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Harvard’s Coronavirus Greed and the Limits of Credentialism

The Ivy League school isn’t just an institution. It is an invocation.

Liel Leibovitz
April 28, 2020
Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, Harvard University—whose $40.9 billion endowment makes it twice as rich as the nation of Guatemala and about as wealthy as Romania—was named the recipient of $9 million in federal coronavirus relief aid. The media mewled, the president pounced, and after some hemming and hawing, the university caved in and gave back the cash it had applied for at the expense of people in real need.

Let us assume for a moment that all the catechisms delivered at Harvard’s cathedral of knowledge are upright and good. Let us ignore for the moment, say, the professor who believes that only the state knows what’s good for children, not their parents, or the chair of the chemistry department who was recently arrested for failing to report large contributions from China’s Wuhan University of Technology. Let us forget that whole unpleasant business of discriminating against Asian Americans because, you know, they just don’t have personality. Let us say that everything Harvard teaches is, as the locals say, wicked smart.

That still leaves the business of what Harvard does. And what Harvard does is behave like a rapacious multinational conglomerate that pays flacks to churn out sanctimonious nonsense about corporate responsibility while at the same time redefining the meaning of greed.

Take, for example, the university’s behavior as the COVID-19 pandemic sent institutions scrambling to execute instant closures. Giving its students—a whopping 70% of whom receive financial aid—no time to make arrangements, the university informed its young minions that they had to leave immediately and that they could not store any of their belongings on campus.

Ever resourceful, the students created Google spreadsheets and resorted to asking strangers to show them mercy and let them in for a few days until they could find some place to go. It took a torrent of alumni complaints and scathing press reports for the university to realize the brewing PR disaster. Grudgingly, Harvard agreed that those wretches who couldn’t simply catch a flight to their family’s Hamptons home could stick around. Still, the university made it clear that anyone who remained should expect no real essential services to help them get through the crisis, a response that Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack said could “exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.”

The coronavirus stress test underlines the fact that Harvard is one of the most toxic corporations doing business in America today. After all, its vaunted business school gave the world the unimprovably named agency theory, which holds that management’s main goal is to increase shareholders’ value, all other considerations be damned. You will be shocked—shocked!—to learn that economists have since judged this approach to be a major reason for formerly great companies investing less and less in the future and more and more in quarterly reports, to the detriment of everyone except for a small group of speculators.

Look at the university’s massive investments, and the picture hardly grows brighter. Harvard is notoriously opaque about how it spends its money—an affront to the values of higher education, which purport to hold the free and unfettered exchange of ideas and facts at its very core. But thanks to a few handfuls of students who embody the institution’s values much better than its administration, we have been privileged to get a few glimpses of how Harvard Inc. spends its fortune. For example, the university is indirectly investing in CoreCivic and the GEO Group—two of the country’s largest for-profit private prison operators. If you don’t like those pictures of kids in cages on the southern border, write a letter to Harvard.

And if you don’t particularly care for fossil fuels, again, just look to Harvard: In 2015, a carbon consultant in Zurich analyzed the sliver of Harvard’s investments that was publicly available and estimated that the storied university was responsible for about 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, which is about as much as the entire state of Delaware.

All of this bad behavior makes Harvard no different than any other number of major financial players. But while Goldman Sachs has become synonymous with soullessness—not to mention the subject of a star-studded Hollywood comedy lambasting its rapaciousness—Harvard remains a highly desirable brand. Most American parents would gladly plunge into irredeemable debt just for the chance to drape their son or daughter in crimson. Even a long and shameful bond with the late child rapist Jeffrey Epstein did little to tarnish the university’s reputation.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Harvard’s bad behavior as a minor evil. With a plague raging, a political system slouching toward damnation, and a culture mired in exhausting ideological quibbles, you may be tempted to dismiss the avaricious foibles of the world’s richest university as no more than a small nuisance. But it’s not.

Harvard isn’t just an institution. Harvard is an invocation; a name you speak when you wish to endow your argument with the magical power of ultimate authority. America is now governed by the subspecies Homo Credential, or Man the Expert. We look to Harvard to produce our best and brightest, and then look to these best and brightest for guidance on anything from how to educate our children to how to run our economy.

Credentialism is the ruling creed of our era—and the coronavirus is showing us how little those expensive pieces of paper actually protect us. There are therefore few priorities more urgent than reminding ourselves that the institution in which we’ve put so much faith has little interest in us. Harvard offers America rousing talk of diversity, opportunity, and exploration while making us poorer, sicker, and less free.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.