COVID 19 Diary – 4/21/20

I see that Harvard, with its $40 billion endowment, is getting $8.7 million in coronavirus stimulus relief, while small businesses are at risk of shuttering forever. This seems, to put it in the Latin, bass-ackwards.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, after decisions to send students home for the balance of the semester were made, Harvard, like many colleges and universities, faced pressure from students and parents, as in, “are you planning on refunding any portion of my fees?” And Harvard, like many colleges and universities, DID issue pro-rated room and board refunds for students living on campus ($4,600, or about 27% of the annual room and board fee) but continues to charge full tuition. With an undergraduate population of around 6,800 (most of whom live on campus), that’s roughly $32 million, which is a lot of money.

But now deduct the food that isn’t being purchased, the water, electricity, heat and other utilities that aren’t being consumed, and the other goods provided to or for the benefit of students as part of room and board fees (toilet paper and other paper goods, cleaning supplies associated with housekeeping, cafeterias, and classroom buildings), and that number is substantially offset. Factor in, as well, that (unlike my alma mater, Mount Holyoke College) Harvard has laid off all employees that cannot work remotely, such as custodial staff and food service workers, and that number declines to an even greater extent. So, perhaps the loss isn’t as big as initially contemplated. But still a loss – hence (presumably), the application for stimulus funds.

Harvard is a great school – probably the finest institution of higher learning in the country. I’ve spent time with Harvard students and have had the privilege of walking its campus; it is everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. It’s the polestar we hold up as the ultimate academic achievement to which we and our children can aspire, and rightly so, because people who attend Harvard tend to be brilliant on a level that most of us cannot begin to comprehend.

I could have studied 80 hours a week from the time I was 6, taken SAT prep courses starting in 7th grade, and written an essay that would have made the rocks weep, and I still wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have done well, because I’m just not Harvard Smart, and I’m fine with that. I think it’s really good that there ARE people who are Harvard Smart (in fact, it would be really nice if one of them was in the Oval Office right about now).

My point is, Harvard is great. Harvard graduates have shaped this nation – people like Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama and Antonin Scalia and Tom Morello. Harvard has been responsible for some of the greatest research, and thought, and scholarship, of our time. We need Harvard.

I’m just not sure Harvard needs stimulus money.

Many Harvard graduates go into law, medicine, science, research, banking, consulting, government, and business, but when I say “business,” what I mean is, Fortune 500 companies, as opposed to the types of local small businesses that are hardest hit by the COVID 19 epidemic. Harvard grads aren’t opening pizza shops or hair salons or dry cleaners or the many types of businesses most people frequent as part of their daily lives. Harvard grads are the types who often go on to make or influence or benefit from the laws that help big business. They are probably not, as a group, those hardest hit by things like economic downturns or once-in-a-century pandemics that threaten to eradicate the viability of the small business model seemingly forever.

Which is why Harvard grads are able to donate generously to their alma mater, which is why Harvard has an endowment of $40 billion, which is 50 times the endowment of Mount Holyoke, which also issued a pro-rated room and board credit AND retained its entire on-site staff AND raised over $200,000 in emergency aid for students impacted by the COVID 19-necessitated relocation from campus. So it seems as though maybe Harvard could have dipped into its endowment to cover the net portion of that $32 million room and board refund (or for whatever else the $8.7 million in stimulus money was intended), what with that being less than 3/100’s of a percent of the total endowment.

Harvard is not alone in its grabbiness. Ruth’s Chris Steak House received $20 million (it has cash reserves of $86 million and furloughed most employees following COVID 19 shutdown orders), and other larger companies did, too, with the result that the $350 million fund – which was intended to help small businesses with fewer than 500 employees – is now depleted. Many seeking modest aid packages well under $100,000 were denied.

The Harvard thing is just one more sign of the times we live in, where we no longer think on a community-minded level (if, in fact, we ever did), but from a “me first” perspective. We see an opportunity to get something, and even if we don’t really need it, by gosh, we’ll die trying (so much the better if it’s free).

Case in Point: Until stores started putting limits on certain high-demand items, people were hoarding things like masks and hand sanitizer, without realizing that a mask and hand sanitizer sitting on your shelf doesn’t protect you from COVID-19 nearly as well as that same mask and sanitizer being used by someone else. You know. So THEY don’t get YOU sick.

And all that food that people are starting to hoard? What makes anyone more entitled not to starve than someone else? Does the ability to access food and purchase in large quantities make a person more worthy of having food than someone who does not?

But tensions are high, times are uncertain, people are worried, and, yeah, I can understand panic shopping after you read articles about not having enough toilet paper or laundry detergent. At some point, that stuff is important.

But for those who have the least to fear – and in the world of academics, Harvard is that “who” – there is an opportunity to set an example, to step aside, and who knows? Maybe 87 coffee shops, or bakeries, or lawn care companies, or organic honey farms, or hand-made paper stores, or yoga studios, or auto service stations, or dog-walking businesses, or artisanal olive oil vendors, or custom bike shops, or exotic pet emporiums, or tattoo parlors, or WHATEVER, BECAUSE THAT’S THE AMERICAN DREAM, ISN’T IS? could have used that money to keep their doors open.

And you know, you would think Harvard would be all over that: What liberal New England educated East Coast socialist communist left wing sociopath like me does not regularly bemoan the cultural wasteland, the psychic fart bonnet, that is suburbia, with its big box stores and franchise food chains and cineplexes? There are no original ideas here, no literary salons or Algonquin Round Tables. This is where intellectual idealism goes to die, right next to a minivan and Weber gas grill. No one who ever graduated from Harvard ever wrote a scholarly work on the virtues of the suburbs, and every avant garde artiste, every cutting edge fashion designer, every beat poet or singer/songwriter or indie filmmaker worth his or her snotty Brooklyn address will tell you how they barely escaped the suburbs – thank god! before it was too late.

And what’s the ONLY thing that can save the suburbs?

Small businesses, that’s what. You know it. You’ve read it. You’ve heard it. Probably from someone with “Harvard” on their resume.

So, you would think Harvard would be embarrassed to even consider applying for those funds that Tim, the Guy Who Makes Vegan Muffins, and Tina, the Organic Butcher really, really need right now, but in Trump’s America, we no longer get embarrassed about anything, especially if we’re rich, and certainly not by anything as puritanical as the concept that greed is something to be avoided.

Maybe it’s time to stop telling kids, “study hard and you can go to Harvard! Work hard and you can become the President!”

Perhaps we should be saying instead, “study hard, and you can either attend a reasonably-priced institution of higher learning that will provide you with a solid education, or maybe a quality technical school to learn a trade such as plumbing or auto repair, because everyone has a broken car or a broken toilet at some point in their lives, and also, work hard, and you can be the owner of your own business, employe members of and contribute to the life of your community, and set a good example of character and leadership on a local level.”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

UPDATE: As of the afternoon, Harvard announced it would return all stimulus funds. Additionally – and this is critically important – HARVARD DID NOT APPLY FOR THESE FUNDS. They were automatically allocated for emergency relief for students impacted by COVID 19.

Aw, Harvard. I’m sorry. See? I told you I wasn’t Harvard Smart. But I am Mount Holyoke rigorous.

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