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EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY MEDIA

Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.
Cute kids love community media. Photo courtesy of Somerville Media Center.

Tell the FCC That You Support Your Local Cable Access Station by Dec 14

 

December 12, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

At DigBoston, my colleagues and I put a lot of effort into working with local community media stations around Greater Boston. Because they are the heart and soul of grassroots democratic public broadcasting in the United States. And because we get so much out of hanging out with their staff and members that we just love them to pieces.

 

Somerville Media Center, Cambridge Community Television, Brookline Interactive Group, Malden Access Television, Boston Neighborhood Network, roughly 300 other stations around Massachusetts, and over 1500 nationwide provide a multitude of useful services to the cities and towns they’re based in. Perhaps better known by the older appellations “cable access stations” or “PEG (public, education, and government) access stations,” they broadcast city government meetings, public school events, and neighborhood happenings of all kinds. Something no other media institution does anywhere near as consistently.

 

In addition, many community stations allow literally anyone in their locales to walk in off the street and get trained to make media of their own—on increasingly sophisticated equipment, for cheap or even free—amounting to tens of thousands of homegrown productions of every conceivable description every year. Effectively creating the only US broadcast alternative where free speech, hard won in running legal battles all the way up to the Supreme Court, is taken very seriously. They are generally member-driven and run by small staffs of extremely committed experts. A fair number of whom were originally trained at community media stations when they were kids. As were many staffers at major media outlets to this day.

 

For all that great work, such stations require very little money to run. Federal regulation and laws enacted since the early 1970s have created a system in which cable companies like Comcast have to negotiate franchise fees with cities and towns for the privilege of laying their cables on public streets. The maximum annual franchise fee was codified in the federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, 47 U.S. Code § 542 (b): “For any twelve-month period, the franchise fees paid by a cable operator with respect to any cable system shall not exceed 5 percent of such cable operator’s gross revenues derived in such period from the operation of the cable system to provide cable services.”  

 

Some of the resulting funds can then be used to run community media stations. Local governments can also negotiate for other things, too—including what are called “cable-related, in-kind contributions” like capital expenses for studio facilities and broadcasting equipment. Another important concession the cable companies have to provide local governments is the channels that the stations broadcast on. This helps the stations’ bottom line by relieving them of the cost of leasing those channels. Which does mean that cable companies lose whatever profits they might have otherwise made on those channels.

 

Together the franchise fee and the in-kind contributions provide most of each station’s annual operating budget and physical plant—and the free cable channels help keep costs low.   Though many community media stations still have to raise extra money to make ends meet every year by charging dues to members who can afford to pay, crowdfunding, and applying for grants. Like PBS or NPR on a smaller scale.

 

Unfortunately, since the original Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating the establishment of such stations in many municipalities, the cable industry has been trying to eliminate them. In the interest of making even vaster profits than they already gouge from consumers. First by legal challenges culminating in the 1979 Supreme Court decision FCC v. Midwest Video Corp. that struck down the earlier cable access rules and directly resulted in the 1984 cable act as a “compromise” between community media stations and the cable industry. And later by successful lobbying campaigns to give states the sole power to negotiate franchise fees for all their cities and towns in the interest of “efficiency” (read: worse deals than many of those municipalities had been negotiating on their own). Which is how the system currently works in many states—though not, happily, in Massachusetts.

 

Further, as new monopoly telecom companies like Verizon arose (both ironically and predictably) after the government breakup of the old AT&T telephone monopoly in the 1980s, they began expanding well beyond their core telephone businesses. Seeing cable television as a growing market, they successfully lobbied for provisions in the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed them to provide cable service as well. This caused the cable companies to bring even more political pressure to bear to end the franchise fee system as “unfair”—since the telecoms aren’t covered by the 1984 cable act and don’t have to pay the fees that support community media stations.

 

Also, the landmark global communications advance represented by the internet has further eroded the position of community media stations in some respects over that same period by providing other ways for Americans and immigrants alike to create their own media programming and reach audiences all over the world. Though usually not local audiences of the size and quality that community media stations can provide.

 

Meanwhile, the cable industry has continued to do its level best to shrink the number of community media stations with all kinds of crafty business and policy tricks. For example, Comcast’s practice of refusing to list the schedule of community media stations in its program guide—which drastically reduces the local audience for each station—makes it easier for the cable giant to make the case to get rid of the legal mandate to fund those stations through the franchise fee.

 

Now, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—a former Verizon lobbyist who is the living embodiment of “regulatory capture” (the control of a government regulatory agency by the very industry it’s supposed to regulate) and who, it must be said, is an Obama appointee—is moving in for the kill. Fresh off his successful assault on net neutrality. Another anti-democratic communications move that virtually no one supported… except the cable and telecom industries.

 

On Sept 25, under Pai’s watch, the four FCC commissioners (three of whom are Republicans, with one seat on the five member commission remaining empty thanks to Trump administration politicking) released an official document snappily entitled the “Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in Implementation of Section 621(a)(1) of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 as Amended by the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, MB Docket 05-311.” Also known as the “Second FNPRM.” Or, for the purposes of this editorial, the “FNPRM.”

 

If the FCC enacts the FNPRM, cities, towns, and states (where applicable) will no longer be able to negotiate up to a 5 percent franchise fee plus the aforementioned cable-related, in-kind contributions like studios and other necessary infrastructure for community media stations. Instead those governments will be forced to allow cable companies to assign a “fair market value” to the channels it provides community stations and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that keep them going. The companies will also be allowed to catalog a wide variety of cable-related, in-kind contributions to cities and towns and deduct those from the fees, too. Including some contributions related to the stations, according to analysis by the Community Media Center of Marin in California. And it turns out that typical capital costs for community stations are only a fraction of the total in-kind contributions that cable companies historically agreed to provide to municipalities in exchange for using public rights of way for their cables. Cities and towns often have important civic buildings like schools and fire stations connected with cables and equipment provided by the companies that have been used for a variety of important purposes—including emergency services—for decades. Taking those costs off the top of the franchise fees will be significant indeed.

 

Gaithersburg, Maryland Mayor Jud Ashman gets to the crux of the problem with the possible FCC action in his recent testimony against it:

As proposed, the FNPRM’s broad definition of all “cable-related, in-kind contributions” other than PEG capital costs and build-out requirements could be interpreted as “franchise fees,” which could result in:
• Cable companies no longer paying the typical five percent franchise fees permitted by
federal law.
• Cable companies using local rights-of-way for any purpose, regardless of the terms of the franchise agreement, and avoiding paying their fair compensation to the local government for the use of funded assets in the rights-of-way.
• Significant reductions in cable franchise fees, depending on how the “fair market” value for PEG capacity and transmission is calculated within a given jurisdiction. This proposed change would result in PEG programming being drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether in most jurisdictions.

 

In practice, community media station advocates are saying that the FNPRM will quickly result in a loss of a significant portion of annual revenue for their entire sector. Which will cause many stations to drastically reduce their services… or cease operations entirely.

 

But local government officials like Mayor Ashman are saying that the effect on cities and towns overall will be even worse than the effect on the stations. Because as my longtime colleague Fred Johnson—noted community media policy maven and documentary filmmaker—said to me in a short interview for this editorial, “This is about seizing power and treasure from the cities.”  If the FNPRM is enacted by the FCC, it will be allowing the cable companies to fundamentally devalue the use of public rights of way that have allowed them to make massive profits—by cutting into franchise fee revenue that is already far lower than it should be.

 

Incidentally, the FNPRM also doubles down on the part of the FCC rule trashing net neutrality that claims lower levels of government can’t reintroduce that reform by “prohibiting [cities, towns, and states] from using their video franchising authority to regulate the provision of most non-cable services, such as broadband Internet access service, offered over a cable system by an incumbent cable operator.” But, brevity being the soul of wit, I’ll have to address that issue another day.

 

In any case, to stop all that bad stuff from happening, DigBoston calls on our loyal audience to contact the FCC by this Friday, Dec 14, and join with thousands of other people around the country in demanding that the powerful agency do what’s best for American democracy and leave cable access franchise fees alone.

Readers can find a letter template and simple instructions for how to file your “reply comments” with the FCC on the Somerville Media Center website: somervillemedia.org/federaassaultonlocalmedia/.

 

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the current political climate. But with all of your help, community media stations can survive and thrive for decades to come. And municipalities will be much better off, too.

 

Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

MAINE EVENT: PAGU MAKES A SUPER FINE LOBSTER ROLL

PAGU black lobster roll. Photo by Jason Pramas.
Photo by Jason Pramas

 

October 18, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

People all over the US labor under many misapprehensions about the Boston area—to the extent they think about us at all. One of the worst of these is the idea that lobster rolls are a local delicacy. Or that Bostonians eat them all the time. Or that we have lots of joints that specialize in their production.

 

This is not, of course, the case. It’s certainly true that lobster rolls are a regional speciality, found all over New England. But they’re really a Maine thing. So, it’s not particularly easy to find a really good lobster roll in or around the Hub. Not to say that there aren’t several places that do a nice job with the old standby and a few spots that even specialize in it.

 

So it was with some surprise that I found a great lobster roll at PAGU—a fairly upscale Cambridge establishment at which I recently chose to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Because, heretofore, I’ve been something of a purist when it comes to the crustacean creation in question. The roll has to be a split-top hot dog roll. White bread, naturally. I allow for either of the two traditional condiments: melted butter or mayonnaise. But nothing else. And the lobster itself has to be as fresh as possible. Having had rolls featuring lobster that had literally just come off a boat, I can’t accept frozen product or meat more than a day out of the ocean. It should be lightly boiled or steamed by an expert hand so it has that all-important snap when you bite into it. If it’s chewy at all, it’s not going to make a good roll.

 

I had already heard about PAGU’s version long since. It, and chef owner Tracy Chang, have hardly lacked for write-ups. Which is why I knew it was notable for its black roll. And figured, “What the heck, I might as well try it.” Very glad I did. It was super fine. The roll was made with squid ink and sake, and just tasted like really light savory bread—which it was. Instead of mayo or butter, the lobster was dressed with pear, avocado, and an unusual soy aioli. Giving it a really bright flavor without adding unnecessary and distracting acidity. And the meat had that perfect snap.

 

Some might consider the portion small for the $23 PAGU was charging the day of my visit. But I think of the eatery’s offering as a more traditional-sized roll. Like the ones I very occasionally got to enjoy on trips to the Pine Tree State in my childhood. Before the fad for “overstuffed” sandwiches took hold. With the house-made chips it’s served with, it’s solid light supper for the average person. I certainly didn’t feel ripped off, or that I was in need of more lobster when I was finished. And its price point is comparable to other rolls around town. So check it out some evening soon. Sit at the bar, as I did—obviating the need for a reservation—order a roll, let friendly and knowledgeable mixologists like Andy and Veronica take care of your libations, and reflect that the old ways of doing things are not forever the best ways.

 

PAGU. 310 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. GOPAGU.COM.

New Liberation News Service Radio – November 13, 1992

Photo of NLNS poster in DigBoston Office. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas.
Photo of NLNS poster in DigBoston Office. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas.

 

New Liberation News Service Radio – November 13, 1992. Presented by Jason Pramas, NLNS founder and editor. A segment on No Censorship Radio, produced and hosted by David Goodman, broadcast on WMBR-FM In Cambridge, MA, USA. Part of a brief experiment reading news articles from the New Liberation News Service wire. CC-BY-NC-SA Jason Pramas.

 

 

QUICK & DIRTY CAMBRIDGE CITY COUNCIL ELECTION GUIDE

collage of 2017 Cambridge City Council candidates
collage of 2017 Cambridge City Council candidates

Because in a race with 26 candidates, you’ll only remember slogans

 

November 1, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Everyone outside Cambridge thinks they understand why it’s kind of a weird place. But to truly apprehend how odd the city is, you really need to vote in one of its municipal elections. Especially this one. Where else in the area do you have a ranked choice voting system where every candidate is an at-large candidate with a theoretically equal chance of winning one of the nine seats on offer, and every incumbent has to run for reelection in every election? What makes this year’s council race particularly wild is that there are three open seats. Meaning that there are six incumbents running, including the current mayor (a councilor who is elevated by a vote of her peers), and no less than 20 other candidates.

 

Having attended a recent debate with most of the candidates in attendance, I can assure you that it’s no easy task to even remember anything about individual candidates, let alone choose one to give your coveted #1 vote to (and then assign your #2 through #26 votes—although few people bother to go further than picking their top four or five choices).

 

So, as a public service to DigBoston’s Cambridge readers, I’ve put together the following list of all 26 city council candidates with one line or two to three phrases for each that I think encapsulates their campaign material, and a link to their website. Each of the six incumbents is noted with an asterisk. Hope it helps. Just try not to remember that an appointed city manager actually holds much of the power in the “People’s Republic.” (D’oh!)

 

Ronald Benjamin: wants to create community, votebenjamin2017.com

 

Josh M. Burgin: 25 ideas for Cambridge, votejoshburgin.com

 

Dennis J. Carlone*: manage new development, true to community values, denniscarlone.com

 

Olivia D’Ambrosio: arts, but not a one-trick pony, vote-o.com

 

Jan Devereux*: civic engagement, sustainable growth, jandevereux.org

 

Samuel Gebru: entrepreneur, community organizer, gebruforcambridge.com

 

Richard Harding Jr.: advocate for working families, voteharding.org

 

Craig A. Kelley*: vibrant local democratic institutions crucial to US, craigkelley.org

 

Dan Lenke: little city halls, nano city halls, potlucks, danlenke.com

 

Ilan Levy: activist since 2006, fought for the Foundry, critic of the Volpe plan, vote1ilan.net

 

Alanna M. Mallon: prioritize public service by strengthening social safety nets, alannamallon.org

 

Marc C. McGovern*: for collaboration and social/economic justice, gets results, marcmcgovern.com

 

Gregg J. Moree: concerned about lack of options open for our young people, greggmoree.com

 

Adriane B. Musgrave: fight so everyone in Cambridge has economic opportunity, voteadriane.com

 

Nadya T. Okamoto: protect the concept of home for all Cantabrigians, votenadya.com

 

Hari I. Pillai: not selling out values just for more economic growth, cambridge2017.city

 

Jeff Santos: progressive broadcaster, backs affordable housing and a living wage, santosforcitycouncil.com

 

Sumbul Siddiqui: affordable housing, economic development, civic engagement, votesumbul.com

 

Denise Simmons*: understands unique needs of residents in our community, denisesimmons.com

 

Vatsady Sivongxay: bringing diverse voices to the decision-making table, vatsady.com

 

Bryan Sutton: can analyze complex systems and make data-driven decisions, bryansutton.org

 

Sean Tierney: experienced public servant, dedicated to Cambridge, seantierney.org

 

Paul F. Toner: engaging people with a diversity of opinions to find solutions, tonerforcambridge.com

 

Timothy J. Toomey Jr.*: experience and vision to guide Cambridge’s continued growth, timtoomey.org

 

Gwen Thomas Volmar: for affordable housing, against luxury high-rises, votegwen.org

 

Quinton Y. Zondervan: environmentalist, helped create the Net Zero Action Plan, votequinton.com

 

*indicates incumbent

GETTING TO BIKE

1925-AH-TOP-200-DPI

 

Urban multimodal network needed to make bicycles a viable alternative in the ’burbs

June 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following column was written as commentary for the June 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.

There are many merits to backing legislation, regulations, and customs that make it easier for people to use bicycles to get around. Improving individual health by getting more people more exercise, improving public health and global warming prospects by reducing carbon emissions, and relieving traffic congestion to name just a few. And over the last four decades, many communities have created bike lanes and bike paths, installed bike racks, and limited certain streets to pedestrians and bikes for those very reasons.

The problem is that the societal benefits that come with an expanding bike culture are unevenly distributed. In the car-centered suburbs — meaning most of the US — using a bike as a primary transportation mode is more difficult and significantly more dangerous than it is in many cities. And the distances people have to pedal to get to jobs or shop are longer — stopping more people from getting out of their cars and onto bikes day to day.

Ameliorating that situation will require better regional planning with an eye toward creating bigger, better public transportation networks that link to bicycle infrastructure in their “last mile.” Then building bike lanes from the network hubs where buses, trains, and trolleys converge. Out to the neighborhoods where people live.

It will also require a change in thinking by millions of people who are used to jumping into their cars anytime they need to go anywhere. Be it 100 miles or, all too often, only a few blocks away. Such a change means that people will need a pretty big incentive to begin to do things differently.

So here’s one important incentive: life is easier when you don’t have to rely on a car to get around. In cities like Boston, more and more people are riding their bikes to subway stops or bus stops in the morning, parking them there, taking the T to work, and reversing those steps in the evening. Many others ride their bikes all the way to work — moving much faster on average than the cars stuck in traffic around them. Still more use our growing rental bike system, Hubway.

From my perspective, living and working in the city spares me the expense of a car. And, more importantly, I don’t need to own one to get around. I live a couple of blocks from four bus lines, and a 10-minute walk from two T stops. With a bike, that 10 minutes plus any wait time becomes two or three minutes. And skipping the T and biking across town takes 20 to 30 minutes. Even in busy traffic.

When it’s time to shop, one can either use a bike equipped with a basket or trailer. Or take a bus or train both ways. Or walk or bike to the nearest market and take a cab back, if buying heavy stuff. Or take a cab both ways. Or use a car sharing service like Zipcar to rent cars and vans by the hour. Myself and fellow urbanites have all these options, and more, because Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline all have dense public transportation networks — augmented by quasi-public and private transit options. And a fast-growing separate bicycle infrastructure. Businesses and public services cluster around transportation hubs; so there’s much more for me to do much closer to home than when I lived in the suburbs.

In general, this means that I have more leisure time in the city than many people in the suburbs do because I’m commuting less — and I have more money in my pocket because I don’t have to own a car to get around. I’m also not sitting in traffic for big chunks of my day — so my life is that much less stressful (understanding that every form of transportation has its own problems). Best of all, I can take comfort in the fact that my “carbon footprint” is very small. The amount of carbon that’s burned in the form of oil and natural gas to allow me to be a modern person in an advanced industrial society is much lower than someone who has to own a car. True, housing prices are higher in the city than the ’burbs, but the difference is definitely offset by cheaper transportation costs. And having more free time is invaluable.

My point here is simple. More folks need to get behind policies that make an urban multimodal transportation network possible for the vast majority of US residents — instead of just a minority of Americans in mostly coastal cities. That’s going to require large numbers of people to be more aware that life with bikes and public transit is easier and better in some important respects than life in the current suburban car culture.

And that’s why I’m recounting my daily transportation experience here. So that you all think it over, and consider joining advocacy coalitions like MassBike in backing policies that improve transportation options in your city or town. And then help fight for more money to vastly expand our public transportation system. Two reforms which will, in tandem, transform suburban biking from a recreational activity, sport, or idiosyncratic form of commuting into a commonplace.

 

This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its ongoing Vicious Cycle series. Learn more about the project and how you can contribute at binjonline.org, and share your stories about cycling in Greater Boston at facebook.com/binjnetwork

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

 
 

UMASS CAMBRIDGE: MAKING HARVARD UNIVERSITY PUBLIC WILL SOLVE ITS WORKERS’ PROBLEMS—AND THE COMMONWEALTH’S HIGHER ED CRISIS

umass-cambridge

October 24, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Three weeks into their strike, Harvard University dining hall workers are in a difficult position. Their union’s demands for better wages, benefits, and working conditions are falling on deaf ears in the Harvard administration. They cannot continue picketing indefinitely on $200 weekly strike pay—which itself won’t last for long … and the bosses know it.

That same administration talks about the situation as if the workers are already overpaid since they make wages higher than the industry standard. Even though college food service workers generally get low pay with few benefits by convention. It tries to make the Harvard dining hall workers union, UNITE HERE Local 26, look greedy by asking for more, when all the workers want is a living wage to be able to survive the increasingly insane costs of living in Greater Boston. And a health care package that doesn’t raise their out-of-pocket costs. Which other Harvard unions have already agreed to, sadly.

This despite the fact that Harvard has an unbelievably massive $35 billion endowment. The largest amount held by any institution of higher learning in the world. Larger than the annual budgets of many nations. The school’s endowment page makes it clear that its administration knows that making any pitch for sympathy on labor costs is ludicrous on its face (although that’s precisely what they do when they attack the dining hall workers’ extremely moderate demands as somehow unaffordable). In a section of that page entitled “Why can’t Harvard use more of its endowment in order to cover additional expenses or reduce tuition costs?” the following logic is offered:

Endowment gifts are intended by their donors to benefit both current and future generations of students and scholars. As a result, Harvard is obligated to preserve the purchasing power of these gifts by spending only a small fraction of their value each year. Spending significantly more than that over time, for whatever reason, would privilege the present over the future in a manner inconsistent with an endowment’s fundamental purpose of maintaining intergenerational equity.

A statement worthy of a CEO or banker. Or neoliberal ideologue. Basically saying, We can’t spend more money from the endowment because we don’t want to touch our principal and lower our profits. Funny attitude for a supposed nonprofit. One that’s unfortunately being emulated at colleges around the country as the privatization of higher education continues apace.

Since Harvard is unwilling to spend down its endowment by even a tiny percentage to ensure all its employees receive truly fair wages and benefits, it’s all the more imperative that dining hall workers continue to press their demands. And that more people support them.

Because not only is Harvard screwing its own food service staff while amassing wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, it is also doing grievous damage to the Massachusetts public higher education system. Which raises the stakes considerably. And links the problems of one group of working people to the fortunes of the working families of an entire state. For whom shaking the edifice of Harvard’s endowment must become a central political concern.

Image via Boston's Local 26

Image via Boston’s Local 26

Understanding Harvard’s finances is the key to apprehending why the university’s very existence is problematic in a democracy—and a clear and present danger to the state public higher education system. And to answering the central question: Why is an institution of higher learning allowed to run like a multinational corporation? Socking away funds that it possesses mainly because it educates the children of the one percent—scions of powerful families who steal money from the rest of us in myriad ways and then donate part of that money back to the supposedly nonprofit school in exchange for income tax breaks. A school not required to pay taxes on its vast income by dint of that nonprofit status. Which then also takes huge amounts of public funds despite being a private school.

It’s also worth asking why Harvard is not a public college. Why is it not UMass Cambridge? Harvard was, after all, originally part of Massachusetts state (and colonial) government. Yet over the centuries it was able to reorganize itself as a private nonprofit school, and essentially write the rules it plays by.

But for a “private” school it’s certainly awash in public money. A brief review of how Harvard enthusiastically drains government coffers that it refuses to replenish should make it painfully obvious that it is indeed a public university. And therefore in dire need of democratic reform to better align its mission with the needs of the Mass public higher ed system.

First, all the funds in the Harvard endowment, and all the money it makes from financial investments, is not taxed. Neither is all the property Harvard owns—on which it famously expends small “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PiLoTs) instead of much higher property taxes. According to Slate, a report by Nexus Research and Policy Center—a right-wing pro-corporate think tank that I would normally avoid citing—does some sloppy math that nevertheless helps us think more clearly about the magnitude of the problem with giving private schools nonprofit status. The report says that, in 2014, Harvard made the equivalent of $48,000 in tax savings from federal, state, and local governments for each of its students. Many of whom can definitely afford to pay full freight on their education. While predominantly working and middle class Massachusetts public college students are educated in woefully underfunded state institutions. The Nexus report indicates that UMass Amherst—the Commonwealth’s flagship university— made only the equivalent of $9,900 in tax savings for each of its students. While undergraduate tuition and fees amounted to $13,258, and average room and board costs were $10,957, for a total cost of $24,485 that year. Even before thousands in book costs and other fees are considered.

Second, although it may not be obvious to outsiders, many Harvard students use public grants and loans to get through school. According to its website, the annual disbursement from the Harvard endowment covered 35 percent of the university’s $4.5 billion operating budget in 2015—including much of the cost of tuition and fees for undergraduate students who need it. And the Harvard administration makes clear that “Even with endowment support, Harvard must fund nearly two-thirds of its operating expenses … from other sources, such as federal and non-federal research grants, student tuition and fees, and gifts from alumni, parents, and friends.” But a good chunk of the aforementioned tuition and fees is covered with public money.

It’s true that Harvard pays all expenses for the 20 percent of current undergrads who come from families that make less than $65,000 a year. One cheer for that given the provenance of Harvard’s money. However, undergrads whose families make between $65,000 and $150,000 a year are expected to contribute up to 10 percent of the total cost of their education annually. And undergrads whose families make more than $150,000 a year pay concomitantly higher percentages of their education costs. Students whose families can’t cover those costs, and don’t receive enough scholarships, grants, or stipends from private sources can apply for federal and state financial aid like any other college student(though foreign undergrads generally don’t qualify for such aid).

Graduate students lean more heavily on public support. Harvard financial aid is similar to other universities in its expectation that its grad students—especially the cash cow master’s degree students—will apply for federal and state financial aid for any expenses they can’t pay out of pocket. Its PhD students get a supposedly free ride, as elsewhere, but the stipends the school pays for their labor as teaching and research assistants clearly aren’t much better than anywhere else given that they are now trying to emulate their peers at public universities by organizing a labor union. Certainly not enough to live on for many students. So public grants and loans are used to fill gaps in funding.

Harvard made its estimated federal grant and loan totals available online for the 2011-2012 academic year. Its students received $10,257,035 in federal grants, $8,371,891 in Perkins Loans, and $135,249,758 in federal direct loans. A tidy sum to be sure.

Third, and perhaps most damningly, Harvard gets a ton of direct federal appropriations every year. To cite just one significant example, in 2014, Harvard had about 20,000 students and received $572,918,000 in federal research and development money according to the National Science Foundation. About $28,646 per student, although it’s obviously not distributed that way. Critics may respond “no harm, no foul” since Harvard gets lots of public R&D money because they do lots of R&D. But that gets things backwards. Harvard does lots of R&D because it has long gotten lots of public R&D money—which should be used to fund public universities to do the work instead. With more public oversight in the public interest.

That same year, the UMass system had almost 74,000 students and received $362,157,000 in research and development money from the federal government. However, the Massachusetts public higher education system also includes nine state universities and 15 community colleges. Both additional groups of colleges receiving only negligible federal research and development funds as teaching colleges rather than research colleges. So the government money UMass gets for R&D covers all of the 194,371 students in the combined public higher education system in the Bay State in the period in question. Amounting to a mere $1,863 per student. Or about $4,894 per student looking at just the UMass system.

Harvard also gets other money from various branches of American government at every level—overtly or covertly, directly or indirectly. But for anyone who believes in public higher education as a vital democratic institution, every penny of government funding that goes to an elite institution like Harvard is money that should be going to the cash-starved public university system. And Harvard is only one of over a dozen supposedly “private” universities with major endowments in Massachusetts who take public money. Others include: Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, and Williams College. Plus dozens of smaller privates and erstwhile “for-profits” that suck up even more public funds. [Ironically, as part of a decades-long trend of public universities emulating the privates, UMass itself has an endowment of over $700 million. Much of which should be released to reverse faculty and staff cuts at schools like UMass Boston, and the remainder could be kept in a reasonable “rainy day” fund.]

Such hoarding must be stopped. More to the point, the private university system has to be dismantled if the dream of free higher education for all is to be guaranteed. An attainable dream other countries with far less wealth than ours have been able to manage for decades. One which could be achieved by simply taxing the rich and corporations fairly on the state and federal level to pay for such social goods. An even taller order than the policies under discussion here.

For now, if you really want to help the Harvard dining hall workers and much of the population of Massachusetts in the bargain, help start political movements to demand structural reform of the state university system—and ultimately the national higher ed system in its entirety.

As an interim measure, such movements can push our state government to seize the endowments of so-called private colleges like Harvard and absorb all of their campuses into the public higher education system. Which will end the Commonwealth’s higher ed crisis by flooding the system with once-hoarded money. Guaranteeing a decent college education to more Mass residents while eliminating bastions of privilege and power in our midst. And naturally, a well-funded public higher ed system would have the means to pay its workforce properly and a tradition of “wall-to-wall” unionization that would leave no campus workers unprotected. Solving the problems of the Harvard dining hall strikers, and all other previously low-paid workers at every campus in the Commonwealth.

The parting shot? In 2015, the entire Massachusetts budget for public higher education was $1,462,827,301. Well below the $1.6 billion disbursement from the Harvard endowment for operating expenses that same year.

Meanwhile, the 2017 Mass higher ed budget is only $1,157,298,156. With worse cuts on the horizon.

UMass Cambridge anyone?

TUES., OCT. 25, 2016 UPDATE: Early this morning, the Harvard Crimson reported that a tentative agreement has been reached by the striking dining hall workers and the Harvard administration. The full membership of the UNITE HERE Local 26 dining hall workers unit is slated to vote on the agreement tomorrow (Wed., Oct. 26, 2016), and could be back to work as early as Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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