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Serving Opportunities to Serve

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gift brings necessary resources to strengthen Harvard’s public service programs.

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Last week, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana announced that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic organization founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan ’07, is donating $12.1 million to make public service more accessible to low-income students at Harvard. We are thankful for the Initiative’s gift, which will fund the creation of two public service programs at Harvard. The Priscilla Chan Summer Service Award will cover the summer earning expectations for students working for the Center for Public Interested Careers, Institute of Politics, or Phillips Brooks House Association. The Priscilla Chan Stride Service Program will help PBHA create year-round service fellowship programs for low-income students. We hope this gift is just one of many steps in Harvard’s continuing commitment to public service.

Currently, a multitude of barriers preclude Harvard students from participating in public service. One major barrier is lack of infrastructure—while the Office of Career Services has robust resources for students looking for work in finance or consulting, there are fewer resources in terms of internships and career counseling for students who want to pursue careers in public service. Lack of awareness is another barrier, as opportunities in public service are not often talked about and thus often seen as less attractive and more invisible than corporate work. In a culture where profit rules, it can be hard to get students interested in public service, which has lower earning potential.

Financial barriers make pursuing public service especially difficult for low-income students, who often need to spend time working at a job instead of doing public service for little to no pay. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s gift addresses this barrier by providing funding for students from low-income students who would not have been able to do this work otherwise. This makes public service more democratic and accessible to students from all backgrounds.

Ultimately, our acceptance of the donation must come with an understanding of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s close ties to Facebook. The Initiative is a limited liability company, created in December 2015 with the pledge to invest up to $1 billion of the Zuckerbergs’ own Facebook shares in each of the next three years.

The Initiative’s donation to PBHA comes as residents from a Silicon Valley city protested the eviction of homeless families last week near the site of a planned school funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. This is especially relevant, as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has championed two political causes in particular—mass incarceration and affordable housing—committing $45 million in the past year. Part of these funds have been pledged to fight homelessness in the Bay Area communities that surround Facebook’s headquarters. This points to a larger problem with Facebook’s involvement in the Bay Area: the social and economic problems in these communities have often been partly the result of increasing housing costs from the technology industry’s own gentrification of the area.

As the role of philanthrocapitalism increases in the public service landscape, it is essential to note that while the public attention the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative brings to the causes it champions is important, the very corporate decisions that these same companies make often are the ones that affect the economic reality of their own surrounding communities.

Let this be a lesson to Harvard and our initiatives for public service. While we send our students out to do good in our community, we must be mindful of the ways that Harvard’s presence in Cambridge and Allston may negatively impact our neighbors, such as the gentrification of Harvard Square and surrounding areas.

Moving forward, we hope that Harvard’s commitment to public service is reflected in its choice of the next University president, and that the presidential search committee considers the need to create more public service opportunities for students in its decision. By extension, candidates with a strong background in public service who have the ability to solicit large contributions like this one for the University should be given especially serious consideration. The future University president should recognize the value that resources such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gift provide in nurturing the student body’s commitment to public service.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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