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IT is an old adage among news writers that "All good stories involve money." This year at Harvard, the "good stories"--most of them, at least--have concerned the increasing importance of financial considerations to the operation of the university, to the decisions of its administrators and to society at large.
Money talks, the saying goes. We have repeatedly urged the administration to talk back--to consider the ethical implications of its actions, to exercise its moral authority, to act as a dynamo of social reform.
AS Harvard prepares to kick off higher education's largest fund-drive ever, we have urged the University to critically reevaluate its fundraising and investment practices. Traditionally, Harvard has solicited large gifts that are implicitly pegged to the expansion of certain areas of academic inquiry. The willingness of wealthy donors to fund research on traditional fields has distorted Harvard's fundraising priorities in that direction.
Thus, although the African continent claims more than 40 nations and countless contributions to American culture, African studies is woefully neglected at Harvard. At the start of the proposed $2.5 billion fund drive that will set the research priorities of the University for years to come, we continue to urge the administration to look beyond the lure of lucre and accord proper recognition to non-traditional fields that are not as popular with the deep-pockets.
EVEN after those deep-pockets fill the coffers of Harvard's endowment, the obsession with financial considerations at the expense of ethics remains a serious problem. Harvard's growing stake in venture capital investments is not a problem by itself. We recognize that high yields on the endowment are good for all of us. We object, however, to the total lack of oversight by the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) over such investments. Harvard Management Corporation (HMC), which controls the University's investments, has sunk more than a billion dollars into high-risk, high-yield "private placement" investments, all without a trace of accountability to anyone below the Harvard Corporation.
We urge the University to place HMC's venture capital investments under the ethical oversight of the ACSR, which already oversees investments in the equity and debt markets.
While the University is doing ethical house-cleaning in its investments, it should take the simple step that students and anti-apartheid leaders have urged for years: divest itself completely of all investments in companies that do business in South Africa. The University has dragged its feet on the issue for almost 20 years, latching on to one discredited compromise after another while ignoring the pleas of such moral authorities as South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, a member of the Board of Overseers. An educational institution that claims to uphold moral principles must recognize the imperative to eschew profits derived from institutionalized racism.
WE CONTINUE to urge the College to abandon its archaic, aristocratic policy of giving preference in admissions to children of alumni, or "legacies." Legacy status--a biological accident--improves an applicant's chances of being admitted by almost three times.
College officials insist that legacy status is only considered as a tie-breaker between identically qualified candidates, a claim that is suspect by itself. But even if it were true, Harvard's policy amounts to giving the benefit of the tie to the fortuitously born--the absolute antithesis of the "level playing field."
Administrators justify doling out hereditary privileges by pointing to the necessity of keeping alumni happy in order to maintain need-blind admissions--which is remarkably similar to justifying the sale of sinecures on the grounds that it improves the Crown's capacity to provide for the peasants.
HARVARD'S focus on the bottom line reached symbolic and absurd proportions when control over Sanders Theater shifted from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to Harvard Real Estate (HRE) two years ago. HRE administrators pledged to make Sanders competetive with Boston concert areas. The result for student groups was felt this year: tripled rent, no guarantee for performing dates and required purchase of unnecessary services. Students were being chased out of the only large performance space on campus.
Money isn't everything, and it's about time that Harvard realized it. Unless the University changes direction, Harvard will find itself with a less diverse student body, a narrow curriculum and an investment policy at the cutting edge of Wall Street improprieties.
But it will have money. Lots.
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