Is it Immoral to Donate to Harvard?

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Harvard's endowment took at 25 percent tumble this year to $26 billion. That means it has gone from besting the GDP of Kenya to merely matching the GDP of Estonia. Should alums still give money?

No less than The Ethicist of the New York Times says: Absolutely not. Why not?


"To do so is to offer more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window," Randy Cohen writes. Harvard is flush with cash, while historically black colleges, community colleges and colleges with a high percentage of first-in-the-family graduates struggle with endowments up to 1000-times less than Harvard's. In fact, Cohen says, the government should even mandate that donations to rich schools are divvied up, so that maybe half goes to the school you attended and the other 50 percent is split among needier colleges.

Something about this analysis makes me feel icky, and it's not just the idea that the government should decide for itself which charities and non-profits deserve our money. First, Harvard isn't all Rockefellers and Kennedys. Is it impossible to donate directly to Harvard's student aid department to help more under-privileged kids get a Harvard education?

Second, Cohen approaches the argument as "a conflict between two goods: donate to Harvard or donate elsewhere?" Well yes, you could frame the question that way. You could also frame the choice to help coach your daughter's basketball team as: Help coach your daughter's basketball team or coach an inner-city KIPP basketball team to keep youths of the streets. From a utilitarian standpoint, you will probably make a greater impact in more lives by dedicating those 3 hours a week to the inner-city team. But does that make it unethical to be your kids' coach?

Cohen's point is an acknowledgment that there are always better things to do with our time and money. But that's a truism in search of a conclusion. Perhaps it is more ethical to give to a community college than Harvard. But wouldn't that money go farther, dollar for dollar, at a low-income elementary school than a community college? And couldn't it go even farther at a pre-natal care facility in Africa? Or to malaria nets in Asia? That would save lives rather than merely enrich them.

The point is, I don't know where Cohen's point ends. And maybe that's why I feel uncomfortable with where the question begins.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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