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Pipe Down and Wise Up

Critics of the Harvard administration should avoid selective blindness and rhetorical excess

By Anthony S.A. Freinberg

Over the weekend University President Lawrence H. Summers announced a bold new initiative that will drastically increase financial aid to students from less wealthy backgrounds. Starting in September, parents who earn less than $40,000 per year will no longer have to contribute any money towards their children’s Harvard educations; those who earn between $40,000 and $60,000 will see a mean annual reduction of $1,250. Summers was justifiably happy to trumpet Harvard’s increased largesse when addressing Sunday’s 86th annual meeting of the American Council of Education in Miami, Florida. “We want to send the strongest possible message that Harvard is open to talented students from all economic backgrounds,” he said.

Three days earlier, however, Summers’ administration had been portrayed in a distinctly less complimentary light by some of its familiar Harvard-based critics. The Harvard College Library (HCL), which originally projected a $2.3 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year 2005, has already laid off 14 workers, and several more are scheduled for the end of June. Protesting in a Thursday afternoon rally outside the Holyoke Center, members of the No Layoffs Campaign (NLC) sought to depict the administration as callous and cruel. In that vein, Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) veteran Daniel DiMaggio ’04 charged that Harvard was “a corporate money-making machine.” Some NLC members, apparently unaware of the irony, vented their righteous anger by chanting, “Lay off, Larry!”

Perhaps the rally’s most eloquent participant was Professor of Romance Languages Brad Epps. The University, he asserted, ought to stop “conducting itself as if it were a multinational corporation with no soul, no concern for human life and no concern for human dignity.” When I spoke with him on Monday afternoon, Epps confirmed that those were his words, although he sought to make clear that “there is a difference between rhetoric at a rally and in a measured conversation.” Although he called the increase in financial aid “a fabulous development,” he said that it in no way changed his concerns about the layoffs.

Epps is, of course, entirely correct that no changes to Harvard’s financial aid structure could ever negate its responsibility to be a decent, responsible employer. Still, the weekend’s announcement that Harvard will be investing an additional $2 million per year on financial aid makes a mockery of his claim that the University’s governing policies are analogous to those of a heartless corporation concerned only with the bottom line. It is vitally important that tenure allows Epps to be a strident critic of University policies; it is also crucial, however, that someone contradicts his arguments, especially when Harvard administrators are loathe to engage in unseemly slanging matches with their strident critics.

Many of the attacks on the administration’s perceived tight-fistedness seem to stem from a misunderstanding of the role of the endowment at Harvard. Epps lamented on the telephone, “There is a certain fetish of the endowment here.” Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05, among others, appears to share Epps’ misconception. After stopping by Thursday’s rally to show support for the labor movement (even though the Director of the Harvard Union of Clerical Workers and Technical Workers dismissed the NLC’s aims as unrealistic), Mahan blithely claimed, “I don’t see a pressing need for us to lay off people right now. This is just about keeping the endowment at a ridiculous level, which I don’t think it has to be.”

Many view the endowment as a $19.3 billion rainy-day fund for the University which can be raided at any time and for any reason. In fact, the endowment is not a lump sum stashed away in a lockbox, but is used constantly in order to finance Harvard’s tremendous operating costs. Harvard, in spite of its popular portrayal, does not have unending cash reserves—and one of the major responsibilities of the administration is to prioritize the University’s spending and guarantee the institution’s long-term financial stability. As Summers explained it to me, “We have a moral obligation to manage the endowment as efficiently as possible to maximize our contribution to higher education in its various forms.” That is not economic doublespeak but a sensible and sensitive analysis of how best to run a university.

It is, to my mind, extremely dubious that the best use of Harvard’s resources right now would be to follow the advice of the PSLM website and, in a state where the minimum wage is $6.75 per hours, increase the starting salary of all dining hall workers from $10.85 to the Cambridge “living wage” figure of $11.11. Nor is pledging to protect the job of every single HCL employee. Still, many would argue—not without passion or clarity—that improving labor conditions would be a better way to spend Harvard’s funds than, say, renovating Quincy dining hall or expanding the size of the Faculty.

Whatever your position, though, it is morally untenable to attack Harvard as nothing more than an institution driven by a passion for making money. If that were the case, it seems hard to explain why Harvard would have increased its financial aid payouts by 49 percent in the past six years. It is now time for critics to tone down their passionate rhetoric and focus instead on offering more practical solutions for how best to allocate Harvard’s funds. Continuing to accuse administrators of caring about nothing but the bottom line is not only inaccurate, it is downright dishonest.

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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