How Harvard Is Ignoring the Failures of Our System -- and Why We Can't Any Longer

by Martin Bourqui, National Organizer

This piece was first published in the Huffington Post on April 18, 2012.

Last week, a misstep by the Harvard administration illustrated clearly the biggest challenge facing the movement to change the way our universities invest.

The Harvard Management Company, which oversees the school's endowment, allegedly pressured the Undergraduate Council to drop former Harvard lecturer Joshua Humphreys from a town hall on socially and environmentally responsible investing of the largest educational endowment in the world. Dr. Humphreys is one of the nation's leading experts in the field of creating more just and sustainable investment in higher education, and has been critical of Harvard in the past for its policies -- or lack thereof -- around what Harvard is willing to do to grow its endowment.

The administration has backpedaled amidst criticism of suppressing dissent and discourse, claiming that uninviting one of Harvard Management Corp's biggest critics to a public event was little more than an administrative error, as if it were a typo. But the truth this fiasco exposes about Higher Education, Inc., and its attitude towards how to run an educational institution, must inform the work of creating the just and sustainable institutions our society needs.

When it came to the endowment, I gave my school the benefit of the doubt as a student. Surely, if it's obvious to me and my peers that our school should invest in alignment with its values, it will be obvious to the administration once we propose it, right? Wrong. Our schools love the idea of responsible investing as a "learning experience" for students -- as a sandbox for writing a research paper, or a seminar presentation -- but when it comes to actually pushing for transformative change, our schools see responsible investing as little more than a threat to their reputations -- and to the bottom line. And there, at that moment, they morally fail.

No shiny-new LEED-certified building, no Presidents' Climate Commitment, and no US News ranking will change the truth that all of our schools are investing in a wide variety of unsustainable and unjust corporate misdeeds. We can either continue to ignore the catastrophic failure of our system, or we can begin to address it like adults -- ones with serious responsibilities to our environment and to each other.

We are in a climate crisis. We are in an economic crisis. As people wielding the privilege of a college education in the United States, we are shielded from the devastating impacts of lucrative corporate practices from which we directly benefit. Our universities continue to support a number of tragedies, from private equity firms stealing farmers' land in Ethiopia to Chevron dumping oil in the rainforest in Ecuador to our schools' own banks defrauding taxpayers and kicking people out of their own homes right here in the U.S. And it's the last thing our schools want us to be thinking about.

Next time your university asks you to donate, keep these stories in mind. Your alma mater isn't going to tell you where that donation will be invested, and they're certainly not going to open the books just because you ask nicely.

Don't get me wrong; that's exactly how we're taught change is supposed to work. Approaching this subject with the dispassionate lens of academia can be tempting. Why advocate for change when there's so much more research to be done? Why organize, why protest, why spend hours petitioning or phone banking or standing on the quad holding a sign when we've been taught that change happens behind closed doors, through negotiation and diplomacy?

I have asked myself these questions for years, as a student and now as an organizer, and find myself at the same conclusion time and time again, especially in light of the latest hypocrisy from Harvard.

Being right is not enough.

The truth is simple, but hard to swallow in the context of academic culture. We're taught that if you study hard enough and put the time in, you'll get an "A" in the classroom. But in order to get the change you seek, you have to play by a different set of rules, and fight a lot harder.

The status quo of our schools' investments cannot be researched, dissected, or analyzed in some detached, academic tone. The decisions our institutions make about their impact on the world must be challenged respectfully, intelligently, visibly, and relentlessly. Those who make these decisions must be held accountable. It's time we stopped treating responsible investing like an academic thesis, and started treating it as what it is: a moral imperative.

If we're willing only to debate the issues without taking real action, we'll just hear more of the same flawed reasoning we've heard for years. They will say that this is how the system works, and that there is no alternative. They will claim that they maximize returns to leave the door open for future generations, even as their complicit investments in fossil fuels lock us into a world where future generations' options are catastrophically dwindling. They will say we can't "politicize the endowment," a nonsensical favorite of mine.

These arguments amount to little more than burying our heads in the sand.

I have been working on trying to change the way university endowments are invested for four years now, and I'm astounded by the inaction of schools like Harvard, or my own alma mater, Tufts University, where students, with the backing of experts, have been ceremoniously ignored for over a decade. The snub of Dr. Humphreys is just the latest example in years of evidence that the administrative elite is not willing to have this conversation.

So much for school spirit. It seems like the only way to make change at our schools is by forcing us to fight for it as organizers, not by working together as colleagues and equals. I refuse to see one more hardworking student let down by the arrogance of an administrator metaphorically patting them on the head, saying, "This is none of your business." Confronting power in higher education and not taking no for an answer remains, by far, the most successful strategy. Take notice, Harvard. We can't ignore these problems any longer, and our schools do so at their own risk.

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