorders carried the highest degree of environmental influence, with 27 of 42 diseases showing such effect. They were followed by respiratory diseases, with 34 out of 48 conditions showing an effect from sharing a household. The disease category with lowest environmental influence was reproductive illnesses, with three of 18 conditions showing such effect, and cognitive conditions, with two out of five showing an influence.

Overall, socioeconomic status, climate conditions, and air quality in each twin pair's ZIP code had a far weaker effect on disease than genes and shared environment — a composite measure of external, nongenetic influences including family and lifestyle, household, and neighborhood.

In total, 145 of 560 diseases were modestly influenced by socio-economic status derived by ZIP code. Thirty-six diseases were influenced at least in part by air quality, and 117 were affected by changes in temperature. The condition with the strongest potential link to socioeconomic status was morbid obesity. While obesity undoubtedly has a genetic component, the researchers said, the findings raise an important question about the influence of environment on genetic predispositions.

"This finding opens up a whole slew of questions, including whether and how a change in socioeconomic status and lifestyle might compare against genetic predisposition to obesity," Patel said.

Lead poisoning was, not surprisingly, entirely driven by environment. Conditions such as flu and Lyme disease were, again unsurprisingly, affected by differences in climate.

When researchers looked at classes of diseases by monthly health care spending, they found that both genes and environment significantly contributed to cost of care, with the two being nearly equal drivers of spending. Almost 60 percent of monthly health spending could be predicted by analyzing genetic and environmental factors.

Large-scale analysis like this study can help forecast long-term spending for various conditions and inform resource allocation and policy decisions, the researchers said.

Detailed study results available here: http://apps.chiragjpgroup.org/catch/

Co-investigators were Braden Tierney and Arjun Manrai of Harvard Medical School, and Jian Yang and Peter Visscher of the University of Queensland, Australia.

Data sets for the study were provided by Aetna insurance company. Aetna had no funding role in the study. The research was supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (grants 1078037 and 1113400), National Science Foundation (grant 1636870), and Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation.

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