I am writing to you on behalf of all of the college presidents, students, trustees, faculty members, parents and education thought leaders who are thinking what I am about to say to you regarding your $400 million gift to Harvard University. Your gift represents years of hard work, dedication and good fortune. No one attains the level of financial success that you have achieved without years of perseverance and sacrifice. I am a firm believer that your type of success should be praised and emulated.
Your personal success, however, is not why I am writing you today. I am writing you today concerning what you do not possess and what you have not achieved. That is, if I may speak freely, an understanding of what truly matters in life. In life, we are challenged to leave places better than we found them and pursue a course of action that elevates the common good. We are instructed to "choose the harder right over the easier wrong without apparent regard for self-interest." None of these principles are represented by your gift to Harvard. In fact, your gift is the antithesis of these principles. By making such a donation to the world's richest university, you are actually leaving society worse than you found it, while simultaneously showing an amazing amount of destructive self-interest cloaked in humanitarianism.
As I can hear the sopranos of the "innovations in science advance the common good" chorus warming up, please allow me to explain my point. Harvard does not need your money. Your $400 million dollars will sit in the Harvard's $36.4 billion endowment and only be used in conjunction with the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I have read that part of the purpose of your gift was to ensure that "Harvard... Boston and the East Coast will be a center for technological innovation." This strikes me as a bit odd for a couple of reasons. First, if creating a world-class engineering facility was that important to Harvard, I am positive they could have found a way to use a portion of their existing endowment to do so. Secondly, with MIT already being located in the Boston area and doing a more than adequate job of representing technological innovation on the East Coast (and the world), perhaps there was another motive for your gift. Perhaps this was less about the deficiencies of the East Coast's technology landscape and more about winning the game of "one-upmanship" that wealthy donors and institutions tend to play with little regard for how small these types of actions make them seem to the outside world. Given that I do not personally know you, I cannot speak for your true motivation. But even if I could speak to your motivation, it is absolutely your call for how you want to spend your money, and if addressing the inadequacies of the Engineering Department at America's oldest and wealthiest university is where you opt to make your mark, so be it.
The problem is, we need you and Harvard to represent something more. Higher education in America began with Harvard College in 1636. Harvard was explicitly charged with the task of "preparing men of refinement and culture" who were "destined to hold positions of responsibility and leadership in society." Implicit in this charge was the understanding that Harvard and American higher education were called to address the true needs of the nascent society. It is not a stretch to argue that for almost 400 years, for better or worse, this is what both entities have done. Unfortunately, we are currently in an era where it appears that many of our more prestigious institutions of higher education and those people like yourself, who support them so generously, have lost touch with society's actual needs. When you give Harvard $400 million it reinforces such a sentiment. It speaks to excessiveness and cluelessness in a way that exposes you, Harvard, and the rest of higher education to great criticism, scorn, and disgust.
John, the issue with your gift is not what it will do, but instead what it will not do. It will not transform the lives of those who most need their lives transformed. It will not, in any replicable manner, address the ills of urban life -- a life that leaves far too many without access to healthy and affordable food, quality schools and non-usurious banking relationships. Your gift does not make pre-k universally available, lighten the load of single mothers or alleviate onerous student loans burdens. In short and as unbelievable as this may seem given your background, you simply did not get enough for your money. And as a result, neither will society. But hey, at least you did get your name on the building.
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