Money, Harvard, and Morals

When students call upon “Harvard” to take charge and be responsible for its morally questionable financial decisions, we often take the larger institution itself to be some kind of weighty moral agent that solely ought to shoulder the moral blame.

On billionaire financier and convicted sex offender Jeffrey E. Epstein’s significant monetary contributions to the University, for instance, The Crimson Editorial Board opined that “Harvard must take meaningful action to demonstrate…that it recognizes the role the University played in [Epstein’s] legitimation.” In a University–wide email about the donations, University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote: “I profoundly regret Harvard’s past association with him.” Likewise, advocates of divestment raise the contention that “Harvard retaining its investments in the fossil fuel industry…is a form of completely unethical and unsustainable action” and that “Harvard enriches and is enriched by a [prison-industrial] system that keeps 2.3 million souls in shackles and millions more under surveillance.”

By placing the crux of moral burden solely on the greater “persona ficta” that is Harvard, we neglect a crucial moral question: What are our own individual moral duties and obligations that arise qua our status as spenders of the monies that Harvard receives?

As an institution that spans 12 schools, educates 36,012 students, hires 18,000 staff, and boasts 371,000 living alumni, it is hard to claim that any single affiliate of this colossal and organizationally complex institution should bear responsibility for the decisions of the University. Consequently, when students discuss issues that concern the University, we often implicitly assume that Harvard acts separately from us.

This careless depersonalization — and the diffusion of individual responsibility that follows it — is natural. In fact, even Bacow has acknowledged that Harvard’s “decentralization” makes it difficult to review the University’s ties with Epstein. And if the University’s president cannot — understandably — be cognizant of the institution’s connections with Epstein, it is plausible that we often fall into a similar trap of analyzing Harvard’s decisions from a par away from ourselves, as if we are distantly situated from its decision-making. As a result, when The Crimson Editorial Board addresses issues like the gentrification of Allston or the pressure facing immigrant students, it often calls upon “Harvard” — an arcane, abstract, anthropomorphized personality — to respond promptly and morally, not ourselves.


Especially with regards to the ethical discourse surrounding Harvard’s sourcing of money, this depersonalisation is untenable. As members of the Harvard community, our nexus of connection to Harvard’s immoral sources of funding — which have spanned, past and present, a wide gamut of donations from convicted sex offender Epstein, employment and company investments in the fossil fuel industry and related investments to the prison-industrial complex, companies involved in the South African apartheid regime, the tobacco industry which has targeted vulnerable youth and countries, the Sackler family which has profited from the nation’s opioid crisis — is the evident, resounding fact that we are the designated and eventual spenders of this money. The abstract issue of corporate moral agency trickles down to us.

“Harvard” itself does not enjoy the accommodations of newly renovated dorms that have cost over $873.9 million, nor does it receive any of the million-dollar compensations for University administrators. The revenue that Harvard gains, both from donations and investment returns, eventually benefits us — students, researchers, and faculty members. As complicit spenders and direct beneficiaries of Harvard’s often immorally-sourced endowment, we should hold ourselves individually accountable in questioning where our resources come from and where our resources are (not) going towards, and more importantly, in understanding the moral implications of what spending this money means.

If we truly believe that “Harvard” should steer clear of unethical financing, we should also demand a reciprocal duty from ourselves. We should consider how often we tend to sidestep the hard moral considerations that fall upon us all, individually, as students, faculty, and affiliates. We must not forget our own involvements in this grander structure that is Harvard. And no matter who is at fault or to blame, we should work together towards improving our community and upholding a kind of forward-looking, collective, reparative responsibility.

Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Justin Y. C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint Philosophy and Neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House.