The Value of a Dollar

In early 1987, Derek C. Bok, then in his second decade as President of Harvard, took a three-month sabbatical, visiting Spain, Israel, and India. While in India, then under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Bok was offered a significant donation by the Indian government. He refused, on the principle that a university as wealthy as Harvard could not accept money from a country—then, as now—unable to adequately meet the needs of its own citizens. It seemed clear that Indian money was more urgently needed in India.

I heard this story from Nathan Glazer, professor emeritus of sociology and education, who was struck by the contrast between Bok’s attitude and that of his successors. In the past two years, Harvard has received three massive endowments—even by the standards of this university—from Indian donors. N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of the software giant Infosys, gave over $5 million to create the Murthy Classical Library of India, a sort of Asian equivalent to the Loeb. Anand G. Mahindra ’77, who heads an industrial group, gave $10 million to what is now the Mahindra Humanities Center. And towering above them all was Ratan Tata, whose gift of $50 million to Harvard Business School dwarfs the entire endowment of many colleges and universities.

To be sure, private charity is to be distinguished from taxpayer money, but this large influx of funds from what is, by most standards, a poor country, ought to give us pause. At the very least, it should­ prompt careful reflection and serious debate on what Harvard’s relationship to a country like India ought to be. Given the wealth of industrialists such as the aforementioned troika, should Harvard see India as a largely untapped opportunity, a source of billions of potential dollars? Or should Harvard seek to employ its considerable influence and expertise in the service of India’s development?

In either case, the principle underlying President Bok’s refusal remains valid a quarter-century later. Indians who are bullish about the country’s prospects tend to compare the state of the nation to the United States during the Gilded Age, where great fortunes are being made in an atmosphere of poor regulation, corruption and crony capitalism. But political reforms will follow economic growth, or so the story goes. The key difference is that while the robber barons of late 19th century United States created lasting institutions (Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago) with their wealth, India’s new billionaires are noticeable, with only a handful of exceptions, for their aversion to private charity. The fact that Harvard accepted $60 million from Indian businessmen in the space of a few months is jarring when one considers how much further that money would have gone in India. Surely it is reasonable to expect Harvard, a nonprofit institution with a public-good purpose, to consider this.

To be fair to two of the three donors in question, Murthy has a highly creditable track record of charitable giving in India, and his donation to Harvard serves the cause of Indian classical letters in general, rather than merely that of an American university. Mahindra is an alumnus of the college (where he concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies) and his gift goes to the humanities at a time when they struggle to find funding at universities across the country. Tata’s donation, however, is difficult if not impossible to justify. Unlike Sanskrit letters or the humanities, the business school (of which Ratan Tata is a graduate) is hardly a cause in desperate need of funding. $50 million, moreover, could fund a full-fledged private university or college in India, where the supply for higher education is utterly unable to keep up with demand.

Perhaps it may be deemed foolish or naïve to ask that Harvard, particularly in light of the 2008 financial crisis, reject a donation such as Mr. Tata’s. At the same time, serious reflection might reveal to Harvard’s leadership that soliciting donations from rich Indians sends all the wrong messages, and is arguably counter to the guiding principles of the university itself. Harvard remains by some distance the world’s richest university.

President Bok returned from the 1987 trip firmly committed to making Harvard a more global university. This commitment has, unquestionably, also motivated his three successors. But Harvard’s unparalleled global brand needs to be matched by a more global sense of purpose. Institutions like Harvard, Yale or Cornell, all of whom have received tens of millions in Indian funding in the past four years, would achieve more by contributing to improvements in India’s higher education than by adding zeroes to their endowment through Indian donations. The next time President Drew G. Faust or Provost Alan M. Garber receive a phone call from an Indian billionaire, they should advise him to send his money where it will have the greatest impact.

Keshava D. Guha ’13 is a Crimson arts writer and social studies concentrator in Leverett House.