Can Harvard be punished?

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Harvard may forfeit nearly $400 million in alumni gifts this year as a consequence of ex-president Lawrence H. Summers' abrupt exit. Even for mega-bucks Harvard, that begins to qualify as real money, a palpable hit in the pocketbook--a "significant setback" in Journalese.

The four major donors involved, including such high-profile folks as David Rockefeller, Larry Ellison, and Mortimer Zuckerman, are fairly circumspect in explaining their actions, but the Journal depicts them as "supportive of Mr. Summers and elements of his vision for Harvard."

Several other big donors have also signaled a reduction or withholding of their regular gifts to Harvard. Said Byron Wien of Pequot Capital, who declined to make his (sizable) annual contribution, "It was my little wake-up call saying, look, there are multiple constituencies there. The students are a constituency, and they were very supportive of Summers. And the alumni are a constituency, and they were very supportive of Summers."

Lots of people have Summers-related gripes--my own is that toward the end he wimped out and apologized rather than sticking to his convictions--but everyone agrees that he was an energetic agent of change who sought, during his five years in the nice corner office in Massachusetts Hall, to redirect the university on a number of fronts. These include the nature of undergraduate education; the uses of technology; Harvard's place on the international stage; a major physical relocation of portions of the university across the Charles River; and some rollback of political correctness, including at least limited efforts to resurrect ROTC.

He moved quickly and decisively on many of these fronts. He was often outspoken, even provocative, in many of his comments. He was, I'm told, abrasive, unkempt, and hard to work with. He did not operate via the university norm of "consensus"--which norm usually guarantees that nothing changes. And a couple of his most visible altercations--especially with an African-American professor and some prickly women scientists--got him in Dutch with a noisy and politicized fraction of the faculty of Arts and Sciences. Most of the rest of the university liked him well enough. Some thought he was just what the place needed. In the end, however, the Harvard Corporation--the university's principal governing body--eased him out the door and brought back (on an interim basis) the genial, clubbable Derek Bok.

I admired most of the Summers agenda and rather fancied his "gadfly" approach to higher education. His main shortcoming, in my view (prior to the eventual wimp-out), was his party affiliation, but that can be forgiven.

My own alumni gifts to Harvard have never amounted to much, but I've been a faithful annual donor. Now I'm rethinking that habit. It's not that the university would notice the loss of my few dollars. It's that private universities are almost entirely unaccountable to anyone but their own faculty. (I'm referring to selective institutions that have plenty of applicants. Other sorts of campus must be attentive to the student marketplace.)

One way to get their attention is via alumni contributions and the absence thereof. American colleges and universities are profoundly greedy--always wanting more of just about everything from academic accolades to climbing walls and, because they're allergic to productivity gains and efficiency considerations, their only way of doing more is to bring in more bucks. On private campuses, that boils down to hiking tuition levels, which causes its own woes, or landing more grants and gifts. These can come from innumerable places, of course, including federal agencies and private foundations as well as individual donors. Alumni, however, are a favorite source, because they are presumed to be biased in favor of a particular institution and generally steadfast, even eager to repay what they regard as their enduring debt to their alma mater.

Alumni who seek to influence their college or university, as opposed simply to "helping" it, have to be strategic. Institutions of higher education don't like to be influenced and are notoriously resistant to hectoring, pleading, and pressuring. Nothing brings a professor greater pleasure than mounting a soapbox to declare that some nefarious external force is trying to curb his academic freedom. But such institutions tend to respond to money. The single best way to get a college to do something is to give it dollars for that specific purpose. They almost always react positively.

I'm not under any illusion that haughty places with lots of money--Harvard is surely at the top of that list--will be equally responsive to the absence or withdrawal of money. The development office will undoubtedly take note, as will a couple of administrators, but it's far from clear that the faculty will notice or care. Indeed, it's a fair bet that the selfsame Arts and Science professors who ousted Summers will take smug satisfaction from the fact that Harvard will no longer have resources specifically earmarked for his unloved reforms.

Still, money is just about the only two-by-four this particular mule has any chance of noticing. It'll be good for the alumni/ae to express themselves. Maybe they'll turn it into a habit, perhaps even join the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Summers will surely notice. Other alumni (like me) might be emboldened and empowered. And possibly, just possibly, this high-status but oft-misguided university will alter its future course a tiny, tiny bit.

"Summers' Supporters Withhold $390 Million from Harvard," by Zachary Seward, Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2006 (subscription required)

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