January 24, 2002
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By RACHEL P. KOVNER
Harvard -- endowment, $18.3 billion -- is now conducting a Web-based survey of alumni, asking graduates whether they agree or disagree with statements like "Harvard cares more about amassing large sums of money than about how the money is used; the endowment is too large" and "Harvard should spend more of the money it has today to meet its needs."
Two groups that monitor college endowments and fundraising said to their knowledge Harvard's survey was unique in exploring whether billion dollar endowments can lead to fundraising backlash. A spokesman in Harvard's development office, Andy Tiedemann, said this isn't the first time Harvard has surveyed alumni about their attitudes toward the school's wealth. But the latest effort comes at a time when endowments at Harvard and other universities have broken records and drawn criticism from some. When the school announced in 2000 that its endowment had reached a peak of $19.2 billion, the student-run Harvard Crimson newspaper called on the university to spend more of its endowment on projects like a student center and increased financial aid. Student members of Harvard's Living Wage Campaign, who conducted a 21 day sit-in last spring over the wages of the universities lowest paid employees, cited the school's vast wealth as a reason the school could afford to pay more and have called on alumni to withhold contributions.
"I think we're just part of a larger phenomenon of attention the endowment's gotten," said a Harvard senior who helped organize the sit-in, Ben McKean. "Certainly I find the idea of giving money to an institution that already has so much money a little strange."
Officials at New York colleges said they'd love to have such problems.
The associate director and chief operating officer at Columbia University's Alumni Relations Office, Tony Roman, said he'd heard grumbles about the impact of large endowments on fundraising among non-profit leaders. "We worry about the other problem -- we don't have enough money," he laughed.
The deputy director of alumni relations at NYU, Kathy Wyatt, said if a prospective donor raised a concern about the university's wealth, it would be handled one-on-one by the university's development office. "Discerning alumni who read about things like this may well question it," she said of Harvard's endowment. "Of course, our endowment is relatively small compared to other universities. We have never had any queries of that sort."
The senior vice president and treasurer of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, Larry Goldstein, said that as the school with the biggest endowment, Harvard would probably be the first school to see some alumni reluctant to add to the school's coffers.
But Mr. Goldstein said there are 41 institutions with endowments of $1billion or more, "which no matter who's measuring is a big number," he said. "On some level, if you've got billion or five billion or seven billion," he said, "how different is it?"
Like Harvard, New York colleges have seen their endowments balloon in recent years, with Columbia now ranked ninth in the nation for its $4.3 billion endowment and New York University ranked 13th for its $1.18 billion. At NYU, the leaders of a campaign to organize a labor union for the school's graduate students cited the school's endowment as one reason the school could afford to pay teaching assistants more. A similar unionization effort is underway at Columbia.
At Harvard, Mr. Tiedemann said results aren't yet available to the alumni survey. He said he wasn't sure if the endowment questions on the latest survey had been asked previously, and he declined to provide results from previous versions of those questions. He said the number of college alumni who agreed that Harvard needed their contributions rose from 37 percent in a 1994 survey at the start of the school's $2.6 billion capital campaign to 62 percent in a survey last year.
Mr. Tiedemann said the results of the most recent survey would help school officials assess whether they were doing enough to convince alumni that even the world's wealthiest school needs their help. Much of the school's money, officials said, is earmarked for specific programs and is not available for general use.
Harvard e-mailed a link to the Web-based survey questionnaire to about 10,000 randomly selected graduates of Harvard College. About 2,200 have responded so far, Mr. Tiedemann said. In addition to asking about attitudes toward the endowment, the poll probes general attitudes about Harvard and philanthropy. One question asks respondents to agree or disagree with the statements, "I trust governments," "I trust higher education," "I trust my friends," "I trust my neighbors" and "I trust business leaders."
Elementary: William Safire's column on the op-ed page of today's New York Times makes reference to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes detective story in which, Mr. Safire writes, "the 'curious incident' was the failure of a dog named Silver Blaze to bark." In fact, the dog is not named in the story. Silver Blaze was actually the missing horse the great detective was pursuing.
Late Again: The New York Times waddles in this morning with the news that Senator Clinton is making friends with some Republicans. The lead quote in the Times article comes from Senator John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada. The Times reports that Mr. Ensign "said it may not be a popular thing to say where he comes from, but he has become fond of Mrs. Clinton." Sound familiar? Check out this, from a USA Today article published on July 10, 2001: "'With some of my folks back home, I have to be careful how I say this,' Ensign says, 'but I like her.'" Got to love that New York Times, running a full six months behind USA Today in its coverage of New York's junior senator.
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