No excuses: Harvard can and must ban military recruitment

BY JOSH RUBY

Something is rotten in the state of Cambridge this recruiting season. While 3L’s weighed their options and 2L’s scurried around campus in suits, one group, admittedly a fairly small one, never even got a look from its employer of choice. To the extent that any of Harvard Law’s homosexual community dreamed of serving as a JAG officer in any of the branches of the armed services, that dream never got past a OCS-sponsored doorframe. Why did the University exempt the military from the nondiscrimination policy it requires of all the other employers who come to campus? Simply put, the University sacrificed its principles and its dedication to enforcing equal opportunity of all its students, for a little bit of money. A very little bit of money.

While members of the Law School staged a symbolic protest against this discrimination, it accomplished nothing; Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell remains policy, and the Solomon Amendment continues to threaten universities with the elimination of their federal dollar allowances if they take a stand against it. And so while we all, like Dean Kagan, “look forward to the time when all our students can pursue any career path they desire, including the path-as deeply honorable as any [we] can imagine-of devoting their professional lives to the defense of this country,” we also all know that that day is not today. It probably won’t be tomorrow either.

Dean Kagan obviously believes what she wrote to the student body on October 1 about the inequities of outright discrimination in military recruiting. President Faust and the rest of the University administration, if asked, no doubt would say the same. But, according to the official line, the University determined that the law school could not bar the military recruiters because it would put federal funds amounting to 15% of the University’s operating budget “in jeopardy,” most of it going to other professional schools for scientific research. Bar the military recruiters, the argument goes, and you put the poor, defenseless lab techs out of business.

It’s not true.

According to alumni development materials, it cost roughly $2.6 billion to operate Harvard University in FY2005. Allowing for a fantastic rate in the growth of its expenditures, let us assume that it will cost $3 billion to operate Harvard this fiscal year. Fifteen percent of $3 billion is $450 million. Therefore, at most, the University would have about $450 million in federal funding at stake if it stood up for what it ostensibly believed.

Four-hundred and fifty million dollars sounds like an awful lot. But, truth be told, to this institution, it’s not, not by any means. At last count, the University endowment stood at $34.6 billion. Out of $34.6 billion, $450 million represents a paltry 1.3%. In other words, the administration claims that Congress has tied the University’s hands for a little over 1% of the value of the endowment. In reality, the specter of lab techs suddenly without the funds to do their work because Congress pulled the plug won’t materialize. The University could make up the difference without blinking. In fact, if Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley gets his way and requires universities to spend 5% of their endowments annually or face losing their tax-exempt status, the University might even come out ahead in doing so.

Try as it might to cry poverty in the present climate, the claim simply does not hold. The economics of the past few weeks notwithstanding, the endowment remains secure. All indications, in fact, point to it weathering the current turmoil far ahead of the rest of the market. Our more financially adept colleagues across the river authored a study only last week which indicated that university endowments typically outperform all their institutional investor competitors in bear and bull markets alike. Furthermore, although outperforming other institutional investors may not suffice in a rapidly sinking market, the University still gets to rely on the generosity of its alumni and friends, which shows no signs of abating.

The better objection, of course, calls attention to the imbalance. Is it worth $450 million to engage in a protest that didn’t work before and might not work again? Some on this campus might argue that standing up against the last refuge of federally-sanctioned employment discrimination shouldn’t have a price. Others might counter that, well, yes, of course it shouldn’t have a price, but it does, and whatever it is, it’s less than 1.3% of the endowment. Maybe that objection carried the day in the meeting where they powers that be made this decision.

But, more importantly, the premise of the objection leads to an unsettling conclusion. It assumes that Harvard, overflowing with resources as it is, can’t afford to stand up for its principles.

That conclusion should trouble us all. The University possesses a remarkable brand imbued with reserves of moral credibility paralleled only by its reserves of money. It therefore represents one of a handful of American institutions that can, with virtual impunity, act as part of the nation’s conscience. But, at least this time, it chose not to. Its scholars may ask the hard, probing questions, but the institution here ducked the moral confrontation and played the game like a hedge fund rather than as the principled cradle of scholarship and conscience it portrays in its marketing materials.

Perhaps $450 million is too high a price to pay to follow our institutional conscience and try to evoke our national conscience. But if it is, then what should the University do with its unique position? If not this, then what? If not now, when?

Josh Ruby is a 2L

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