Times' Ethicist: Is Harvard a Good University Investment?

The Times' ethicist, Randy Cohen, takes up the question of whether it is more ethical to give your donation to Harvard or the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

We thought he'd focus on the practical issue of whether it's just a bad investment to send money to Harvard, given the poor performance of Harvard's endowment funds this past year, which some estimate have lost half of their value. If you gave a dollar to Harvard a year ago, they'd have made it into 50 cents now. Doesn't sound like a good idea.

But that's not what Randy inquires about. His concern appears to be framed as: where can you do the most good with money donated to educating our youth?

That expression of the issue seems to miss the major point, namely that research universities do not exist primarily to educate students. They are there to assemble faculty to create new knowledge through research.

We waited for years at Minnesota before we heard the "S" word come up in a faculty senate meeting or any other administrative setting. Students simply don't rate much attention at big schools.

I think what Randy means to say is if you want to affect students' futures, give to a school where the money collected from donations goes more directly to students and not to basic research.

We agree that the question raised is legitimate grist for the ethicist and for opinion mills in general. But the analysis offered in the Times falls short. See the discussion online for some additional insights into why.
Should You Give to Harvard?
Randy Cohen
The Issue
The fiscal year for major university endowments ended June 30, and schools have been reporting their results: not good. In the Harvard-Yale portfolio game, the latter was down 24.6 percent, while its rival lost even more, 27.3 percent. If you are an Ivy alum, this might seem a good moment to donate to your alma mater, to help rebuild its battered portfolio. But should you, given the power of education to improve people’s lives?

The Argument
Do not donate to Harvard. To do so is to offer more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window (at some sort of metaphoric college cafeteria, anyway). Even after last year’s losses, Harvard’s endowment exceeds $26 billion, the largest of any American university, greater than the G.D.P. of Estonia. By contrast, among historically black colleges and universities, Howard has the largest endowment, about $500 million, a mere 1.4 percent the size of Harvard’s. (Donors gave Harvard more than $600 million just this fiscal year.) The best-endowed community college, Valencia, in Orlando, Fla., has around $67 million, or 0.18 percent of Harvard’s wealth. This is not to deny that Harvard does fine work or could find ways to spend the money but to assert that other schools have a greater need and a greater moral claim to your benevolence.

Consider the students served by the two sorts of schools. An applicant who falls just shy of getting into Harvard is likely to go elsewhere. He or she will endure little suffering for having to muddle along at Brown or U.N.C. But for many other students, it is community college or nothing. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, a high percentage of those enrolled are the first in their families to attend college. Eighty percent of them work while going to school; 78 percent of them come from households with incomes of $25,000 or less. A lack of financing for these schools means higher tuition and fewer scholarships, which are serious obstacles to potential students. And while the Ivies do reach out to low-income students, Harvard’s sliding scale for tuition includes a bracket for families earning $120,000 to $180,000 a year, something that doesn’t come up much at B.M.C.C. It is fair to say that these schools enroll different constituencies.

And the well endowed serve a smaller constituency: nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, institutions that help keep alive the American promise of economic opportunity. On average, a male college graduate will earn significantly more in his lifetime than a nongraduate, a big thing to most families. Indeed, for many young people, community college is what stands between them and a life spent working a minimum-wage job or something not much better. Acknowledging the value of such schools, President Obama has proposed a community-college initiative. Support them, and you change people’s lives.

Support Harvard? The student paper, the Crimson, reported that in 2008 40 percent of the college’s graduates flocked “to lucrative jobs in business, consulting and finance.” For those who go on to Harvard Business School, the future is even rosier. Or at least greener. The median base salary for the B-school’s class of 2009 is currently $115,000; the median signing bonus adds another $20,000. These are starting salaries, during an economic downturn, for people who have never had an adult job (As some earlybird readers pointed out, B-school students do have work experience before enrolling.) Thus begins the next generation of wealthy alums with the wherewithal to give generously, perpetuating the status quo. Which might not be a bad slogan for the next fund drive. If you favor truth in advertising. And unsuccessful fund drives.

If we esteem higher education as a source of national prosperity, we should regard it as a public expense, like roads or national parks or the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. (Cost: $6.2 billion. With a slight up-tick in the stock market, Harvard can buy four. And pay cash. And take no guff from Yale.) Many countries do just that. France has 81 universities that charge very little tuition. Some Belgian universities are setting tuition at 500 euros.

Until that happy day, private donors will play their part, but they need not make the rich schools richer, the poor (comparatively) poorer. Instead, we could continue to encourage individual generosity with approbation and tax breaks, but add this stricture: only a portion of any donation may be earmarked for a particular school; the remainder will be distributed to needier institutions. That is, half of your donation could be pledged to Harvard, the rest would go to Howard and Valencia and the like. We’ll experiment with the proportions to find the sweet spot that aids the most students while discouraging the fewest donors. This reform need not be written into law. It should be accepted voluntarily by every donor and embraced by every university with a substantial endowment and a concern for an egalitarian society.

There is no imperative to shut down Harvard until B.M.C.C. matches its endowment; after all, we don’t ban donations to orchestras or animal shelters until all human disease has been eradicated. There are many kinds of good to be done in the world. But if you wish to promote education as a force for social justice, there are better and worse ways to do it. Ethics is not just intentions; it’s also effectiveness. We can frame the question as a conflict between two goods: donate to Harvard or donate elsewhere? Under the current circumstances, the more honorable course is to write that check to a community college or a historically black college or a small Catholic college or other modest institution that genuinely and profoundly transforms the lives of its graduates.

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