Harvard/Peretz Controversy Illustrates Folly of Charitable Donations to Wealthy U.S. Universities

Canaday Common Room entrance, former home of The Harvard Independent (my photo, available under cc license)

Canaday Common Room entrance, former home of The Harvard Independent (my photo, available under cc license)

I realized dimly that New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz had apologized for his suggestion that Muslims should be denied first amendment rights. But until reading Tracy Jan’s Boston Globe article on the continuing controversy, I hadn’t noticed that he specifically reaffirmed his view that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.”

This is relevant because in edition to being editor in chief of a fairly important DC political magazine, he’s scheduled to be honored by Harvard University since a lot of his famous and important friends got together a bunch of money to give to Harvard in exchange for Harvard honoring their friend. Since Harvard is in the business of raising money, they have every intention of keeping the money and going ahead with the honoring:

Harvard yesterday said it does not plan to block the honor of Peretz, who received his doctorate from Harvard. In a statement yesterday, university officials acknowledged that Peretz’s recent assertions have been “distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so.” But the statement also declared that “it is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views.’’

We are ultimately stronger as a university when we maintain our commitment to the most basic freedoms that enable the robust exchange of ideas,” the statement said.

It’s really too bad that Harvard has chosen to take this tack. Obviously the only person in this conversation who’s questioned anybody’s right to “free speech” or exhibited a weak “commitment to the most basic freedoms” is Peretz himself. Equally obviously, Peretz’s right to be a bigot does not create a right to be honored by prestigious universities. My alma mater is doing a disservice to their brand and to public understanding of the issues by deliberately obscuring things in this manner.

It would be more honest to say that Harvard is a business run for the benefit of its faculty and administrators. The business model of this business is the exchange of prestige in exchange for money. Peretz has friends who have money that they are willing to exchange for some prestige, and Harvard intends to take the money. It is what it is.

As an alum, I’d like to pretend to believe that I find this particular transaction outrageous, but it merely goes to illustrate a point I’ve made before. If you’re a person of some means who wants to make a charitable donation to make the world a better place you have a lot of options available to you. And one of the very worst things you could do with that money is give it to a fancy university. If you’ve specifically decided that you want to make a charitable donation to a provider of education services in the United States, you should find one that has a good track record of serving poor students. There are plenty of charter schools and colleges that fit the bill, but none of them are famous fancy schools with multi-billion dollar endowments.

The proper reason to give money to Harvard is the reason Peretz’s friends are giving money. The guy has a deservedly bad reputation in many quarters, and in exchange for money Harvard University is willing to try to raise his reputation.