Harvard president apologises for comparing donors to slaves

As university expands record endowment, comments boost concern over moral clarity

September 30, 2019
Best private universities in the United States

Harvard University’s president, Lawrence Bacow, has apologised for comments to fundraising staff in which he compared the institution’s wealthy donors to slaves.

“You have high expectations for me as your president,” Dr Bacow said in an email to staff of Harvard’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, whom he addressed earlier in the week. “I promise to learn from this experience.”

Dr Bacow was referencing comments, first reported by The Boston Globe, in which he said that Harvard’s individual schools could no longer “own” their individual wealthy graduates, similar to how the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution banned the ownership of African Americans.

Dr Bacow’s overall policy goal was that of equity, seeking to encourage the practice of Harvard alumni donating to schools other than their own. That is important to help the schools whose graduates tend to work in non-profit and governmental sectors, Dr Bacow said, according to the Globe.

The effort led, in Harvard’s most recent fundraising drive, to 30 per cent of alumni gifts going to parts of the university outside the donor’s school, Dr Bacow said.

But in his choice of language celebrating that achievement, Dr Bacow amplified concerns about Harvard’s moral clarity amid scrutiny that includes the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and an admissions preferences trial highlighting favouritism towards applicants from wealthy donor families.

Harvard is also among a number of US universities forced in recent years to acknowledge the extensive role that slavery played in their development.

In his email of apology, Dr Bacow affirmed to the staff that their director, Brian Lee, Harvard’s vice-president for alumni affairs and development, had described some of them as “feeling unsettled” by his remarks to their gathering.

“I regret that these comments caused offence,” Dr Bacow said. “That certainly was not my intent.”

Dr Bacow drew attention to Harvard’s fundraising in the same week that the university’s management company reported a 6.5 per cent return over the past year, bringing Harvard’s endowment – the largest in the US – to $40.9 billion (£33.3 billion).

That fiscal year 2019 increase is better than that of most colleges, which averaged 4.9 per cent over the same period, but worse than the gains of the S&P 500, a key stock market index, which rose more than 10 per cent, Barron’s reported.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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