Ask 10 Harvard affiliates about the University’s endowment and they’ll give you 10 different reasons for righteous indignation.
The divestors will decry the makeup of the Harvard Management Company’s investment portfolio, raising consistent and often successful dissent to push for divestment from fossil fuels, prisons, and Puerto Rican debt.
The workers will condemn Harvard’s stingy and inhumane employment practices: With a $53 billion endowment and a $283 million budget surplus, why did the graduate student union need to fight tooth and nail to gain a measly cost-of-living raise in one of the most expensive cities in the country? Why were workers threatened with potential layoffs and left unpaid during Covid-19?
The aspiring populists will warn against the University’s acceptance of government relief funds. Flush in cash, Harvard should never accept federal funds doled out in crisis. Use your endowment, our aspiring Josh Hawleys will chide the administration, and never accept outside help. Harvard has heeded their advice in the past, but they will doubtless raise their voices in the future as well.
The native Bostonians will denounce Harvard’s insufficient contributions to the city’s Payment In Lieu Of Taxes program. In 2020, the University failed for the eighth consecutive year to pay the full amount requested by Boston officials as compensation for tax revenue lost due to Harvard’s nonprofit status. Given the massive direct and indirect costs that Harvard’s expansion into Allston and Longwood inflicts upon residents, our institution —with its Slovenian economy-sized endowment — can well afford to pay the relatively insignificant $12.8 million requested under PILOT.
I’m certainly sympathetic to each of these lines of endowment discontent. But to me, none of them grasp at the fundamental question at play in this absurd drama of abundance. For the most part, criticism of the endowment and its role in Harvard’s austerity politics accepts the premise that it’s OK for a university to operate a hedge fund in the first place. It is not only that the types and methods of HMC investment are wrong; rather, it is the very logic of constructing an unlimited endowment that is immoral and in violation of the core values of the Harvard community.
Fifty-three billion dollars is a lot of money, with a lot of capacity for good. It’s enough to expand Section 8 housing to cover all eligible households, quadruple the size of the Head Start preschool program, or end hunger for one-tenth of the starving world — all with $10 billion left over, still more than all but a handful of American universities have in their endowments.
To state the obvious, Harvard is not pursuing this type of massive, system-scale social intervention. Year over year, 95 percent of the endowment is held in invested funds, with a 5 percent (and often less) yearly payout covering only one-third of the University’s operating budget. Falsely claiming scarcity, the HMC manages its funds under a conservative mindset of austerity — stonewalling necessary change, eschewing transparency, and reducing its support of the University at the drop of a financial hat — all while paying out $31 million yearly to its six top investment managers.
To live up to its core obligations as an affluent institution in democratic society, Harvard must cease its deference to this imagined scarcity. Universities’ role in democracy includes democratic fiscal action: they have a responsibility to put their resources toward the development of an active, educated, and healthy citizenry.
For a democratic institution with such pecuniary abundance, it’s not enough to educate a few thousand “citizen-leaders” each year. Harvard must use its resources to enable as many people as possible to become citizen-leaders beyond the walls of the University. In a society suffering poverty, homelessness, and climate crisis under the weight of stifling institutional austerity, Harvard’s endowment is a hoarder’s trove, an inexcusably unjust concentration of affluence. In recognition of this truth, Harvard should put an end to its unjustifiable greed and begin devoting its massive resources to the public good.
So let’s defund the HMC! Enough with the false logic of boundless growth and endless hoarding — let’s set reasonable limits on Harvard’s accumulation of wealth that safeguard the University’s sustained operations while using its abundant excess to fulfill its democratic obligations to the society in which we live. Waging our resources as a weapon of the social good, let’s spend, spend, spend!
For too long, Harvard has focused on truth at the cost of goodness. A logic of unlimited accumulation has blinded the institution from its commitments to democracy. But it’s not too late — nearly 400 years of history, however heavy a burden, is not destiny. Replacing veritas with veritas popularis, let’s push a new generation of Harvard humans to pursue the democratic truth to which our University is obliged.
Noah B. Kassis ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Straus Hall.