September 22, 2017
I graduated from Harvard in 1968. (Officially, my diploma was from Radcliffe, the now disbanded women’s college, but all of our classes were at Harvard.) That year, Harvard’s graduation speaker was the shah of Iran, and many of us wore black armbands and boycotted the ceremony to protest against the oppressive Iranian government’s human rights violations.
In 1993, I returned for our 25th reunion. The graduation speaker was Colin Powell, the defense secretary, who had supported the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay members of the military. And my class (along with the rest of the audience) gave him a standing ovation.
I recall wondering what had happened to the students who had so passionately demonstrated against the Vietnam war and disrupted the campus visit of one of its major architects, Robert McNamara.
Not only were they (to paraphrase Proust) wearing the masks of middle age – but many of them wore elegant three-piece suits, and I overheard several women commiserating about the tribulations of their second-home renovations.
In fact the masks – of radicalism, of a commitment to social justice – had been removed, revealing the true faces of the (mostly) ruling class students who had returned to the values with which they had been raised, the worlds they’d been schooled to reenter. Because the big news that spring – the main event, so to speak – was that my classmates had collectively donated $7m to their alma mater.
Having witnessed this, I wasn’t much surprised to hear that Harvard’s institute of politics had invited Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to serve as fellows, and rescinded a similar invitation to whistleblower and trans activist Chelsea Manning.
Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the the university’s Kennedy school of government, cited the need to weigh what the “community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire”.
Was Elmendorf suggesting that students could learn more from two men who had lied in service of a liar than from Manning – who had gone to jail for bravely leaking documents that revealed the truth about (among other things) our use of torture and the number of civilian deaths in Iraq?
This was not Harvard’s only execrable recent decision. Michelle Jones, who had served a long prison sentence for murdering her child and proceeded to become a serious scholar, was admitted to, then rejected from, Harvard’s graduate program. Does the university have so little belief in the possibility of second chances – and in the redemptive power of education?
All of these decisions were explained – justified – on political and moral grounds. But I would argue that they had even more to do with economics. The sort of alumni who might donate millions to their alma mater are, I’d imagine, less likely to be offended by the presence of Spicer and Lewandowski than by that of Manning and Jones.
Harvard’s fear of alienating donors (or potential donors) was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article in which Sarah Ruden, a classical philologist, described being humiliated by a Harvard professor in the presence of a wealthy student (“a likely future donor”) for having given that student an A-minus instead of an A.
“Genuine rigor,” wrote Ruden, “which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students – isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.”
Admittedly, universities are enormously expensive to run; small colleges have closed because of their inability to raise a sufficiently large endowment. But aren’t our educational institutions supposed to teach their students to work hard, to think independently, to weigh alternative opinions, to make considered ethical judgments – to do any of the things that are denied them when a college puts money above morality and achievement?
Every year, I get a call from an earnest Harvard undergraduate soliciting donations from graduates. Most often I demur, or make a modest pledge. I appreciate the education I received, but I feel that many charities and causes need my money more desperately than Harvard does. But this year I plan to refuse outright, and when I’m asked why, I’ll answer with two names: Sean Spicer. Chelsea Manning.
I understand that I, and others like me, are hardly at the top of Harvard’s list. Major donors are taken to lunch by employees of the university development office, not cold-called by undergraduate volunteers or work study students.
But the sum total of our relatively small donations adds up, and I encourage those who, like me, are appalled by Harvard’s recent decisions to express our views by refusing to support Harvard until it makes an effort to become the sort of place we can be proud to have attended.
Francine Prose is a former president of PEN American Center