Central to a robust academic environment, but what seems anathema to general counsel and overbearing university officials worried about public image, is unfettered student expression. Glossy alumni and other campus publications, produced by university “development” (read: fundraising) offices, are now the norm. Needless to say, they rarely report anything negative about the school. Even student-run campus newspapers and magazines that used to maintain some modicum of independence are mostly history. For all the questions raised as to the academic freedom on Persian Gulf branch campuses, the corporate mentality has, albeit in a different manner, threatened student speech at home.
The Heights, the independent student newspaper at Boston College, experienced the wrath of administrative censorship after publishing a “disappointing” opinion column in a 2006 Guide for Freshman Orientation. The column bemoaned the “[l]ong speeches, small group chats, and weird, random roommates” but concluded that students shouldn’t “fret if your OL [Orientation Leader] is a bit overbearing and you’re wondering what the hell you’re doing up here in Boston; I promise life at Boston College gets much, much better.” The school’s director of First Year Experience responded not by taking steps to improve orientation, but by trashing the approximately 3000 printed copies. After tempers settled, the director offered to reimburse The Heights, but refused the staff’s request to redistribute the Guide — deep pockets, but thin skin.
The wealthy nonprofits
Other forms of message control aren’t so readily apparent, but — for that exact reason — are possibly more pernicious. Harvard Law School has long had an independent, student-edited newspaper, the Harvard Law Record, which could be counted on to report some of the shenanigans at that august institution. But a few years ago, the Office of Communication began to publish its own glossy in-house rag, the Harvard Law School Bulletin, and persuaded the “independent” alumni association to mail the Bulletin, not the Record, to its members as a benefit of paying dues. Now, fewer alumni read the independent newspaper — instead they are served such hard-hitting Bulletin investigative pieces as WHY HARVARD LAW SCHOOL NEEDS YOUR MONEY.
If that’s the case, they are surely stretching the bounds of “need.” Harvard’s endowment is by far the nation’s largest, increasing to nearly $37 billion in the past fiscal year, according to a university financial report. This past year’s $2 billion increase alone dwarfs all but a handful of universities’ entire endowments. Unlike similarly wealthy corporate giants, though, Harvard’s nonprofit status immunizes its massive endowment from taxation.
And when Massachusetts lawmakers proposed taxing Harvard and other state universities with endowments over $1 billion, the powerful higher-education lobby descended on the State House. “Most lawmakers predicted the measure would quickly wilt against the universities’ political muscle,” wrote Schworm and Matt Viser in the May 8 Boston Globe. Representative Paul Kujawski, a Democrat from Webster, asked the million-dollar question: “When is a nonprofit not a nonprofit because of the wealth they are acquiring?” But by mid August, questions ceased and the predictions had come true. The measure, which would have reportedly produced more than $1 billion in state revenue, had been effectively snuffed out by the lobbying efforts of well-endowed institutions such as MIT, BU, and BC.