Divestment: Mixed Metaphors Reveal a Muddled Mission – Is Harvard an Educational Institution or an Investment Bank?


[Some observations on the “divestment” discussion at Harvard.
T.C. Weiskel, Transition Studies]

A recent exchange of opinions in The Harvard Crimson has left many wondering whether Harvard may have lost its moral compass.

Echoing the sad clichés in the phrases of President Drew Faust from 2013, The Harvard Crimson editorial board on 14  April 2016 stated quite emphatically that:

“Scholarship, not divestment, is
the moral imperative for Harvard”

Yet many are wondering:
“What is the role of education in Harvard’s mission?”

Is excellence in “scholarship” the only thing that is expected of an institution of higher learning?

What about the task of education — both for its own students and for the world at large?  What do students learn in an educational institution that regards its “moral imperative” to be very much like that of an investment bank?  What can such an institution bring to the education of the wider world in the face of the most devastating emergency that humankind has ever faced?

Maybe its time to rethink the metaphors at the core of the Harvard experience.  The Harvard Crimson undergraduate editorial board clearly have learned to talk the talk of investment bankers, and they have elevated this vocabulary (and all the metaphors that go with it) to the status of — in their words —  “a moral imperative.”

But what has happened to the moral compass?  What is excellence in scholarship for anyway?  If Harvard cannot help its students to discern what is right and what is true its impressive achievements in all other realms will prove to sound hollow — rather like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  The undergraduate editorial board states quite baldly: “We must refocus on our comparative advantage…,”   apparently side-stepping the moral case for divestment.

Yes. Quite right. But what is Harvard’s “comparative advantage”?

In recent weeks Harvard has shown that its “comparative advantage,” lies squarely in the realm of setting records as the richest private institution of higher learning in America.

Further, it has been quite proud of being the recipient of a record breaking donation which President Faust called: “an extraordinary act of philanthropy” in 2015.

Others, including economist and former Harvard professor, Jeffrey Sachs,  have pointed to the origins of the earnings behind this exceptional gift:

At the same time, it has become apparent that whatever other kinds of “comparative advantage” the undergraduate  editorial board seems to think should be focused upon, for Harvard as an institution, these do not yet include meeting the expressed needs of some of its own workers:

Sometimes the day-to-day activities of an educational institution in pursuing its “comparative advantage” can teach its students — and the wider world — about its effective moral compass more clearly than any of its well rehersed statements about moral imperatives.

In spite of what the undergraduate editorial board at The Harvard Crimson may think, apparently at least 19 Harvard professors from both the  Faculty of Arts and Sciences and an impressive array of the Graduate and Professional schools feel that there is something out of kilter in the implicit educational priorities of this most venerable institution.


Harvard Crimson editorial:


2013 Statement by President Faust:


Letter, The New York Times


See related:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s