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Columns

Bickering with Bok: The Pitfalls of Embracing Philanthropy

By Guillermo S. Hava, Crimson Opinion Writer
Guillermo S. Hava ’24, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

For the past eight months or so, I’ve been writing a column based on the premise that Harvard is effectively “For Sale,” arguing, week after week, that our numerous controversial financial ties are improper of our institution. I’ve tried to claim the self-aggrandizing high ground on everything ranging from the opioid epidemic to tyrannical regimes — quite the unrealistic effort for an exiled freshman Spaniard.

But what if the crux of my column turned out to be, simply put, incorrect? What if tainted donations were, like Harvard insists, merely the means to a noble end?

I’d consider it intellectually cowardly not to at least attempt to probe the internal logic behind philanthropy fanatics. So let us inspect the University’s point of view, and let us do so through the one individual who has repeatedly been cited, by the administration and others alike, as a key source of sketchy donation positivity: former University President Derek C. Bok.

Bok, who was Harvard’s 25th University president from 1971 to 1991 and then interim University president from July 2006 to June 2007, has written repeatedly about the ethics of university gifts — in fact, he referenced his own writings when justifying his decision not to return convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s donations after his first indictment. His ideological framework is imperfect at times; in his 1982 book “Beyond the Ivory Tower,” he argues, for example, that limiting donations from tainted individuals would force a university to reckon with whether it should inspect the ethics of tuition payers, equating economic exchanges with honorific-laden donations, and incurs in some frustrating moral what-aboutism. But he can also prove deeply persuasive, and his reasoning frequently brought up when the awkward donor conversation arises.

Bok’s essential argument — the argument that effectively underlies our gift policy — is that, despite their ethical pitfalls, donations are a net good. In his famed 1979 open letter, he posits that, barring a few redlines and academic integrity notwithstanding, the “tangible benefits” of polemic giving ought to outweigh “the more abstract, symbolic considerations.”

His understanding relies on two seemingly self-evident premises: the assumption that investments in higher education benefit society and that obtaining them through less morally palatable channels doesn’t pragmatically hinder our educational mission. Or in blunter terms, if we can get substantial funding and use it to have a positive impact with few strings attached, why on earth shouldn’t we?

It’s a temptingly convenient idea — but then again, self-deceit usually is.

For what is more deceiving than convincing ourselves that we accept dirty money for the sake of the public good? Are University donations genuinely furthering the enterprises and academia and free knowledge to benefit society with no self-interest attached?

Perhaps we think it is. Bok assumes that if educational investments and academia are seen as forces for good, any given institution ought to lean towards taking any given gift, regardless of potential moral qualms.

But it’s hard to argue that any person seeking to maximize America’s academic output or societal educational achievement would choose to invest in Harvard, of all places. It’s simply a question of diminishing returns: Every extra dollar invested here could have more profoundly (and equitably) impacted the quality and quantity of American knowledge elsewhere. A $5 million donation to Harvard would barely make The Crimson’s front page, but could prove electrifying for an underfunded community college or historically Black university, radically improving the quality and quantity of their scholarship — yet it rarely gets to do so.

Any higher education funding system that allots donations in such an arbitrary fashion — massively prioritizing, for example, prestigious and wealthy institutions like our own — could certainly be said to benefit Harvard’s interests, but would surely run counter to those of society writ large. Maximizing our payoff within this paradigm wouldn’t serve laudable social goals, just grow our slice of the bittersweet pie.

If Harvard accrues almost the entirety of the benefits, everyone pays the not-so-abstract costs. The tangible burden of controversial donations falls, for one, on the graduate students who are forced to survive amidst the chaotic aftermath — take a look at the now-defunct Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, or the sunsetting-when-the-donor-is-accused-of-sexual-misconduct Dubin Fellowship. I’ve already written about the devastating toll of being caught up in the middle.

Some of the other presumably minor concessions that Bok mentions as acceptable in “Ivory Tower” are just plain bad for academia as a whole, going well beyond the scope of “abstract considerations.” He concedes how troubling it might be that eccentric donors restrict their gifts in eccentric ways, or that business schools become overfunded compared to philosophy departments. Unfazed, Bok is willing to accept both as unavoidable obstacles, saying that attempting to completely limit donors' freedom would run counter to a university's funding and, hence, academic freedom.

His shrugging acceptance is baffling. Isn’t the fact that only a tiny, extremely wealthy segment of the population gets to decide what academic work gets funded inherently bad? How can we knowingly underfund some fundamental disciplines in favor of trendy alternatives and conclude that our financial framework is anything but irreversibly broken?

That might be the most frustrating thing about the pro-philanthropy worldview: Bok and his supporters never deny that there’s a legitimate moral debate at hand, they never reject the pitfalls of relying heavily on donations (even if they undersell the costs and overrate the benefits). They simply lack the imagination or the will to view beyond our current funding system, discarding concerning trends as “troubling” but “inevitable.”

For a wealthy institution that benefits from nine-figure contributions like Harvard, doing so amounts to self-serving conformism hidden behind faux, though sincerely held, utilitarian justifications. It’s certainly easier than grappling with the sheer ugliness of our financial reality, less risky than investing our economic and institutional heft in interrogating who funds what and how, more personally rewarding than looking for alternative, less profitable paths forward.

But it’s a service to Harvard and Harvard only, at the cost of everything we are supposed to represent. Pretending otherwise is a fool’s game, and a naive one at that.

Guillermo S. Hava ’24, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, lives in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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