A Better Way To Give

This piece ran as part of our focus on Harvard's endowment.

When I was a history concentrator at Harvard three decades ago, modern European history ended in 1945. I once queried a professor about this odd truncation. He replied that Harvard historians “don’t teach current events.”

These days, some real world facts still seem beyond Harvard’s thought horizon. At some universities in Africa, students are literally fainting from hunger because they cannot afford both books and food. While African universities operate in crumbling buildings and lack sufficient computers, Harvard’s endowment now stands at nearly $30 billion, even after the recent financial downturn. Yet Harvard’s well-staffed development office still solicits alumni for dollars as if it were starving for cash: In fiscal year 2008, Harvard netted $651 million from alumni and friends.

In 2005, nearly one-fourth of my 25th reunion class formed Harvard Alumni for Social Action (HASA) to try to make improving education for the world’s poorest students part of Harvard’s development approach. We lobbied Harvard to allow our class to set up an alternate gift, in Harvard’s honor, which would build the institutional capacity of a university in sub-Saharan Africa with which Harvard already has academic collaborations. In view of the devastating impact of AIDS on African academics and the dilapidated state of their institutions, we felt that a class donation there could make a significant and tangible difference.

Improving ties with an African university would have multiple benefits for Harvard as well: more fruitful interactions with African faculty, additional research and policy opportunities, and a more diverse dialogue through the mutual exchange of people and ideas. Like much of American foreign aid, this class gift would actually strengthen Harvard almost as much as it would the designated African university.

Despite the current financial crisis, Harvard is hardly lacking in monetary resources. According to Inside Higher Education, Harvard ranked second among U.S. universities in alumni giving in both 2006 and 2007. A recently announced gift of $100 million from David Rockefeller ’36 indicates that 2008 will be another banner year in terms of alumni donations. If the current trend in giving persists, and presuming the economy recovers in the next few years, Harvard’s endowment could reach a whopping $80 billion within a decade.

Meanwhile, the accumulation of such immense tax-free resources is increasingly garnering criticism. Business Week has decried the “dangerous wealth” of the Ivy League. The Wall Street Journal warned of the perils of amassing “war chests.” The wealthiest institutions can now out-compete for top faculty and students, thereby threatening the diversity of research and scholars at less-equipped institutions.

The current model of endowment development, which is highly dependent on alumni-giving, further widens the gap between richer and poorer institutions, because wealthy universities tend to engender wealthier alumni who can give a bigger pay-back. As non-profits, universities are unbridled forces on the stock market. With no obligation to plow resources back into federal and local services, or even to spend a fixed percentage of earnings, these universities vacuum up philanthropic impulses without creating widespread good.

Hence, strengthening alumni bonds through alternative giving should become part of a new development paradigm for the wealthiest universities. But this is easier said than done. For example, getting Harvard to support HASA has been a challenge. After considerable pressure, the university agreed to authorize a fund to provide scholarships for graduate students from Africa, because those dollars would flow directly to Harvard’s coffers. While the decision in itself is a victory, Harvard still fails to recognize the serious need of African universities for basic infrastructure, nor does it embrace this need as a legitimate use for alumni giving. More troubling, we recently learned that the scholarship fund is not “additive”: In other words, the fund will not bring new African scholars to Harvard, even though less than two percent of current graduate students are from the African continent.

As the global economy suffers, it is time for Harvard to lead universities in inspiring alumni to look beyond the hallowed halls. Harvard has much to gain by supporting such a paradigm shift, especially since it would invigorate ties with many alumni who currently question whether Harvard truly needs their money. Sharing some of those tax-free dollars through HASA would make an exponential difference in the ability of developing nations to offer university education to their brightest citizens.

Paula A. Tavrow ‘81, PhD, is the Founder and Chair of Harvard Alumni for Social Action.