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Martin Shkreli, HFAC’s Publicity Stunt Gone Wrong

By Christopher M. Vassallo

Alleged Ponzi schemer and “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli might have less than 6 months of freedom left. In between appearing before a Congressional committee to testify about price-gouging consumers of life-saving drugs and attending his own trial for securities fraud, he is set to spend some of that time delivering a talk about investment strategies to eager undergrads here at Harvard.

Shkreli’s Harvard connections are slight. He has a B.A. from Baruch College and worked at “Mad Money” Jim Cramer’s ’77 hedge fund. He soon went off on his own, starting hedge funds premised on short selling biotech stocks. Most notoriously, he served as the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, where he purchased the rights to daraprim, a drug used by AIDS and cancer patients to fight parasitic infections, and jacked up its price from $13.50 to $750 per pill, an astronomical 44-fold increase.

So what brings him to Harvard? Shkreli accepted a misguided invitation from Harvard Financial Analysts Club to discuss “his experience in financial investing.” In their desperation to hold a big event, the club has only succeeded in hosting someone antithetical to their mission. HFAC’s publicity stunt aims to capitalize on the notoriety of Shkreli’s name. Shkreli’s attention-seeking, it turns out, is rivaled only by HFAC’s.

In an industry that chemist and Science blogger Derek Lowe argues tends to shirk attention to avoid press scrutiny of lax regulation, Shkreli has succeeded in making news. For instance, just as his pharmaceutical scandal was gaining national attention, he bought an unheard, vintage Wu-Tang Clan record for $2 million. For Shkreli, it seems that that old maxim is true: all press is good press.

This is not to say that I oppose Shkreli’s presence at Harvard per se. A free exchange of ideas on campus is healthy for any discourse, even (perhaps especially) ones that broach topics or opinions that offend us. Free discourse guarantees him the same right to speak that it does student protesters to protest him. I am not opposed to speakers who challenge our views being given a forum here; plenty of speakers do that. I’m opposed to this particular speaker being given this particular forum.

HFAC claims to provide “the Harvard student body with sound financial education programs and real-world investment experience.” What the club is really doing by inviting a man known for little more than allegedly swindling investors and price gouging AIDS patients is offering a lesson in deception.

In an interview last Tuesday with The Crimson, Shkreli said, “I am here to give a speech about investing. It’s not going to be controversial.” If HFAC were truly interested in presenting a figure with investing experience, they could do better than invite a man recently charged with securities fraud. They could find someone better than a caricature of corporate greed, the arrogant “Pharma Bro.” This invitation only serves to contribute to the false stereotype that Wall Street is a haven for the crooked.

Moreover, as HFAC notes on its Facebook page for the event, Shkreli will not field questions about his pending court case or his outsize personal life, the two things that actually make his story intriguing today. What’s left looks to be some crude compilation of stock tips from a disgraced trader. If Shkreli shares personal investment strategies, attendees are probably better off doing the opposite.

Students are smart enough to know what’s going on here. They aren't foolish. Undergrads are not attending the event expecting to be taught the principles of ethical investing. They know that Mr. Shkreli is not an icon or an idol, but, because we are captivated by notoriety far more than expertise, we are drawn to him nevertheless.

To a large degree, HFAC has already gotten what it wants. The event has made the pages of papers like the Boston Globe and the New York Post and networks like ABC and Fox News. Hundreds of students are set to show up. Shkreli, always the attention-seeker, is probably happy to draw such a large crowd.

The real tragedy of the night will be how casually HFAC abandons its integrity. As the group sacrifices its mission to make news, perhaps they will take some comfort in knowing that crowds of students will be there to watch.

Christopher M. Vassallo ’20, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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