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Worldwide, happiness equates very strongly with equality — mostly status equality, but the countries that have a very short ladder between the richest and the poorest people are a lot happier than those where a few people make a lot of money and a few people don’t make much money. In Denmark, a CEO only makes about three times as much as an average worker, whereas here in the U.S., you can have a CEO making many thousands of times as much as an average worker.

The author of a new book about the happiest places in the world helps us put the resurgent insider trading scandal in the United States in context.

The reason UD goes after universities like Brown and Harvard and Chicago, whose boards of trustees include increasing numbers of the morally shady hyper-rich (boards of trustees have always included small-time crooked cronies — we’re not talking about that), is that of all cultural locations, universities are supposed to be serious places, engaged in serious thought about how to live. Trustees run universities; they set all sorts of crucial policies; they sign off on all sorts of crucial decisions. Symbolically, these people embody and articulate the foundational values of their academic institutions. They’re trustees, after all, people to whom students and faculty entrust the ethical and intellectual, as well as financial, welfare of the institution.

Remember the law professor at the University of Chicago who got into all sorts of trouble and enraged thousands of people because, with a household income of around $450,000, he complained about his deep unhappiness in the current economy, under a President who might increase taxes on some of that money?

If that guy had been located anywhere outside of a university, no one would have batted an eyelash at his sense of entitlement, his refusal to take even a hint of a civic attitude toward his wealth and good fortune. In every place in this country except universities (okay; maybe churches), people positively applaud amoral acquisitiveness. Greed is good, yadda yadda

So it’s always something of a shock to realize that a university like Harvard until recently paid each of its top investment people 35 million dollars a year, and that it hoarded unto itself a 35 billion dollar endowment.

I mean! No one’s asking for universities to be shabby thready head in the clouds sorts of places; but really

Blinded by the billion dollar blizzards swirling around hedge fund managers, universities have been piling their boards higher and deeper with these people. Of course the universities know they’re taking a risk by elevating possibly insider-trading hedgies to positions of immense trust. Will the hedgies have time to give the school a one hundred million dollar gift before they have to go to prison? How much damage to the reputation of the school will its high-profile association with financial criminals generate?

Well, we’re about to find out.

Meanwhile, universities might take a deep breath, shake themselves off, and ask whether putting their presidents on the boards of places like Goldman Sachs, investing in firms like Steve Rattner’s, and handing the fortunes of the institution over to money-obsessed cheats is, in the long run, a wise policy.

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4 Responses to “Piled Higher and Deeper”

  1. dave.s. Says:

    I kind of liked the line that Harvard was a large hedge fund with a smaller eleemosynary educational operation attached.

  2. Robert Says:

    Back in the early ’70s, when I was a fairly new faculty member at Brown, I happened to fall in one day with a very elderly trustee as we were both walking across campus. (In those days faculty and trustees had more contact than they do now.) I asked him what he thought about some impending legal matter in which the University was entangled, and he replied that in his own view the state and federal governments had no authority over the university at all, inasmuch as its charter had been granted under the authority of the King of England before the United States had come into existence.

    To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.

  3. Bill Gleason Says:

    Ah, eleemosynary, a truly great word. Like verbigeration.

    If it were a wine we could describe it as having hints of William F. Buckley, traces of W. C. Fields, and a Harvard aftertaste.

    Thanks.

  4. University Diaries » “Rutgers pays Barchi $744,000 a year if he hits his bonus marks, along with a house, a car and other perks. Surely he can squeak by on that.” Says:

    […] A few years ago, several of Harvard’s money managers resigned in protest because instead of making the industry standard for their job description (with bonuses and all, around thirty million a year at that time), they were stuck (because of alumni protests about over-compensation) at around ten, fifteen million. A few years ago, a University of Chicago law professor with a household income of close to half a million dollars cried poor in the national press. […]

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