Dissent: Bursting Harvard’s Bubble

Harvard must not cede social responsibility in favor of profitability

For better or worse, Harvard’s actions greatly affect the surrounding community. Its employment of thousands of individuals from communities throughout Massachusetts and the university’s projects in the loci of those areas ensure a high level of codependence. The recently stalled initiative to build the Allston science complex, coupled with layoffs of Harvard employees, provides us with explicit proof that Harvard’s decisions have a significant effect on people within the school’s sphere of influence, regardless of whether those people are willing residents of that sphere. Meanwhile, Harvard occupies a peculiar position as a nonprofit educational institution—it does not contribute back to the community through property taxes despite its profound influence over communities and their members’ livelihoods. Harvard’s level of influence on surrounding communities impels Harvard to adopt spending and investment habits that make initiatives like the construction of the Allston science complex less dependent on market conditions or investing climates. A more conservative approach to investing and spending would ensure that, no matter the state of boom or bust in the markets, key Harvard initiatives, whose progresses have an uncommonly significant effect on the community, will not be stalled in a manner that is unduly harmful to community residents. We can see the effects of poor financial planning simply by observing the pernicious effects of our stymied science-complex initiative, where plot vacancies and rodent infestations reveal the real implications of a stalled and invasive construction project. Arguments that the economic downturn affects Harvard just like any corporation or institution or that they were pressured to spend by self-interested individuals are unconvincing and do not exonerate Harvard of its responsibility to surrounding communities. Even though this financial crisis was very difficult to predict, a less risky investment approach and more conservative spending practices during prosperous times would have at least ensured that Harvard would not be the one adding to the considerable financial stress that community members already face in a downturn. This appeal to socially and financially responsible practices should not be interpreted as an indictment of Harvard’s efforts to improve the quality of education and generate high returns on investments. Rather, they should be taken as suggestions that we acknowledge our influence over our neighbors by adopting spending and investment practices that can be sustained even in weak markets. The fact that the larger community derives some benefits from successful Harvard financial policies does not absolve Harvard of its responsibility to provide insurance for itself and the community against the effects of stalled initiatives. Harvard’s interests are not incompatible with attempts to insulate the community from the effects of policies with no plan for a rainy day. Neighboring communities may receive some derivative benefit from Harvard’s prosperity because of their location, but they need not share in Harvard’s pain. Derrick Asiedu ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.