A response to Glenn Beck's "Tax-free hypocrisy from higher education" on CNN.com
There's an industry out there, and it's making money hand over fist while you're barely able to cover your mounting credit card debt.
It's an industry where it's not uncommon for companies to make upwards of four billion dollars in net profit in a single year.
The corporations that comprise it can afford to hire armies of accountants and lawyers whose sole job it is to avoid tax liability through tricks such as mark-to-market accounting and the relocation of corporate "headquarters" to places like the Cayman Islands. Often, these corporations don't have to pay any taxes at all.
Sometimes, these companies even give voice to previously-unheard-of new hires, not because they believe that they'll provide high-quality services or create products of considerable value, but solely for the purpose of creating controversy where there really is none.
Are you angry, because even if there was a Congressional committee that took investigations seriously, it's most likely that nothing would come out of a lone hearing anyway? Well, you should be, because I am of course referring to the media industry, and Glenn Beck's recent commentary on Harvard's endowment is a prime example of everything wrong with it.
Beck begins by suggesting that Americans should be outraged at the combined amount of wealth that the top five institutions of higher education have amassed in their endowments, citing a figure of $100 billion. It's a large number, no doubt. Outrage would seem to be in order if universities were squandering this money on frivolous benefits for professors and students -- year-round Alaskan crab in the dining halls, perhaps -- but even having seen some of the new attractions that universities have binged on just to lure students, such as new gymnasiums, I haven't felt much outrage. Actually, some might even say that it's great that education is taken seriously enough in the United States that alumni actually want to give their money back to the same system that they derived benefit from.
Of course, Beck says, he has no problem with schools being wealthy. If we're to take him at his word, then his real grievance is that "colleges and universities are only working to spread the radical political views of some of their professors."
The mere notion that the sole purpose of institutions of learning is, or has somehow been twisted to be, the dissemination of "radical" views alone, is so absurd that Beck should be embarrassed to have written it. By definition, learning involves the introduction and analysis of original thought. Given the necessity of learning for survival, it's self-defeating to equate places that people learn with connotations of danger and subversiveness. Perhaps when Beck is one day in need personally of some radical economic ideas to boost his employer's stock price, radical statistical modeling to explain his television show ratings, or radical medical research, he'll change his mind. But probably not.
With a masterful generalization, Beck also frets that the liberal elitist professors locked away in their ivory towers have nothing better to do than raise the price of private education beyond a level that any typical family could conceivably afford. The phrase "financial aid" does not appear once in his diatribe, making it seem as though the practice does not even exist. In fact, a recent Bloomberg article with the headline "Harvard, Yale Struggle to Attract Low-Income Students With Aid" states the following: a student "was persuaded to apply when recruiters said financial aid would cover almost all of Harvard's $47,215 in annual costs, including room and board. 'It was so influential,' she said. 'It was actually cheaper for me to go to Harvard than to go to a state school where I live.'"
One has to wonder what exactly is wrong with Glenn Beck. I don't particularly care that he identifies himself as a conservative. I have many conservative views myself. The problem, I think, is that he doesn't actually know anything. Not everyone at Harvard, let alone every university, is a liberal. When I was at Harvard four years ago, two of my roommates campaigned for George W. Bush and the remaining one was a Muslim who went to mass more frequently than he entered a mosque. The endowments are huge because university alumni, on average, take what they've learned, put it to use, and give back -- often with complicated restrictions that make it difficult to spend what's accumulated except in extremely specific scenarios.
Beck's conclusion, that universities fail at "consistency and accountability," seems to be based on nothing more than the kind of sound byte CNN loves to play about every political issue.
Harvard, and education in general, should be affordable. Each school's endowment does present a vehicle by which the financial burdens of students should be eased whenever possible. Then again, Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, is a multi-national corporation with a fifty-nine billion dollar market capitalization. With his calls for Harvard to donate more due to its wealth, I'm sure Glenn Beck wouldn't mind if his employer decided to give his salary to charity this year. Or every year.
This article originally appeared on aarongreenspan.com.
Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.