Why We Need Occupy Harvard

Harvard is hardly blameless in the rise of income inequality.

I didn’t expect to support Occupy Harvard. While I agree wholeheartedly with the broader Occupy movement’s critique of the financial industry and think the current level of economic inequality in the United States is beyond defense, I had strategic reservations. I thought the occupiers should have targeted members of Congress with the power to pass legislation benefiting the 99 percent, rather that banks that aren’t going to be persuaded of their own evils anytime soon. Occupiers, I reasoned, should get up in the faces of the people actually holding the cards.

But Occupy Harvard is doing just that, by congregating in front of University and Massachusetts Halls, where the people with the power to change course are working. It is easy to dismiss the tent-dwellers on Harvard Yard as dumb hippies with inchoate demands, but as the group’s press release yesterday showed, they know exactly what they are doing.

Their demands—our demands—are specific and Harvard-focused.  We want Harvard to pay its workers a living wage, whether they are high-flying endowment managers or janitors in the houses. We want Harvard to divest from other companies that treat their workers poorly. We want Harvard to be honest about how it’s spending its endowment so we know what is being supported in our name.

You can disagree with these demands if you like. But don’t hide behind the defense that Harvard is a private university that does not owe the world around it just treatment. Harvard is a private university, yes, but it is also a nonprofit that pays no taxes. It is thus the beneficiary of an enormous subsidy from the city of Cambridge, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the federal government. This subsidy comes with the proviso that Harvard serves the public interest.

If Harvard wants to abandon that obligation, fine. It should then start paying the federal corporate tax, state and local property taxes, and all other taxes from which nonprofits are exempt. Who knows, maybe some of the revenue such a change causes could be sent to community colleges and other higher education institutions that actually commit themselves to the public good.

Occupy Harvard’s detractors should also stop cloaking their opposition in Harvard’s progressive financial aid provisions. Yes, Harvard’s financial aid policies are commendable, but the Harvard student body is hardly representative of all economic classes. About 70 percent of Harvard students receive financial aid—but 30 percent do not.

Think for a second about how much someone’s family would have to make to not be eligible for financial aid at a place as generous as Harvard. Or better yet, play around with the Net Price Calculator the financial aid office provides on its website. A family of four making $150,000 a year with a $500,000 home and $100,000 in other assets—a family which, according to economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, who have done the definitive work on US income inequality, falls in the top five percent of households in terms of income—gets a $12,750 scholarship.

Thus, at least 30 percent of Harvard students are richer than the top five percent of earners. Harvard does not serve people of all classes equally. It, as higher education expert Richard D. Kahlenberg ’85 told Alec MacGillis in the latter’s prescient Washington Post piece arguing for the occupation of Harvard, “replicates social inequality rather than upends it,” as do other elite institutions.

As MacGillis noted, Harvard’s recruitment process is a big part of this replication process. As any senior could tell you, the on-campus recruitment culture is heavily centered around the financial industry, where students would go to make bets at banks and hedge funds that destabilize the economy as a whole, and the management consulting industry, which charges big companies big fees to find “cost savings” (read: layoffs, and big layoffs, given the cost of hiring the consultants in the first place). This makes sense from Harvard’s perspective; it wants rich alumni to keep its endowment large. But students who want more from their careers and from their university should demand better.

And so we are demanding better, in the Yard, right now. We do not agree with each other on every particular, and I cannot speak for the movement, but we are united in wanting Harvard to truly be a university that serves the 99 percent. The University is resisting, of course, most visibly by requiring IDs to enter campus. This is a very savvy means of turning students against protestors, but the occupiers aren’t the ones blocking gates. The administration is doing that, and can stop at any time. The occupiers are doing nothing more than making our voices heard, one tent at a time.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12 is a Crimson editorial writer.