Off the bat, i have a biochem bachelors degree from harvard. I have an often vacillating love hate relationship with my college and my experience there. I probably admit its faults much more often to my fellow classmates, and defend it vehemently to people who take the stereotypical stance of what it is like to attend it (you know what those charges are), but this story i read this morning via former alum  Matt Yglesias (the anti-ross douthat) over on is really indefensible. I thought news of harvard stopping construction of their new allston science building may have meant they would avoid laying off workers, but i thought too soon. This is a quote he linked by Dylan Matthews:

For the normal people reading this, allow me to explain the situation. Harvard has tens of billions of dollars. How many tens of billions they won’t say, but its in that ballpark. However, because they’re slightly less obscenely wealthy than they were before the economy went to hell, the Harvard administration has started laying people off without cause. Some students, like the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) and its supporters (like me and Perspective), think that this is uncalled for. We think that Harvard should be more forthcoming about its financial situation, so that students and other members of the community can evaluate whether we really need to lay off workers to weather the recession. And until Harvard releases the information that would allow such a debate to take place, it should stop cutting jobs and find other ways to make up the shortfall. After all, if they’re going to cut the jobs of valued members of our community, we have a right to know why that’s happening, and how necessary or unnecessary that is. I, for one, kind of doubt that a university that can pay for massive concerts/carnivals can’t cough up the cash necessary to pay its workers.

Big quote, but it says it all there, an argument that even as undergrads we made setting foot into the yard. Are they really going to have those lame spring MAC carnivals? the ones where we had to convince ourselves to attend (in chicken costumes promoting WHRB radio?)

 I am one of the unfortunate on-the-border graduates who just missed the perks of better scholarships and pre-xmas vacation finals. I was very excited when harvard followed suit of princeton and stopped demanding working class families like my own to pay so much in tuition. But unfortunately, the entire discussion was always one of fantasy numbers. We heard countless rumors of how much the institution had, and how much it had locked up. But those numbers did not jive (with every claim that it could not be possible to give financial ease to students or workers), as new renovation or  building popped up on campus. 

For this reason, and the fact that i never had the funds to do so, i have always been reluctant to donate to harvard’s funds. they rarely even made the case that their constant war for the endowment would lead to a diminished tuition demand of needy undergrads. It was more about maintaining status quo.  When a school like that has the pick of a very diverse cream of the crop of students, money should not be an issue. 

Yglesias makes the very worthwhile connection between the student labor protests made during my time there. thinking back, that was a very important moment in trying to understand how things worked in this free market world. It was the first time i had ever heard anyone say “the free market always does things better than government”. That movement hoped to make it policy to pay the many locals who created the comfort and ease of our collegiate experience a living wage. Being a novice in the economic argument , i made the case to myself knowing that those workers were just like my family, and even more so, many of them were Haitians. I will never forget the opposition that group faced, most notably from their fellow classmates. I am so glad Yglesias had enough guts to join and participate. He continues:


Clearly, though, Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League and sundry similar elite private colleges and universities have no intention of giving up the mission of elite education.

Given that constraint, there’s no good reason why they shouldn’t also strive to be good citizens and good members of their community and treat all stakeholders fairly.

A larger issue here is that the collapse of the coercive, command-and-control, dictatorial economies of the Soviet Bloc has tended to lead to an unworthy valorization of greed and profit-maximization. This extends to the idea that a non-profit organization like Harvard ought to ape the behavior patterns of a profit-maximing firm rather than do the right thing. But there’s no need for individuals or non-commercial institutions to behave in that manner.


I saw the harvard psychiatrist Arthur Kleinman speak at grand rounds this month and he said that he noticed a very strong sentiment from the current student body to be concerned with global and cultural matters. He had a class on world health that had to refuse students. I mention again the alternative spring break  of service that i wrote about last month. 

It’s a different world over there from the one i left 7 tears (perfect typo, i mean years) ago. I heard this week from the brian lehrer show that 50% of my class went into the financial world, and no doubt, with the current economic crisis, this will not be the case anymore. 

It’s a different world. It’s time that harvard made the decision, almost as penance for losing sight of its supposed academic mission, and it’s lofty position as america’s  “best” university by leading by example in these economic times. The money must be there to save these jobs. As insular as the harvard experience can be, students have to understand that by losing  a moon bounce or cotton candy machine, you would be saving hard working families. Unless you have a hand in that process of bringing that carnival to the students, it’s probably the last thing one would remember being in college. Or it should be. 

There is a petition here.

And if you need the science connection,  here on science life ny, i will always make the argument phd’s, post docs, techs and students should support education before profit and the respect of a worker’s work.