Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Harvard and other schools need to do more, not less

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Harvard University President Drew Faust recently hinted that cutbacks will soon begin in Harvard's workforce. Faust is worried that investments made with Harvard's nearly 40 billion dollar endowment may shrink by a few billion. President Faust needs to take a step back from her spreadsheets and white boards to consider the community living beyond her ivory towers.

It should not be entirely up to governments to re-build a nation's economy. While it is understandable that a failing industrial giant like GM might need to layoff employees it makes no sense for Harvard to follow suit. Universities are all about preparing society for the future. At a time like this colleges and universities should not be acting like profit-seeking firms owned by shareholders, The issues of how some schools handle patents resulting from student inventions and the size of their financial investments already makes the "nonprofit status" of some higher-education institutions suspect.

Schools of all sizes need to be looking hard and deep for more ways to reach out to the stricken communities they inhabit. In tough times educators should be expanding extension services, helping to re-train workers, and opening their doors to more people seeking advancement. This is the primary purpose of educational institutions. It is also the main reason governments exempt schools from most taxes imposed on corporations.

This author is not suggesting that Harvard start competing with private trade schools but rather partner with those firms to expand the menu of courses they offer. Schools should not be in business to make profits but they surely have the knowledge and expertise to help struggling enterprises. The last thing they need to be doing is adding to the burgeoning rolls of the unemployed and under-employed.

Granted there should be careful thought given to the ways that schools use their money and other vital resources to help communities. A few years back Pennsylvania State University got so aggressive buying land, building retirement communities and expanding their dairy operation that they negatively impacted several local businesses. The university catering operation alone drove many smaller catering firms out of business. The region known as Happy Valley saw numerous larger firms close up shop while the University blindly grew into the dominant employer. It took a wiser President and board of trustees to change some Penn State business practices.

Harvard is located in a larger community and should look for more effective ways to reach out to the people of Massachusetts and beyond. Job retraining programs, business incubators, and sending those smart professors out into the community makes more sense than layoffs. Expanding enrollment, offering practical courses to the community, and taking more steps to share the precious knowledge that Harvard helps create should be the primary responsibility. Encourage your alumni, arguably a major source of wealth in the U.S. and beyond, to give back to their communities instead of to Harvard's endowment.
  • Why not help graduates and other community members that are unable to find work in their fields?
  • Why not offer space to potential new employers to try out their new business ideas?
  • Why not create a committee of experts to help our leaders tackle the huge economic problems they face?

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All of these ideas may sound absurd to President Faust but they follow in the footsteps of one Harvard graduate who has chosen to take on the nation's most difficult job instead of a lucrative law practice. President-elect Obama needs all the help he can get, from friends and former foes alike. Harvard surely counts itself as a friend of Barack Obama's and needs to behave like one in actions large and small.

T.H. Williams


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