The announcement that Harvard, along with Radcliffe and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has come to an agreement with the city of Cambridge on the question of tax exemption is hardly news of a startling nature to those closely connected with the affairs of the University. Nor is the agreement itself of such wide-reaching importance as the political campaigners of Mayor Quinn would like to pretend. Its effect on the coffers of the city will probably not be very noticeable for at least two or three years, and in calling the agreement a great present good, Mr. Quinn and his supporters are guilty of a misrepresentation.
The important clause of the settlement states that Harvard will pay taxes at the current rate on all land purchased after July 1, 1928, which otherwise might legally be designated tax exempt. It does not affect the buildings on the land. A second clause limits the amount of land held before this date which the University may annually withdraw from taxation to 10 percent of the total by value. Inasmuch as the University had not been withdrawing land at a rate very much faster than this, the second clause loses most of its significance.
Whatever the material effects of the agreement may be, however, there can be little doubt that it represents the culmination of a movement long in the process of evolution which may prove to have much more than local significance in the age-old struggle between town and gown. With the industrial development of many university towns, there has inevitably sprung up a good deal of competition for favorable land sites. That the university should have the advantage of tax-exemption in all cases has seemed to some an anachronism which long since should have been done away with. The advantages which the town receives from having the university within its limits are universally recognized, but that they more than compensate for the loss of tax money on land of ever increasing value would be impossible to demonstrate. There must necessarily be a limit to the applicability of the principle of tax exemption for educational institutions.
It seems to be particularly fitting that the first recognition of this limit should come from the oldest university in the country where, since its founding in 1636, the principle has been in operation.