Alumni Group Presses Harvard to Do More With Its Endowment

A group of Harvard University alumni are waging a quiet effort to persuade the university to use its vast wealth, including its $35 billion endowment, to expand its mission beyond its Cambridge campus and the students it educates there, the New York Times reports.

For some, the actions of the group, Harvard Alumni for Social Action, reflect the growing debate over university endowments and the continued accumulation of assets by elite institutions such as Harvard. At current growth rates, Harvard's endowment is expected to surpass $100 billion within a decade.

Alumna Paula Tavrow, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, formed HASA after she was solicited to contribute to Harvard in conjunction with her twenty-fifth reunion in 2006. Tavrow, who saw firsthand the plight of African universities when she worked at the University of Malawi in the early 1990s, contacted her classmates about redirecting their reunion contributions to struggling colleges in Africa.

But the group has been frustrated in its attempts to recruit other alumni for the cause, in part because Harvard refuses to share its alumni list. "It is simply not our mission to provide direct financial support to universities elsewhere in the world," said Tamara Rogers, vice president for university development and fellow alumna from the class of 1981. "It is part of the mission to build capacity in universities throughout the world through our research and education."

In response to Tavrow's activism, the university eventually created a fund to award fellowships to African graduate students to study at its School of Arts and Sciences. Underwritten by one of Tavrow's former classmates, the fund helped the class of '81 break the record for twenty-fifth reunion fundraising and participation, attracting $41 million from 75.8 percent of the class — with some $300,000 directed to the fellowship fund.

While the appeal led to a gift from one of Harvard's biggest donors, Sumner L. Feldberg, it remains unclear whether the enthusiasm generated by the class of '81 will carry forward. For now, HASA remains committed to encouraging other alumni. "There are large amounts of money being given to Harvard and other wealthy universities every year by classes like ours, and they don't really need it," said Jennifer Freeman, part of the HASA outreach committee for the class of 1983. "They should be thinking of new things they could do with it, which would re-energize alumni and be good for the university, too."

Stephanie Strom. "Alumni Group Tries to Elicit Social Action From Harvard." New York Times 06/03/2008.