Is Harvard Just Another Big Landlord?

The University's Local Lobbying

"We're a big fish in a small pond in Cambridge."

Director of State Relations Richard J. Doherty.

"In many ways, Cambridge is a company town."

Michael H. Turk, head of the Cambridge Tenants' Union.

On the national and state levels, Harvard's lobbying campaigns have most often backed traditionally liberal or idealistic goals such as increased appropriations for student aid and the free flow of scientific information.

But here in Cambridge, local politicians and community activists say the University's goals are very pro-business and are often no more idealistic than those of the next developer.

Harvard and the city clash most frequently over the University's property interests, on such issues as zoning changes, Harvard Square development, the obligations of developers and the status of the University's affiliated housing.

The University has also lobbied against various proposals to restrict different types of research, but the major disputes surround Harvard's role as a landowner, not as a leader in higher education.

"Harvard's interest in no different from that of other major landowners," says City Councillor David E. Sullivan.

And Harvard's director of state relations, Richard Doherty, agrees that "town-gown friction is really most evident around the issue of real estate."

On issues from zoning to animal research, Harvard gets its way in Cambridge City Hall--in many cases, City Councillors say, against the wishes of community residents. Some add that the University's wealth readily translates into political power on the local level.

"The issue is the amount of property that Harvard owns and Harvard acting as a real estate developer," says Vice Mayor Alice K. Wolf. "As a real estate developer, they're in it for dough. In that role, their interests can be diametrically opposed to the interests of the city."

In response, Harvard officials contend that their institution's wealth does not give it disproportionate influence in City Hall, and that the University's stances do not run counter to the public interest.

"We are large property owners and the largest taxpayer in the city and because of that we have a great deal at stake," says Harvard's Associate Vice President for State and Community Affairs Jacqueline O'Neill, who handles local lobbying efforts. "We are obligated to protect our interests for the welfare of students, faculty and staff."

Harvard and MIT hold nearly half of the land in Cambridge, and the University says it contributes more than $100 million to the local economy. The University is wealthier than the city of Cambridge and, many say, more powerful. And Harvard has a number of tools at its disposal in its lobbying efforts.