In the wake of the Office of the General Counsel's long-awaited report on Harvard's ties to Jeffrey E. Epstein, student groups across the University penned a letter to Harvard administrators calling for more transparency about new gift policies.
Harvard released a six-page "gift policy guide" in late May after the Epstein report recommended the University "develop clearer procedures establishing the review mechanisms for potentially controversial gifts” and “disseminate those criteria widely.” The guide was then published in the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, via a one-word link halfway through an article on philanthropy, and posted on the Harvard Alumni website.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Brian K. Lee also shared the gift policy guide with deans, chiefs of staff, central administrators, and members of the Gift Policy Committee, according to University Spokesperson Christopher A. Hennessy.
Disappointed with the contents and dissemination of the guide, student groups sent a letter to Garber, Lee, and other top administrators on July 13 to address their concerns.
“We condemn the state of Harvard’s donation management,” the letter reads. “There is a stunning lack of transparency, accountability, and inclusion in Harvard’s gift policies, and the university’s recently released gift policy guide raises a number of questions and concerns.”
The letter called for mechanisms to “hold administrators accountable, vet potential donors, regularly re-vet current donors, and take meaningful action based on voices from the community,” as the guide did not outline how Harvard affiliates can report controversial gifts.
Student groups Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers Feminist Caucus, Act on a Dream, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, Harvard Student Labor Action Movement, Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, the Harvard Kennedy School Equity Coalition, and Our Harvard Can Do Better signed the letter.
Marisa J. Borreggine, a graduate student in Earth Sciences and a representative of the Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers Feminist Caucus, said the roll-out felt “under the table.”
In fact, were it not for an article in The Crimson, she said she would not have known the new policies were released at all — the opposite of the “wide dissemination” recommended in the report.
Rebecca M. Mer, a fellow at the Kennedy School who helped write the letter, said she thought the content of the Gift Policy Guide fell short of the report’s recommendations as well.
“We do not believe that this equates to clear procedures establishing review mechanisms,” Mer said. “This doesn't meet that bar.”
The signatories also called for immediate dissemination of gift policies and student representation on the Gift Policy Committee.
“Harvard students, the university’s future donors, must be given direct voting power on the GPC,” the letter said.
Julia M. Huesa ’20, an organizer with Our Harvard Can Do Better, said the motivation to sign onto the letter was in part to critique the “administration’s broader culture of opacity.”
William H. Sutton ’23, who also serves as an organizer with Our Harvard Can Do Better, agreed with Huesa, stressing the importance of student voices in decision-making spaces.
“We don't need to know every single thing that happens but we need to have some student voices because otherwise it's just going to be serving the interests of a select few and not the student body,” he said.
Garber and Lee responded to the letter on August 7, thanking the groups for their expressed concerns but reiterated the need for the committee’s members to remain confidential. Garber is the only named member of the committee, which he chairs, while its remaining membership is drawn from unnamed faculty members and senior administrators.
“The Gift Policy Committee must maintain a high level of confidentiality and discretion in order to ensure the integrity of its process,” they wrote. “This committee brings diverse expertise and a breadth of experience to its deliberations, and as a group, it takes seriously the responsibility to continuously review Harvard’s engagement with donors and to consider whether gifts are in the best interest of the university in the long term.”
Mike Yepes, another fellow at the Kennedy School who helped write the letter, said he felt “a lot of indifference” from administrators. Even after the response, Yepes said he didn’t understand the need for confidentiality.
“How am I, as the person impacted at the community level by the policy, supposed to put blind trust into a group who I don't know who they are, I don't know what their backgrounds are that justify their presence, and I don't know what agendas they might have?” he said. “There's a lot of potential and opportunity for abuse of power with no way to surveil about the abuse of power.”
Garber and Lee also encouraged the signatories to “submit a report about ‘Improper Giving or Receiving of Gifts’ through the Anonymous Reporting Hotline” should they or other Harvard affiliates have concerns about a particular gift’s surrounding morality.
But, in a response to Garber and Lee, Yepes and Mer expressed concern about the hotline, which they said few students know about, and questioned who would follow up on the complaints.
Mer said that despite months of organization, it felt like “just the beginning” of the conversation they wanted to have with the administration.
Hennessy wrote that Garber and Lee will respond to the students to set up a meeting at a later date.
—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.