A Modern Mr. Harkness

Harvard’s losses position it well as a beneficiary but perpetuate a paternalistic norm

After a decade of excess, the bubble burst. Stocks tumbled in a flurry of panic, as financial institutions collapsed. Amid the turmoil, as the endowment’s prospects worsened, Harvard’s plans for expansion fell into doubt.

This narrative seems to contextualize the discussion surrounding today’s renovations to the House system well. The $1 billion, 15-year project has been in the works for almost two years. Despite recent reassurances about commitment to House renewal from University Hall, University President Drew Faust questioned expanding the House system in December, when she challenged the desire for and affordability of new Houses in Allston. The endowment’s 30-percent drop over the past fiscal year certainly could not have been far from mind.

Yet the narrative is not from 2009. It is a story that took place over a century ago, in 1928. This history of the House system’s financing offers both hope and caution for expansion today.

Like many facilities at Harvard, the House system was a gift. Unsurprisingly, it was a gift from a wealthy white man. Surprisingly, this particular man was a Yalie named Edward Stephen Harkness. With millions from his shares in the Rockefellers’ golden swan, Standard Oil, Harkness was a philanthropic plutocrat in the tradition of Carnegie, Mellon, and Rockefeller himself. After being rebuffed by Yale, Harkness came to University President A. Lawrence Lowell in the fall of 1928, offering over $3 million to build a residential college system that would “bring into each group men from different parts of the country, men with different experience, and as far as possible social condition.” By 1931, all seven Houses had been built, funded—at a total cost of about $13 million—entirely by Harkness. In 2008 dollars, this would amount to over $155 million. The clamor of moving beds and bureaus signaled that this “national and democratic” microcosm Lowell and Harkness had envisioned was complete.

Space constraints threaten the democratic nature of the House system today. The “unprecedented” housing crunch, as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 termed it, has resulted in a ban on transfer admissions for the next two years. Not only does this limit a potential source of diversity and peer learning for undergraduates, but it also drives House occupants away from their cramped quarters to decamp in inevitably less microcosmic facilities, like student organizations, final clubs, and off-campus venues.

Solving this problem would seem, at first, to be simply a matter of funding. If the endowment cannot sustain a major capital expenditure, then find a donor like Harkness. When schools like the GSAS are cutting their admissions by 10 percent, the College has no right to demand more comfortable housing—however crucial it may be to intellectual development. So why not turn to Rich Uncle Pennybags, some may ask?

There are both practical and philosophical problems with a modern Harkness. Practically, there are fewer tycoons on the scale of Harkness today—and far more legal implications to their donations. Even the $100 million that David Rockefeller donated to Harvard last April—the largest ever single donation by an alumnus—pales in comparison to Harkness’s munificent $155 million. Nevertheless, with Harvard’s centuries of experience fundraising, its numerous wealthy alumni, and its thriving Committee on University Resources such a donation seems, at least, possible.

A bigger obstacle, then, is the paternalism that such philanthropy evinces. Donating to education is a noble cause. But what does it mean for the members of the grateful community? Not only does it leave them with an unpayable debt, but it also perpetuates a narrow exemplar: the benevolent plutocrat.

This tension between the goals of the university as a business and the university as a place for education and research is nothing new. Indeed, Thorstein Veblen described the university in 1957 as “a compromise between the scholar’s ideals and those of business, in such a way that the ideals of scholarship are yielding ground...before the pressure of businesslike exigencies.”

Unlike Veblen, I do not argue that the exigencies of business have no place in a university. Such practical considerations are necessary to sustain centers of higher education as precisely that: institutions of learning. In this way, donations from men like Harkness and Rockefeller are crucial. Rather, the problem lies in an irrational glorification of these ideals—naming opportunities or a demand for unreasonable results, for example—that imposes the values and accomplishments of the philanthropist upon the beneficiary.

Going forward, it would do the community good to have adequate—or even more than adequate—facilities in which to live and thrive during their four brief years in the academe. However, in evaluating the possibilities for this expansion, the university must also beware of the gifts it seeks—there may be more than a few strings attached.

Noah M. Silver ’10, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House and served as a student representative on the House Program Planning Committee in 2008. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.