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Harvard’s Self-Written Report Card and the City of Cambridge

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Harvard’s community engagement report card is in. Just one problem — Harvard wrote it. Harvard’s latest Town Gown report, submitted to the City of Cambridge, describes the University’s investments in the city, partnerships with city organizations, and general goals around sustainability and equity. We welcome the report because it details the inadequacy of Harvard’s community engagement when measured against the harm that comes from the University’s massive footprint in Cambridge.

In thinking about the University’s impacts on Cambridge, however, we feel that there is a lot more Harvard can do. Take homelessness, for example. Housing insecurity is a big issue in Cambridge and Boston writ large, but it is also something that we’re sure many of us have seen on a daily basis in Harvard Square. The University is not responsible for addressing homelessness writ large, but it can address the issue locally, starting with removing anti-homeless benches. These quotidian things may seem small and often slip our minds, but nowhere is the contrast between Harvard’s liberal words and conservative actions thrown into more jarring relief.

Granted, not every Town/Gown tradeoff is so clearcut. Harvard’s presence in Cambridge brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the region; we don’t dispute that. Instead, we take issue with the distribution of those resources. The Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery is all well and good, but can we claim that Harvard has cleared its balance with Black Cantabridgians while Harvard’s aggressive expansion drives gentrification throughout its environs?

That expansion has benefits, to be sure. It seems a fair bet that more than one discovery made in the SEC will one day significantly advance the wellbeing of humanity. But once again, we have to think about the distribution of harm. The benefits of Harvard’s research will be spread diffusely across the world, while the harms of its expansion are overwhelmingly felt by underprivileged communities around Allston and Cambridge.

Divining the nature of those harms isn’t rocket science. We need only listen to residents to hear that Harvard’s level of collaboration with Allston residents while planning its expansion there was “deeply disappoint[ing].” The consequences of that level of collaboration spread from the long-term environmental future of the city to its acute and ongoing housing problems. It shouldn’t be surprising that the welfare of the region, today and going forward, will depend heavily on the decisions of an institution that owns nearly 10 percent of the land in Cambridge and added 10 times more to its endowment last year than Cambridge spent in its annual budget.

Going forward, Harvard should think very carefully about each instance of expansion. Is a new building going up because of urgent and insuperable need, or because a donor needs a monument to stave off the sudden realization of their mortality? When a real need exists, can it be satisfied by retrofitting or more efficiently using existing space? Given that many of the costs of new building are borne by others, any institution would tend to default toward building more than socially optimal. Harvard must actively combat that instinct.

Additionally, if a need is found to clear the high bar of necessity, what investment in the community is necessary to make sure that no one is made worse off in Harvard’s pursuit of ever-greater reach? Sometimes, that investment will require providing aid directly to those most affected by the gentrification and displacement attendant with expansion. It will always require a level of community collaboration that reflects Harvard’s unique social responsibilities as both a seeker of truth and a vast reserve of wealth.

As people who often call Harvard our home away from home, we must recognize that Harvard’s investment in the city it calls home is inadequate. It must be expanded significantly, and it is partly up to us to remind Harvard that. When we enjoy the comfort of making our homes here, remember: Cambridge is home to so many people before us and outside of our Harvard bubble. Cambridge is not some theme park built exclusively for our amusement, only relevant as the backdrop to our lives here as Harvard students. This city, like any other, has and will continue to contain the lifetimes of so many communities and generations. The least we and Harvard can do is recognize and respect that.

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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