Lessig’s focus on corruption may have uncomfortable implications for Harvard

BY VICTORIA BARANETSKY

Professor Lawrence Lessig’s new focus on institutional corruption is now hitting home, as a Harvard Alumni Association event last week demonstrated. Lessig, head of the new Institutional Corruption initiative within the Edward Safra Foundation for Ethics, was accompanied by Linda Greenhouse, former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, who quesitoned Harvard President Drew Faust  on the university’s own miscreant behavior.

Lessig, best known for his work in law and technology, particularly copyright issues (including the establishment of Creative Commons) returned to Harvard this past year to pursue his new found field of study. Through the Safra Foundation’s Institutional Corruption initiative, Lessig reported that he hopes to create a metric to determine “when institutional corruption occurs” and find a way to “produce remedies.” 

Lessig defines institutional corruption as “an economy of influences upon an institution” that weaken both “the effectiveness of that institution” and  “the public trust” within the system. He is less concerned with traditional notions of corruption, like favors traded for “money in a brown paper bag,” than, as he has written on his wiki, “non-obvious corruption where a decision is improperly and/or subtly influenced by a government actor’s anticipation of some sort of indirect economic gain or loss”.

Lobbying Congress is a “paradigm[atic] example,” said Lessig, according to whom lobbyists have become “pushers or suppliers,” affecting Congressional votes.  Wealthy lobbyists like Gerald Cassidy have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at Congress. With their coffers open to lobbyists, Congressmen  decide wrongly on “nutrition, healthcare and global warming policies,” explained Lessig.  “And these are the easy public policy questions,” he guffawed. 

A “weakened public trust in the institution,” also defines corruption, according to Lessig. In essence, the concern is not whether Representatives were bought. Instead, the problem is that “the American public thinks they were bought. That is what is important,” he explained. Lessig once again pointed to Congress. “Only 22% of the U.S. has a positive view of Congress,” he stated, “And 88% of California believes money buys results.” 

Linda Greenhouse never explicitly asked President Faust whether Harvard was corrupt, though her interview circled the question. Like Congress, Harvard seems to be a money making machine, illustrated by its recent endowment plunge: a 30% drop, from $36.9 billion to a still-phenomenal $26.0 billion as of June this year. Like Congress, moreover, Harvard seems to have lost the trust of its constituents. Harvard’s alumni magazine recently highlighted the university’s losses, in an article entitled “$11 Billion Less”.

“We have a new understanding of what risk is,” Faust said, when Greenhouse asked her about the meltdown. “In a school that relies so heavily on its endowment, we understand we now need to save for rainy day.”

Although her prepared response seemed to assuage fears about Harvard’s future, alumni were still curious about the university’s past decisions about its finances. “What about the compensation?” an audience member asked, referring to the Harvard Management Corporation, the entity responsible for Harvard’s endowment. Its top six officials made a collective $26.8 million in 2008. Faust replied that they were “consistent with the other salaries in the market” in order to be “competitive.” She did not address an issue at the heart of Lessig’s definition of corruption, however: the loss of public trust.

But the driving need for such risky investing seems to be part of a much greater problem. Faust claimed that “we expect too much of our universities. We give them too many roles.”  Universities are expected to “supply our workforce, help our children with mental health and socialization, be centers for art and culture and be scientific research centers,” she said. “This is an enormous array of tasks. We must ask how universities are supposed to do all of these things and pay for it. Should these roles be played elsewhere?”

In her book University, Inc., Jennifer Washburn explores the commercial transformation of American higher education over the last 30 years. She argues that universities have made money by contracting with pharmaceuticals and other medical institutions as their private researchers and therefore been bent by their influences. Washburn’s book suggests that universities have become like corrupt Congressmen, dependent on and influenced by the economic pressures of pharmaceuticals, which behave like the lobbyists. Unfortunately, that leaves students to play the role of the shafted American public. 

Another way to pay for this structure is by increasing tuition, an issue Faust has addressed since assuming her role in 2007. Faust made financial aid a priority after she realized the “cost of higher education had risen so much that many intelligent individuals could no longer attend,” she said. But with the economic downturn Harvard has had trouble committing to its financial aid. 

Either way, people like disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich  are not to blame, said Lessig. “We are they, the problem [is] in society,” he continued. “Institutional corruption is primed and permitted by the passivity of the most privileged.” Lessig’s closing remarks go back to the roots of the Safra Foundation, which almost three decades ago began a national movement to institute professional codes of ethical conduct. “These serious problems need serious attention,” said Lessig, “and we are the ones who need to speak up.” If there are problems within Harvard, within this country, he implied, alumni, students, faculty and others should speak up and not just sit and wait for the panel to be over.

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