When Harvard received a donation to revamp and rename its School of Public Health in 2014, most press releases and public coverage focused on the more amicable face of the deal. Gerald L. Chan, the "science enthusiast," was the only individual donor named in the University's official press release. Our own newspaper detailed his “quiet leadership”; we noted his extensive links to the University. Sure, naming an entire school after a donor (or, in this case, his father) was unconventional and entirely unprecedented. But given Gerald Chan's commitment to our institution and the fact that the sum was the largest donation in our history, we all settled in to enjoy the newly well-funded, School of Public Health — few questions asked.
Yet the donation didn't come from Gerald Chan — not directly, and certainly not exclusively. The official donor was in fact the Morningside Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit co-founded by Gerald and his brother Ronnie C. Chan.
Dr. Gülnar Eziz seems eager to talk. As we settle down for our interview, she points out her Zoom background, a gorgeous image of sinuous, golden hills. It's a picture of the Tarim Basin in the northern Chinese region of Xinjiang, one of the most iconic natural landmarks of Dr. Eziz's homeland. Not that she is eager to use the region's name herself. In fact, she's quick to correct me: “So-called Xinjiang” she explains, means “new border” in Chinese. “It's really clear. It is a new border — for them.”
Dr. Eziz is a Harvard Preceptor in the Uyghur and Chaghatay languages. Her role at Harvard represents the careful balancing act that defines our University's response to the unfolding crisis in her native region; one that seeks to recognize the ongoing atrocities against the Uyghur people without ruffling any Communist Party of China feathers.
University controversies, particularly when connected to donations and funding, are frequently spoken of in abstract terms. We frame them as a matter of right and wrong; we describe some investments as "morally abhorrent", and deem Arthur M. Sackler's donations "dirty money." The entire approach is deontological, more concerned with rules of "good'"and "evil" than with the actual impact of the interactions themselves.
Those arguments remain fundamental. They represent the ideological backbone of several of the most promising campaigns on campus, including fossil fuel and private prison divestment, where the immediate material impact of policy changes is minimal or hotly contested. But focusing on whether controversial financial ties are inherently "wrong" can sometimes paint an incomplete picture, ignoring the real, practical consequences that they carry.