Some Explaining to Do

Harvard must detail finances to make cuts in Allston and elsewhere

Late last week, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino joined the chorus of dissenters over Harvard’s decision to slow construction of the science complex in Allston and to delay plans for further expansion. The mayor’s office was closely involved with the university in planning and advancing the Allston master plan. Menino expressed his criticism of the Allston slowdown in a strongly worded letter to President Faust.

Taking up the defense of the Allston community, which has vocally opposed construction setbacks, the mayor insisted that the city be included in the decision-making process, that the Allston construction project continue, and that the university’s administration meet with the Boston Redevelopment Authority within 60 days. At these proposed meetings, Menino expects the university to divulge information about the master plan for Allston development and cooperate with the city to alleviate the “blight to the neighborhood” caused by vacant lots—purchased and now left empty by Harvard.

Menino makes compelling points about the need for greater cooperation in the continuation of the Allston construction program. Finishing the science center already begun in Allston should be a priority of the university, as it will greatly benefit Harvard and the Allston community, boosting our science programs, improving infrastructure, and supporting Allston’s economy. One further point made in the letter deserves particular attention. The university must be more transparent about the state of its finances if the Harvard community and our neighbors are to accept the host of cuts being made.

In his letter, Menino asserts his understanding “that the current economic climate has had serious, adverse implications for the university’s ability to finance large scale development.” With the obscurity that clouds Harvard’s current financial status, however, no one but the university’s administration truly can understand the implications of that economic adversity. Menino’s letter recognizes that Harvard has “an obligation” to Allston residents and the city of Boston to reveal the details of the university’s financial circumstances. In an interview, a member of Menino’s staff reiterated that the university must use the meeting before the Boston Redevelopment Authority to detail its financial reasons for the construction slowdown. The same obligation of sincere transparency should apply to all those affected by Harvard’s reactionary policies to the financial crisis.

Harvard has asked the community to endure a series of cuts in response to the sudden scarcity of financial resources. The university expects its students, staff, and neighbors to endure a hiring freeze, a push for early retirement, a tuition increase, and cuts to the custodial staff in addition to the slowdown in Allston. This has not only incited the Allston community but also prompted two Harvard professors to threaten to leave, angered the unions involved in construction and custodial work, and left all involved in a state of clouded confusion about the reality of Harvard’s financial position. If the university expects those affected by this to accept the drastic cuts in so many sectors, they must provide better evidence that these cuts are explicitly necessary.

The administration has released conflicting statements about the availability of resources allocated to the Allston project. The university has claimed that the Strategic Infrastructure Fund, an annual 0.5-percent levy on the endowment to support projects in Allston, has been essentially depleted. At a Dec. 9 faculty meeting, however, President Faust suggested that the university was considering diverting Allston funds to other areas.

While the university has some reasons to hide some of the precise details of its finances, this kind of confusion could be easily clarified with a greater transparency of the university’s overall financial situation. Specifically, Harvard should be more forthcoming with details about the liquidity and flexibility of its endowment assets.

Harvard cannot expect the community members of Allston, the city of Boston, nor our own university stomach such cuts without clarifying exactly why exactly the tens of billions of dollars that still remain are not sufficient to cover—at least what should be—the spending priorities of the school.