By CARROLL BOGERT
College students are headed home for the summer, leaving campuses to the alumni for a few days of remember-when revelry. Welcome to the annual ritual that has university development officers across the country sharpening their utensils. May I pour you another cocktail, sir?
At Harvard, where I’m on my way for my 25th reunion, I’d have to be drunk to fall for their pitch. The university’s endowment stands at $35 billion and is likely to hit $100 billion in a decade. At an annual growth rate of 13.3 percent — the average since inception, and regularly exceeded in recent years — Harvard can cover next year’s entire undergraduate financial aid budget with what it earns in the market in eight and a half days.
Many colleges may genuinely still need alumni contributions to stay solvent, but Harvard isn’t one of them — nor are Yale, Princeton or several other super-rich universities.
If you ask Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, why in the world she needs your $1,000 — as I did recently, at one of those pre-reunion cocktail parties in someone’s staggering Fifth Avenue duplex — she has a ready answer: alumni giving covers one-third of Harvard’s operating budget. What she doesn’t mention is that earnings from the endowment last year could cover the entire operating budget while still growing at a healthy rate.
About 15 years ago, according to Lynne Munson, a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, university endowments changed their investment strategies from conservative to highly aggressive. “These universities have a modern mentality about investing,” she told me, “but they still have an old-fashioned mentality about spending.”
The result is that Harvard is sitting on top of a gargantuan pile of cash, and it’s getting bigger all the time. But for some reason, no one seems to be talking about a new financial model for running the university. The juggernaut that is the Harvard Development Office has grown no less ardent in its pleas for my contribution this reunion season.
Last year, in the wake of Congressional hearings on the rising costs of college education, Harvard announced that it would offer financial aid even to families earning up to $180,000 a year. That was good news for middle-class parents wondering where they would find $50,000 a year for the next four. But it should be only the beginning of a brainstorm about the bigger picture of financing a private education.
Harvard is the wealthiest private institution in America except for the Gates Foundation, which has about $37 billion. But unlike the Gates Foundation, Harvard isn’t legally required to spend 5 percent of its income every year. Last year, it didn’t. Nor does it pay tax. Nor is it bound by most of the strictures of financial reporting that make spending at Gates transparent and publicly accountable.
A few hundred alumni have formed Harvard Alumni for Social Action, to try to channel 25th-reunion giving to destitute universities in Africa. In three years, we’ve raised $425,000 — a lot for the University of Dar es Salaam but hardly a match for our annual class “gift.” And evidently not enough to win the respect of President Faust, who has begged off meeting the group. Harvard clearly doesn’t like any effort that might divert a dollar away from its Cambridge coffers.
So where are the rest of the alumni? Why do all those clever classmates of mine continue to invest their money in an institution with such a lack of imagination about how to deploy its resources?
The main reason is probably the unparalleled networking opportunity that alumni events represent. The more money you give, the more networking events you’re invited to, and the higher the net worth of the other attendees.
But fear is another big reason. All of us hope our children will be able to go to Harvard if they want to. We’re not sure if anybody up in Cambridge notices our paltry checks when David Rockefeller is writing one for $100 million, but an awful lot of people continue to write them anyway. It’s a small price to pay — a kind of soft blackmail — to keep options open for little Max and Sophie.
Maybe the biggest reason is tradition. This is the way universities have always been run, and we’ve come to expect those calls from classmates asking for our donations. The attendant chitchat is kind of fun. And would universities still go to the trouble of organizing reunions if they didn’t make a gigantic amount of money from them? We can all enjoy the get-together, even if the university’s message today seems wildly off-kilter: Open your wallets, graying nostalgics, it’s reunion season! And suspend the critical thinking we taught you here, way back when.
Carroll Bogert, the associate director of Human Rights Watch, is a member of the Harvard class of 1983.