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The Wi-Fi is Bad and I Blame HMC

It’s springtime again in Cambridge: The days are lengthening, the leaves are returning, and my inbox is filling with Senior Gift emails. Sixteen of them, to be precise.

I’ve seen a lot of Senior Gift marketing. I’ve seen the email blasts, the T-shirts, the social media posts, and the raffles. I’ve seen the posters up around my House, trumpeting the multifarious recipients of senior generosity, including the Classroom to Table program (shuttered for the semester, lacking funds), the Wi-Fi (slow), and my Faculty Deans’ dogs (very cute, but I bet not actually fed by the Harvard College Fund).

I’ve been e-introduced (via email blast) to a pair of 1997 alums who pledge an ever-escalating series of matching gifts and who I have elevated to semi-mythical status. (The adjective “inspiring” has been repeatedly used to describe their response to my class’s anemic altruism. I also refuse to believe six-figure donors actually condition their giving on what a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears undergrads do.)

I will say that it’s a genuinely remarkable exercise. Not the money, of course—$10 is the minimum online donation, $5 if you pay in physical American currency—but the amount of energy that goes into raising it. (Truly, as Churchill might have said, never have so many raised so little from so few.) Instead, to me it’s representative of the tremendous focus that students, administrators, and alumni put into fundraising relative to the more significant source of Harvard’s wealth: endowment returns.

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It’s particularly ironic because Senior Gift seems determined to convey a Sergeant Schultz-level of distance from the University’s endowment. Someone at the Harvard College Fund has evidently surmised that asking undergrads to throw a few bucks into an already-$37.1 billion pot is a less-than-persuasive tactic. “No money raised by Senior Gift goes to the endowment,” the emails say in bold letters, and I can attest that it’s a major talking point of the rank-and-file Senior Gift representatives.

Set aside, for a moment, the obvious fact that unrestricted contributions—one of the two ways to make a Senior Gift—can be used to offset endowment disbursements and thus grow the principal. It’s fundamentally weird that the University Development Office is positing the endowment and donations as separate and separable.

Of course, Senior Gift and its few thousand dollars’ worth of Wi-Fi routers and dog food has a primarily psychological, not pecuniary, purpose. It exists to condition nearly-graduates into paying their Harvard tithe. (A friend told me that senior gift representatives were instructed to be “change agents, not tax collectors,” but you know what they say about things that walk like a duck, swim like a duck, and come asking for money around April 15.)

Of course, there’s no direct tradeoff between photocopying Senior Gift posters and increasing the performance of Harvard Management Company. Indeed, Harvard Management Company CEO N.P. Narvekar’s restructuring seems reasonable to my layman’s eyes. Yet I can’t help but think that Senior Gift is but a particularly clear example of the thinking which elevates the Harvard Campaign to consume half of senior administrators’ time and helps structure the dates of their departures, even as it’s sabotaged by nine-digit endowment losses.

Indeed, HMC’s years of subpar returns have deprived the University of billions of dollars in would-have-been funds. Endowment losses have forced units like the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is particularly dependent on investment returns, to make serious cuts, restricting graduate admissions and reducing salary growth.

The massive numbers involved mean that small changes in year-to-year performance result in huge swings. This year, Harvard placed last among Ivy League endowments, growing at 8.1 percent. Yet the failure to match even Yale, itself second from the bottom in the Ivy League at 11.3 percent, meant the loss of $1 billion in growth.

Development is important, and I neither have a problem with fêteing donors nor Senior Gift. I was glad to hear Harvard’s recent announcement that we’re past the $9 billion mark.

But as massive as that pile of money seems—and it is a lot, equivalent to the cost of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the value of a medium-sized company, or the GDP of a small country—its potential to act as a so-called “change agent” is dwarfed by the performance of HMC. Even if Harvard can continue to persuade its benefactors to voluntarily part with a billion or so each year—greater than the annual economic output of 17 countries—philanthropy cannot be a substitute for endowment success.

A single percentage point change in the endowment is worth about $350 million, the size of the donation that renamed the School of Public Health. (That $5 minimum Senior Gift is equivalent to a 0.00000001 percent growth increase.) When, in fiscal year 2016, HMC lost $2 billion, it effectively erased two years of record-setting fundraising.

It’s this context that is missing from the campus conversation and the most visible priorities of the administration. Harvard is right to seek out benefactors. It has a responsibility to see that their generosity is well stewarded.

Derek K. Choi ’18, a former president of The Crimson, is a Government concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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