Seminarian Voices: Capitalism, Character, and Harvard's View from Below

By Adam Vander Tuig MDiv III

As with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the Harvard Campaign’s moments of highest drama have also centered upon a man’s extravagant remarks, at his view from above, buoyed by his incomprehensible wealth. “I’m really rich,” conveys both campaigns, on repeat, as if neither can help but express much otherwise. 

In this moment of gaping, near-historic economic inequality, managers of already the world’s largest university endowment could have agreed not to launch the most ambitious fundraising effort in the history of higher education. But, while no university in the world can better afford to do with what it has, at Harvard this modesty is reserved for clerical, technical, security, and dining service workers, their colleagues, and their families.

Meanwhile, the campaign’s managers must be good-gaming each other at surpassing the $6 billion mark (ahead of schedule) due in part to gifts like Kenneth Griffin’s, most of which went to the College Financial Aid Office, which now bears his name.

Griffin regarded his gift as an effort to help “break down barriers to an outstanding education,” but how much can broken barriers matter until Harvard breaks down its culture—in which the moneyed class rules, economics is a leading concentration, and roughly 70 percent of seniors apply for jobs in high finance? More broadly, writing last August in the New York Times, Victor Fleischer illuminated the “symbiotic relationship” between university endowments and the financial services industry, noting in particular that Harvard recently spent more on private-equity and management fees than on its students. Last month, in Boston Magazine, Bill McKibben noted that in 2013 one of Harvard’s fund managers was paid more than 57 professors combined. In perspective, at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), where I am currently a degree candidate, the entire Faculty of Divinity consists of just 43. 

Indeed these teach “outstanding” lessons in themselves; together with others they amount to an organizing, institutional pedagogy of rich supremacy. Even if Harvard’s financial aid programs are more generous than ever before—enough to purchase my own tuition, admittedly, though not my obeisance—when money equals speech, a moneyed culture inevitably teaches affluence and prestige. Incidentally, Harvard University leads the world in billionaire alumni.

Among them, of course, is John Paulson, whose yet unprecedented $400 million gift last June went to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which now bears his name. “For 379 years,” declared Paulson, “Harvard has had a profound global impact across a multitude of disciplines that benefits all of humanity.”

Were all of humanity effectively able to hold Paulson to his grandiloquence, I imagine the world’s poor and oppressed might inquire first with Harvard’s economics department and all those concentrators, then maybe with the business and law schools. Certainly the poor and oppressed in Boston—the third most unequal big city in the nation—would inquire, to say nothing of our impoverished neighbors here in Cambridge, or the 275 staff employees Harvard dismissed in 2009 to recoup for endowment losses (while faculty compensation went untouched). One wonders, of all the low-income students whose way Harvard College pays, if their parents had worked comparable jobs here in 2009, would they not have been first among those 275 employees who were dismissed? Moreover, if Harvard took responsibility for its graduates the way it takes credit, what position would it take on Paulson’s gift, especially given that Wall Street speculation like his undeniably (and ungovernably) exacerbates the suffering of those aforementioned? 

What I wish HDS would take is what German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “view from below” or “the perspective of the suffering.” The Jesus of the Gospels surely calls us to do so. But for all our faculty of theology, religion, ethics, and morals, has even a single voice challenged the brazen, unprecedented self-enrichment at the heart of Harvard’s campaign?

The silence is both troubling and instructive.

Historically the university’s smallest and poorest school, perhaps HDS is afraid of compromising its own rare lucrative chance. In a Bloomberg Business profile last June, oil magnate James Hackett—HBS ’79, former CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, and my fellow degree candidate at HDS—identified himself as an aspiring “evangelist for capitalism and responsible fossil fuel investment,” one who “believes in the moral force and obligation of Christianity to improve lives with a capitalistic ethos.”

But how responsible—how Christian—is the ethos that makes Anadarko a leading contributor to the political campaigns of multiple climate change deniers? How morally responsible was the ethos that compelled Harvard to invest $57.4 million in Anadarko the third financial quarter of 2014, not long after Hackett began at HDS?

Especially coming from one of the highest paid CEOs in the country over the last several years, creeds of Christian capitalism seem convenient, self-serving, and self-congratulatory. Contrast this with everything Jesus taught about the rich and their riches, with the position Pope Francis has taken on neoliberal capitalism, or with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrifice and self-effacement. Unrelenting in outspoken resistance to Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s adult life became one steady jettison of inherited privilege while he conspired with others on behalf of the suffering and tyrannized.

Amidst today’s sufferings, however, Harvard seemingly can do no other but chase that particular kind of money too explicit to mention here. As for HDS—an award-winning university leader in campus sustainability efforts—its own interview with Hackett is currently featured on the school website. Anadarko is never mentioned, nor are its investments in climate change denying legislators, nor is its involvement in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, or all the new deepwater wells it plans to drill this year. Given that the poor and oppressed are the first to suffer, and suffer the most, from climate change, I imagine these omissions would matter to them. Then again, should recent trends continue, HDS may someday bear Hackett’s name.

Especially in an era of corporate personhood, maybe Harvard needs not a capital campaign, but a character or consciousness campaign—one in which Harvard commits to doing more with less and takes as much responsibility as credit; in which it experiments with alternative orientations toward its endowment, alternative ways of organizing the institution itself; in which it implements consequential mechanisms of accountability by which “all of humanity” might hold it to all its professed beneficence. In short: a campaign in which Harvard commits to taking the view from below. In this, let us at The Memorial Church commit to taking the lead.

Adam Vander Tuig is a third-year MDiv student at Harvard Divinity School and a Seminarian in the Memorial Church.

About Seminarian Voices
Seminarian Voices is a platform for our seminarians and interns to express their experiences, views, and perspectives on their journey through Divinity school and beyond. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by the Memorial Church.