University Ethics and the Spirit of Accountability

We cannot be held accountable to our values until the Harvard community has a real stake in them and non-Harvard communities have a real voice in what that accountability looks like.

In 1980, Cambridge City Hall was draped in purple to mourn the city’s “slow death.” The killer? Harvard land purchases, which, due to Harvard’s tax-exempt status, endangered property tax revenues. As a result, the burden of funding city services — including those benefiting Harvard affiliates — fell on Cambridge’s other, often poorer residents.

Today, Harvard owns 10 percent of Cambridge and six percent of Allston, paying a fraction of what would otherwise fund city operations. In this respect, as one union organizer put it, Harvard acts less like a university and more like a hedge fund with a university attached to it. This is true of past and present investments, labor practices, affiliations, and actual behavior as Greater Boston’s neighbors.

It is clear to many of us that this relationship between Harvard and surrounding communities — a growing UniverCity — is immoral. Indeed, many agree that we need greater accountability for our impact on communities locally and globally; Harvard, it seems, must be held accountable to something. But to what? And what would that look like?

Our motto, for its part, claims communal accountability to truth. University President Lawrence S. Bacow commented on the nature of this accountability at a recent event: He noted that Harvard scholarship on the harms of the prison-industrial complex — i.e. Harvard’s revelation of truth — offsets our moral imperative to divest from that complex — that is, to be held accountable based on truth we reveal.

Far from “reasonable,” this is a moral logic distorted by power: We ourselves are not held accountable to values because our role is to produce the very terms within which those values operate. In this way, our truth production operates not as liberatory but as grounds for a state of moral exception in which shedding light is deemed more important than addressing that which light is shed upon. Our pursuit of truth is so sacred, we say, that it cannot be tainted by work toward its own logical conclusions.


But whose job is it to hold us to truth, anyway? Theoretically, university accountability is in faculty hands: Tenure grants them independence they subsequently use to steer decision-making responsive to truth’s imperatives. But the last half-century has seen the number of university administrators multiply, limiting faculty purview. Simultaneously, we have realized that those we are taught to trust — faculty, congresspeople, judges — rarely reflect the needs of those marginalized by the power they wield. As a result, we are left with arrogantly vacant self-accountability structures lacking both jurisdiction and perspectival knowledge necessary to their mandate. We, all-knowing, concurrently reveal the truth and hold ourselves accountable to it.

This self-accountability pervades campuses, seemingly innocuous. We tailor political programming, for example, to student interest, granting self-gratification precedence over moral discomfort. We deem time commitments “barriers” to public service, creating insignificant service opportunities easier to squeeze into self-centered schedules. We limit our political stances based on donor discomfort, even discomfort borne of their own complicity. Even student-activists sometimes adopt this logic: We argue not in terms of justice, but based on campus opinion — the Harvard community wants x, so administrators should deliver. After all, we think, we produce leaders (and soon-to-be-donors!) here; we must indulge their interests, not hold them accountable to higher values. Our measure of success is not what good we produce in the world; it is, instead, whether we are seen by ourselves (and those we deem peers) as having produced it.

Given rampant university corporatization and self-satisfied anointing of ourselves as arbiters of what needs doing in the world, we become lawmaker, judge, and jury of our own actions. This leaves us without answers to the age-old question: Who guards the guardians?

The fact is, just like the state, we cannot trust universities to hold themselves accountable — especially as decision-making moves into administrative hands with neither tenure-granted independence nor insight into most-affected constituencies. Instead, to engage the world around us with moral courage, we must build systems that genuinely empower local and otherwise non-Harvard voices in our decision-making. Only by doing so can we create space for true, rather than self-serving, institutional accountability.

During my time here, I have been lucky to glimpse such possibility. Through the Phillips Brooks House Association, I am part of generations of students challenging Harvard to do better not according to self-defined standards, but according to what partner communities want for themselves. Because we are held accountable to these partners through our organizational structures, we hold others at Harvard accountable for community impact, too. That’s a form of leadership that centers non-Harvard voices over Harvard ones — and is stronger for it.

PBHA is perhaps unique nationwide (and product of decentralized history rather than institutional design), but other structures suggest similar potential. The Harvard Foundation, for example, despite its significant flaws, had a director with the autonomy to challenge policies that hurt students of color (autonomy that will disappear upon integration into the Dean of Students Office and conversion to administrative leadership). Imagine if the Foundation had used that autonomy to pull stakeholders from communities of color into decision-making bodies that, rather than simply advancing student needs, challenged the University’s impact on marginalized communities worldwide! Imagine if that sort of accountability structure was a resourced, accepted part of campus ecology, part of continual self-review we make possible because our duty toward justice is so great that we cannot entrust it to ourselves alone.

If we take our values seriously, we must find ways beyond ourselves to be held accountable for our impact. In pursuit of radical, liberatory universities that serve justice, what might shared ownership and control of universities look like? What might happen if we give those we hurt a stake in decision-making power over us? In confronting ourselves through others’ eyes, what types of institutions might we build — together?

Anwar Omeish ’19 is a Social Studies Concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.