We have more to contribute than money: Why I won’t be donating to the HKS Fund

By Alexi White, MPP ’13, Correspondent

As many of us prepare to graduate in a few short months, we are being asked to give back by donating to the HKS Fund. I, for one, refuse. I will not give to HKS until it proactively engages its students in a frank and open conversation about the issues we face as a community. Since words have proven an insufficient motivator, perhaps withholding money will provoke change.

Before coming to HKS, I ran a small non-profit representing the interests of Canadian students to university administrators and government. At campus after campus, I saw how proactively involving students in university governance and accountability brings benefits to the entire community. Just as we are stronger for living in an open and inclusive society, principles of transparency and participation make our university communities stronger too.

When I arrived at HKS I found that, far from being proactively involved, students are often passively discouraged from questioning how our school operates. Concerns are always listened to politely, but administrators tend to take the shortsighted view that genuine engagement is time-consuming, risky and without much benefit. There are, of course, notable exceptions of people who believe strongly in the value of engaging students, but the overall unwillingness to have difficult conversations has left me, and dozens of my peers, increasingly frustrated and disappointed with our school.

For readers who are unfamiliar with such criticisms, let me illustrate with two examples.

The annual HKS budget for financial aid is $22 million – enough to cut tuition fees in half if provided equally to everyone, or to provide even greater assistance to those with this greatest need. Instead, 80 percent is currently distributed on the basis of merit to entice top applicants to come to HKS. As Stephanie Streletz, Director of Student Financial Services, told The Citizen last year, “It is a strong message from the school that merit is more important than need.”

For a school that so badly wants to serve others, this position may seem a rather self-centered way to provide aid. It is not unreasonable to hope for a greater debate as to whether we, as a community, support these principles. In this case, however, a lack of basic financial transparency makes this impossible.

There is no doubt that much of the financial aid budget is made up of restricted donations, but just how much room for change exists is unknown because this level of specificity about the HKS budget – financial aid or otherwise – is actively withheld from students. When I’ve managed to get past the ubiquitous reference to “Harvard policy”, I’ve been told that the budget is a complicated thing that would require a great deal of context to fully appreciate. HKS may prepare us to understand a government’s budget, just not our school’s budget.

If we cannot access sufficient information even to have a discussion about a difficult but important issue, we are not an open and inclusive community.

A second overdue conversation regards what responsibility we have for the investment decisions that pay for a quarter of our school’s budget. We place great value on promoting the public interest, yet we benefit from an endowment invested in companies that systematically break labor and environmental laws worldwide.

Earlier this term, students overwhelmingly supported a referendum calling for more a responsible investment strategy. Rather than engage students in a meaningful dialogue, our administration refuses to accept any responsibility, deflecting to Harvard’s endowment fund managers. Our role, it would seem, is to take the money and not ask questions.

In the past two years I have seen too many friends grow disillusioned with an administration that does not take their concerns seriously, whether on issues of faculty and student diversity, environmental sustainability, access to courses, censorship, deficiencies in OCA, arbitrary rulemaking and many more.

I do not claim that the administration is wrong in all of these areas, only that reasonable people may question whether we are living up to our mission. Unfortunately, conversations are often shut down before they can begin by a lack of transparency and an aversion to proactively engaging with student concerns. Having experienced the benefits of an open and transparent university community, I know we can do better and be stronger for it.

Our graduating gifts may be our last chance. In the late 1960s, successive classes of Harvard College were so disillusioned with the administration of the day that even now they do not donate in large numbers. The resulting hole in alumni support has not gone unnoticed by the Harvard Alumni Association or the central administration, and it remains a reminder that ignoring student concerns has long-term consequences.

Perhaps it is time HKS learned this lesson as well. Join me in saying no to the HKS fund. If our school values our donations and support, it should first value our voices.

 

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