On Harvard’s Financial Crisis

To Michael D. Smith,
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

October 20 2009

Dear Professor Smith:

I read with great interest as I am sure we all did your letter regarding Harvard’s finances. It’s a long document, many parts of which only a professional accountant could truly understand.

It reveals what could not be concealed. It could therefore have been at once much longer in some of its parts and in others, a good deal more short and plain. You make three basic and simple points:

1. The first is that this financial crisis is nobody’s fault, really. Mssrs. Mr Summers and Rubin are never mentioned. The message is instead that other universities did even more poorly than ours, that we did the best a reasonable person could do, and so on. In brief, who did what to bring us to this juncture in our affairs is all water under the bridge. We move on.

2. The second is that the situation is now under control. Other people may be suffering, but basically, we are not doing that badly. None of us, after all, have been fired, and especially not in University Hall. We should be prudent, of course, but we should not be too alarmed. Things are OK. So, here again, then, we move on.

But the third point of your message – which has to do with the presence of an absence – is the one that interests me most: nary a word do I find in your report about the 275 people who were dismissed from our staff, 77 in connection to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. There too, is it your point that we should move on? I read your unwritten message to be that we have our problems, and that they have theirs: am I really mistaken in thinking this?

I was profoundly disturbed by these dismissals, as were many other members of the teaching staff. (It would incidentally have been nice if we had been able to discuss such a move on the Faculty floor.) As I see it, the implication of your silence on this issue has to be that although we are, by your own count, still worth 26 billion dollars, we could not find the money to keep on our payroll these employees who have served us well. And this in a society where unemployment often means the end of medical coverage, and even for some, homelessness, a sad reward incidentally for those of them who had faith in the reckless message of Mssrs Summers and Rubin, both of whom, incidentally, we might well want to censure for their strikingly incompetent management of our fortunes, our investments, and especially, our expenses.

Your silence here is eloquent: what it tells us is that the world’s richest educational institution, upon reflection, decided that it could not afford to keep its weakest members afloat. This is for me immensely discouraging. Your reasoning (i.e: “these cuts were painful, of course, but necessary”) would perhaps have been wise if you were running some banal firm. Or bank. But you are not. In my view, your message is inappropriate coming as it does from for someone who is in charge of the world’s leading – and richest -educational institution, a university on a hill as it were, and a flagship for academic life world over.

I do not know what President Lowell did about our monies during the 1929 depression because that is not what now matters about his years at Harvard. But his approval of the violently contested execution of Sacco and Vanzetti does still matter, as do homosexuals driven to suicide. I know that the years of Mr. Conant’s presidency marked the beginning of Harvard as a world University, for which we are all grateful; but I also remember his endorsement of the decision to destroy – many would say murder – not once, but twice tens of thousands of Japanese civilians by atomic war. By contrast, what Mr. Conant did with Harvard’s wealth, few people today know or care.

World historical issues for a world historical institution like ours are not about millions or even billions. What will be remembered of your deanship is not the figures of your report, but the pain which in the name of false necessity you chose to impose on our community’s least influential members. This is not a matter of life and death, obviously – I hope so in any case – but it is of some consequence

When we emerge from this crisis, and have forgotten the arrogance, self-indulgence, and recklessness of our former managers, what will still matter is not the dry facts of your report, but its hidden spirit. What we will all recall it is that in a moment of manageable crisis, Harvard University chose to become a cruel employer without much regard to those like myself who want to find it “sans peur et sans reproche.”

In an age that prizes human rights and socially responsible employers, your decision will be remembered as a sad and unworthy moment in the historical annals of our University. It’s not the present that should hold your attention: it is our future and above all else, our past, checkered at times but quite glorious also.

Your report should have two additional paragraphs. I urge you to add them as a footnote to your pages. The first would provide us with a precise figure: it would be a statement regarding the exact amount of money that we secured by inflicting woeful pain on the University’s staff, together with your justification of that decision. Had we kept them on, how far now would we be below our current 26 billion mark? A calculation made by exact tenth of one percentage point would be welcome.

And the second would be an assurance that no further dismissals will be made. Many other universities as you know have somehow managed to be more generous than we have been. Harvard must set the highest moral standards as well as highest intellectual standards for our nation. In this difficult time, in which so many Americans are suffering the consequences of irresponsible fiscal policies, Harvard really should do better. It is our silence that has allowed its former handlers to go forth, cynically, into the wider world. This is the moment also for our university to show America and the world that the riches of a great educational institution cannot be measured only in dollars and cents, in millions or billions. This is the moment for Harvard to show that true responsibility in a fiscal crisis means sheltering loyal and vulnerable by-standers instead of absolving the powerful. Such a move would be widely hailed.

PATRICE HIGONNET is Robert Walton Goelet Professor of French History at Harvard. He has written major works on the French and American Revolutions and on 19th and 20th century Political History.