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Over the past two months, Congress has shown strong interest in intervening in Harvard’s governance. On Dec. 5, then-Harvard President Claudine Gay testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about the University’s efforts to address alleged antisemitism on campus. Later, the House passed a resolution condemning her responses to a line of questioning about what speech may violate Harvard’s conduct policies.
Then, the committee began investigating allegations of plagiarism against the former president. The committee’s chair, Rep. Virginia A. Foxx (R-N.C.), requested a sweeping collection of materials, including “any non-public guidelines or policies” about plagiarism and potentially sensitive information about students and faculty disciplined for academic integrity violations.
Following Gay’s resignation, Foxx gave Harvard two weeks to produce what could amount to thousands of documents about alleged antisemitism; Jewish enrollment; foreign donations; diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; student and employee discipline; and internal communications between Havard’s leaders.
This pattern of congressional interest in Harvard is hardly new. Over the summer, after Harvard lost its affirmative action Supreme Court case, barring it from practicing race-conscious admissions, U.S. Senator J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) wrote to all Ivy League schools asserting that their reactions to the Court’s ruling may be unlawful. He threatened Senate investigations and demanded answers to several questions about their new admissions processes.
But that’s not all. The Department of Education is investigating Harvard’s use of legacy and donor admissions preferences to determine whether they racially discriminate. The Department is also investigating Harvard’s response to alleged antisemitic harassment to determine whether the University discriminated against Jewish students.
What do all these interventions have in common?
In each instance, Harvard’s federal funding has been the government’s leverage.
The Constitution does not give Congress unconditional authority to regulate private universities. That’s why many laws that regulate universities apply only to schools that accept federal funds — including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the basis of Harvard’s affirmative action case.
Moreover, Congress can threaten to revoke its funding to motivate universities to take actions that are not legally required, such as complying with requests to provide documents.
Reasonable people can disagree about how Harvard should govern itself. But I believe that many more people can unite behind the idea that preserving universities’ independence from government control is key to maintaining a healthy education system in a robust democracy.
That’s why Harvard should give up its federal dollars.
According to Harvard’s most recent financial report, federal funds account for about an eighth of the University’s revenue, and this comprises 66 percent of Harvard’s research funding. A much smaller piece of federal funding supports financial aid — less than six percent of Harvard students’ aid.
Thus, forgoing federal funds would not come without costs. Harvard would have to scale back some research projects. But the costs are likely to be smaller than one might think. Harvard could direct funds to its most promising projects, and in the past, it has successfully replaced federal funding through private sources.
In 2001, when then-President George W. Bush severely limited federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, Harvard researcher Douglas A. Melton secured private funding to continue that research.
Harvard is probably the best-positioned university in the country to eschew federal financing. At nearly $51 billion, its endowment value is the largest for any university endowment in the country. Moreover, Harvard receives the most private donations of any American university – nearly $1.4 billion last year.
Debates about how Harvard should operate will continue — but they are made far more polarizing when the federal government is involved. Without federal funding, Harvard would be free to craft its own policies concerning free speech, admissions, and other issues, regardless of loud critics. But these critics could not say that their tax dollars are supporting those practices.
Political polarization is tightening its grip on Harvard, but the University is not helpless. It’s time for Harvard to free itself from ballooning congressional intervention by ditching federal funds.
Jacob P. Winter ’24 is an Economics concentrator in Leverett House.
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