Blowing a Fortune


Great Good Fortune:

How Harvard Makes Its Money

By Carl A. Vigeland '69

Houghton Mifflin; 239 pages.

HARVARD AND MONEY. Money and Harvard. They go together like gin and tonic.


Harvard's deans spend it: $700 million a year. Its investors amass it: a $3.5 billion endowment. Its rah-rahs raise it: $359 million a few years back.

And its alumni love to make it. Especially Carl Vigeland '69, who was smart enough to recognize that the story of Harvard and its money is worth a full-length book, especially with the 350th anniversary rolling in this September.

Too bad, then, that Great Good Fortune is one of the most disorganized, uninspired, flabby, lazily researched, half-assed--no, make that quarter-assed--additions ever to the already execrable library of books about Harvard. Even worse than its being pathetic, Great Good Fortune is just plain boring. And that is inexcusable, because the story of Harvard and its money is funny, shocking, shameful, scandalous and fascinating.

Vigeland fails because he has done no real reporting. For long stretches of the book, he quotes verbatim or closely paraphrases dishwater-dull documents, never showing that he has done the legwork that would enable him to offer some insight into his topic. As a result, Vigeland has had to pad this book with such things as lists of headlines from The Crimson's front page, titles of memos, lots of names, and idiotic descriptions of office buildings--for example, "The carpet is light blue, and there are large windows in all the outer offices, with more glass on the interior walls of the corner offices. The furnishings are modern." To hide the lack of quality, Vigeland resorts to quantity.

To cover the Board of Overseers, Vigeland devotes two pages to listing all 30 with their business affiliations, in the process misspelling the name of Stephen Stamas '53. He makes no effort to explain why the Overseers are a big, powerless joke with no influence over the seven rich old white men who comprise the omnipotent Harvard Corporation.

Vigeland's chapter on the Medical Area Total Energy Plant, the $350 million, carcinogenic disaster every Harvard official disclaims responsibility for, consists largely of an account of how Harvard Magazine wrote its article about MATEP.

The chapter on "Selling Harvard"--which could have been a brilliant investigation of how crafty Harvard advertising perpetuates an image only incidentally related to reality, and of how fundraisers exhibit FBI-style skills in digging into their classmates' lives to appraise how much to bleed them for--is a flop. It opens with a pointless description of what three of Vigeland's classmates did after graduating, moves through a long account of a sappy conversation with Robert "Children of Crisis" Coles, describes in soporific detail the schedule for the 25th reunion and the differences between the Red, Green and Grape groups, and shamelessly repeats gag-me-with-a-spoon comments like: "For reasons one can't understand, something goes out of here and affects a person, generates some pride and gratitude, generates a gift..."--and that from David A. Aloian '49, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association.

Several dozen pages cover former treasurer George Putnam Jr. '49, a Boston mutual-fund mogul with family ties to every Brahmin from Mac Bundy to A. Lawrence Lowell. Vigeland notes such amazing facts as that old George passed up the chocolate chip cookies at lunch, and lets him get away with comments like, "Being on the Corporation is fun. You meet interesting people. And it's a way of having something in common with your children who are in school."

AS BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was to Max Weber's theory of the Protestant work ethic, George Putnam--and dozens of his good friends and relatives--could have been to a disquisition on Old Money in Boston and its influence at Harvard. But instead, we get a soft, silly chapter that does little more than recreate a day in the life of George Putnam. And a pretty dull day at that.

And to mention briefly just a few more shortcomings: Vigeland's coverage of the South Africa/divestment question is spotty and scattered; long quotes full of Wall Street buzzwords are strung together without explanation; and dozens of observations can only be called stupid--as, for instance, "The tiny typing discrepancy in the presence of periods in 'C.L.' and their absence in 'MCL' gave the paper the appearance that it hadn't been proofread."

Only two parts of Great Good Fortune are redeeming at all. The first is the introduction, where Vigeland has a surprisingly candid conversation with Nathan M. Pusey '28, the president of Harvard who called in the Staties to smash the heads of several of Vigeland's classmates when they took over University Hall in 1969. Looking back at those years, Pusey lets down his guard enough to say that his real disappointment was not with the radicals but with the faculty, who failed to stand up to them: "I've never said this to anyone but my wife," Pusey admits, "but deep in my heart there was a disenchantment in me with the Harvard faculty, but I had to go out and make speeches about the wonderful scholars they were. I couldn't go out and say that anymore."

And after 160 intervening pages of pablum, Vigeland offers a wonderful description of hijinks at the Harvard Management Company, the University's downtown moneymen, and their star, $240,000-a-year trader Bing Sung. Vigeland humorously captures the irony of stock- and bond-traders shouting at each other, manning three telephones at once, pioneering new kinds of financial deals--all for the benefit of the world's stodgiest university.

Still, these two passages do nothing to save Great Good Fortune. Vigeland has not done enough reporting really to understand how Harvard raises, invests, and spends its money, to tie it into a package, put it into perspective, and say something that hasn't been said before.

Unfortunately, The Book on Harvard and Money has yet to be written.

Peter J. Howe '86 spent two years covering Harvard's finances and administration for The Crimson.