Harvard alumna Carroll Bogert is associate director of Human Rights Watch, and a member of Harvard's class of '83. In a May 25 op-ed piece in the New York Times ("Enjoy the Reunion. Skip the Check."), Bogert states that Harvard University (Massachusetts, USA), with its disproportionately large endowment, needs to revamp its spending practices to match its aggressive investment policies.
This argument is increasingly common now, as the public (including lawmakers) questions why schools with multi-billion dollar endowments continue to ask alumni for gifts. Many small donors feel, as Bogert points out, that the university can do without their modest contributions. So as I read the piece, I thought it was going to be about Harvard's finances.
But Bogert's specific complaint is actually about Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust's unwillingness to meet with a group of alumni who want to fund higher education in Africa:
A few hundred alumni have formed Harvard Alumni for Social Action [HASA], to try to channel 25th-reunion giving to destitute universities in Africa. In three years, we’ve raised $425,000 — a lot for the University of Dar es Salaam but hardly a match for our annual class “gift.” And evidently not enough to win the respect of President Faust, who has begged off meeting the group. Harvard clearly doesn’t like any effort that might divert a dollar away from its Cambridge coffers.
As a special interest group, HASA is dedicated to a specific cause. The money raised for the University of Dar es Salaam is noteworthy, and could obviously make a real difference to that institution. But why use sarcastic quotation marks around "gift"? When alumni give money, it's a gift. Every alumnus is free to decline to give when asked. Alumni can even ask to be removed from solicitation lists. But very few do.
Bogert says that Faust's failure to meet with the group means Faust doesn't "respect" them. This sounds passive-aggressive; there are many "respectable" groups that college presidents don't meet with, for a variety of reasons. Having said this, and assuming it's true that Faust won't meet, I am curious to know Faust's specific reason in this case. It seems like a reasonable expectation on the part of HASA leaders to speak officially with the president.
One more thing about respect, though. Bogert says she'd "have to be drunk" to "fall for" fundraisers' appeals. Her fellow alumni have elected to fund - at extraordinary levels - their alma mater. But she's sober, and they're metaphorically drunk? That shows disrespect. And anyway, she's a fundraiser too.
You have to give Bogert credit though: equating a popular complaint (Harvard is too rich) with a noble cause (Dar es Salaam is too poor) is a neat public relations maneuver. Getting it into the Sunday NY Times is fancier still. Maybe the Harvard question and the Dar es Salaam question are related, and maybe they aren't. I'm not really sure. But either way, a lot more people are talking about those causes this weekend. That's probably good.
Bogert claims to be surprised that "Harvard clearly doesn't like any effort that might divert a dollar away from its Cambridge coffers." Why should Harvard like it? Harvard, like any big organization, is in business to stay in business. You don't get a $30 billion endowment by turning down donations. You can turn Bogert's complaint around and say that "HASA doesn't like any effort that might divert a Harvard alum's dollar away from Dar es Salaam." You couldn't blame Bogert if she made that claim on HASA's behalf; she can't be surprised that Harvard wants to keep its alumni donations.
Finally, Bogert hypothesizes as to why alumni continue to donate (dare I say "give"?) to Harvard, when the school doesn't currently need the money. Donations, she says, are driven by:
- "the unparalleled networking opportunity that alumni events represent";
- Harvard grads' fear that legacy applicants won't gain admission if their parents don't give; and
To this last point, she asks
...would universities still go to the trouble of organizing reunions if they didn’t make a gigantic amount of money from them? We can all enjoy the get-together, even if the university’s message today seems wildly off-kilter: Open your wallets, graying nostalgics, it’s reunion season! And suspend the critical thinking we taught you here, way back when.
She's right to ask about why reunions exist. Alumni relations is a building block of fundraising. But she is still conflating endowment payout policies with annual giving procedures. I am guessing that the "gigantic amount of money" Harvard has currently comes more from endowment income than from reunion classes' gifts.
As for critical thinking, Bogert should realize that while the University sounds hypocritical, so do some of its alumni. They decry Harvard's efforts to raise money, while they themselves benefit from the reputation, the visibility and the name-brand that fundraising enables and sustains.
But alumni of a prominent institution owe it to the school, to themselves and to society to use that institution's name for good, if they can. Raising money for African education is a worthwhile goal and Bogert is right about one other thing: Harvard is sitting on "a gargantuan pile of cash" which continues to grow, and a "new financial model" is at the very least a reasonable proposal.
Bottom line: Bogert's piece isn't really about endowment. But all the same, Harvard will benefit in the long run from engaging with this group on terms that both organizations can support. Bogert and HASA should be commended for asking tough questions about Harvard's finances. If they can manage to ask those questions without resorting to antagonistic sarcasm, they might even start getting some answers.
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