HLS must be transparent about its financial situation

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Several weeks ago, the Record reported on Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust’s alarming email to the Harvard community, in which she discussed the possible impact of the ongoing financial crisis on the university. Since that time, the situation has worsened considerably. Hints that Harvard and other institutions have lost up to a third of their endowment values have flown in recent weeks, and rumors that such declines would affect operating expenses have been substantiated. The New York Times reported yesterday that the university endowment plunged by 22%, or $8.1 billion. Anticipating a serious shortfall in funding, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced last week that it would begin budget-cutting measures, including a de facto freeze on new faculty hires.

The retrenchment at FAS may or may not portend cuts at the Law School. HLS has its own endowment (last reported at over $1.5 billion) and a critical stream of alumni donations that is undoubtedly more dynamic than FAS’: HLS alumni not only earn more, but feel more connected to their school than graduate students who emerge with PhDs. As HLS students’ recent difficulties finding jobs attests, however, the legal market is hardly immune from the effects of the crisis. Not only do we anticipate that some of HLS’ endowment was tied up in the sinking stock market, but that its alumni donations will begin to shrivel up as well.

The Law School administration is understandably reluctant to discuss the fallout of its financial situation with outsiders. In the age of citizen journalism, even internal emails can wind up circulating on openly accessible blogs within hours, and the effects on the school’s perception and reputation could be harmful. It would be worse, however, to allow unsubstantiated rumor and fears to circulate that HLS is in more dire financial straits than it actually is. Moreover, it behooves the school to at least make its students aware of how the situation will affect their futures. OCS has done an admirable job providing contingency services for those students left out in the cold by an uncharacteristically competitive OCI season. The administration should follow suit for those students who were attracted to HLS for the opportunities it offered to pursue public interest careers. They need to know whether services such as LIPP or SPIF will be affected before they commit themselves to critical decisions about their careers.

In the Law School’s classrooms, professors continually preach the need for transparency in law and governance, to avoid the costs of future litigation and maintain trust between the organs of government and the people. President-elect Barack Obama ’91 has emulated these lessons, going so far as to open up his government-in-waiting’s website to citizen suggestions and providing video feeds to his transition team’s meetings. HLS’ administration should strive to practice what its professors preach, and not leave us in the dark during this bleak economic dusk.

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