Institutions with more wealth than many nations have no excuse for inaction during a pandemic

There is an aspect of the ongoing Cambridge War Memorial homeless shelter saga that is worth thinking more deeply about: The disgusting behavior of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology toward the working and poor people in their orbits. Be they Harvard and MIT employees and contractors or the homeless population of the so-called People’s Republic. 

I wrote about the shelter situation several days ago and I recommend you all read an excellent update by Sue Reinert in both Cambridge Day and DigBoston to keep abreast of the latest developments. But, in brief, Harvard and MIT donated pocket change in the amount of a quarter-million dollars each to fund a wonky ill-conceived emergency shelter meant to house Cambridge’s homeless population in a gym and its garage during the coronavirus pandemic. Cheap PR in both cases, and money well-spent thus far given the positive coverage the schools have gotten from the local mainstream media.

It’s hardly a new position for me to be critical of both institutions, but our current straits move me to speak out against them more strongly than ever before.

Why? Beyond the obvious political considerations—which are what readers could be forgiven for assuming are what normally motivate me as a journalist—simple morality impels me to action. 

Prior to writing this piece, I decided to watch one of my favorite movies: “The Shoes of the Fisherman.” A 1968 drama based on the novel of the same name by noted Australian Catholic writer Morris West. Its two-and-a-half hour run time drives like a train toward its final scene—where a newly-elected Ukrainian pope, fresh out of 20 years in a Soviet gulag, declares he will devote all the wealth of the church to feeding the hungry of a famine-ridden communist China. To prevent World War III.

Though clearly fantasy, and highly unlikely to ever happen in practice, that scene has always inspired me. Since it crystalizes the idea of a tremendously wealthy and powerful institution giving up its wealth and power for the common good… for no other reason than because it’s the moral thing to do. Which has actually happened from time to time over the millennia. If not on so grand a scale as the movie presents.

Of course, I don’t delude myself. I’m fully aware that the people in control of such institutions will almost always say that they can “do more good” by remaining wealthy and powerful. I’m also quite clear that top Harvard and MIT leaders have no intention of giving away anything more than was expected of them in philanthropic circles pre-pandemic. Unsurprising, since both schools are used to being the recipients of huge charitable gifts—then investing that money and reaping huge profits most years—not making them.

Which is why, in 2019, Harvard’s endowment was over $40 billion and MIT’s over $17 billion. Astronomical sums of money. That same year, according to the International Monetary Fund’s list of the Gross Domestic Products of the world’s nations, 95 countries had GDPs lower than Harvard’s endowment and 71 countries had GDPs lower than MIT’s. Harvard’s endowment has now dropped into the “mid-30 billion range,” according to the Harvard Crimson—remaining the largest in the world—and MIT’s endowment doubtless has shrunk as well, but they still have far more money than is appropriate for nonprofit educational concerns.

Both schools bluster about how they can’t possibly touch most of those funds—which they say are locked up for use for specific purposes by agreement with the one percenters who donated the money for big tax write-offs. 

But that is, to be blunt, a garbage argument.

Both schools own vast amounts of real estate and capital that they can sell or leverage to generate funds as needed. In ways that most of the planet’s population and even cities like Cambridge could never do (especially since the tiny Payments in Lieu of Taxes—PiLoTs—that both “nonprofit” institutions pay Cambridge is far less than their property taxes would be if they were declared to be for-profit entities). Both schools are capable of financing massive projects that other colleges could never even afford to plan. Yet both schools do what wealthy institutions and individuals everywhere do when demands for justice are aimed in their direction—they cry poverty and claim that they can’t possibly do the right thing, the humane thing at any particular moment.

So when the ostensibly less essential employees of Harvard and MIT—many of whom normally serve students as janitors or security guards or dining hall workers, and some of whom toil in even more unstable temp or contract gigs—say “we can’t afford to lose our jobs in this global pandemic!” Harvard says it can pay such workers until no later than May. MIT says it can pay subcontracted dining hall workers until May. Both schools have instituted hiring freezes. And, in light of moves like university leaders taking voluntary pay cuts and making solemn statements about a difficult year ahead at both schools, more layoffs are likely.

And when Cambridge area homeless people (backed by their advocates) say “please house us in your empty dorms during the crisis and toss us a few million so we can live decently in the hard couple of years to come,” Harvard and MIT say they’re giving the city of Cambridge a pittance to jury rig a substandard shelter where the homeless can all get infected with COVID-19—and then make PR hay while the media sun shines.

That is all unacceptable. And morally reprehensible.

Harvard and MIT, and all institutions like them, must at the very least pay their own workers—and the temps, part-timers, and contractors they like to pretend aren’t their workers—for as long as the pandemic lasts. And they should sure as hell peel off a lousy few million dollars to help our region’s unhoused population and open their dorms to them for the duration.

It’s absolutely true that it’s ultimately the responsibility of the US government to provide living wages and universal healthcare to all Americans and immigrant Americans-to-be to stop this crisis from turning into a major economic depression that could take the whole edifice of our fragile democracy down in the years to come.

It’s also true that private universities like Harvard and MIT must stop being treated as anything other than the public colleges both once were (Harvard was part of the Commonwealth’s colonial and later state government and MIT was a land grant college), given the tremendous amounts of public money they take from all levels of government. And both institutions must be barred from continuing to hoard treasure in the form of endowments.

But those longer-term reforms will take titanic political struggles to achieve and will not help the workers of those elite schools or the region’s homeless to survive the pandemic in anything like good order.

What will make those smaller but still considerable reforms possible is two things: immediate political action by Cambridge area residents, Harvard and MIT workers, and area homeless folks—which is already happening by degrees and needs to proceed more boldly… and a few well-placed leaders of conscience inside Harvard and MIT deciding to do the right thing—the moral thing—at the right time and use some tiny fraction of those institutions’ resources to help those in need immediately.

Starting with Harvard President Larry Bacow. Who said, in a March 13 statement to “members of the Harvard community,” that “[n]o one knows what we will face in the weeks ahead, but everyone knows enough to understand that COVID-19 will test our capacities to be kind and generous, and to see beyond ourselves and our own interests. Our task now is to bring the best of who we are and what we do to a world that is more complex and more confused than any of us would like it to be. May we all proceed with wisdom and grace.”

Fine words, President Bacow. Time to back them up with fine deeds. 

You, too, MIT President L. Rafael Reif.

For myself, I am doing what I can do as a journalist. I am exposing injustice and pointing the way toward justice. I am sounding the alarm and demanding swift action from both those in need of redress and those in charge of major institutions alike.

Now what will you all, the reading public, do?

4/23/20 Author’s Note: My friend Saul Tannenbaum, ever knowledgable about all things MIT, has interrupted my high dudgeon with an important fact: MIT pays taxes on at least some of its commercial property to the city of Cambridge each year in addition to its PiLoT payment. It is therefore the largest taxpayer in Cambridge—claiming to have paid $60 million in 2019 on its website: While commercial taxes are a complicated matter, and it’s questionable how much of MIT’s taxes are ultimately paid for by its tenants and by developers, I regret the error.

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.