There’s an important op-ed in the Globe 12/12/09 by Fred Abernathy and Harry Lewis titled, “Shrouded in secrecy, decision makers gambled and Harvard lost.” It’s a rare exception to the law of Omerta about Harvard financial policies. The nut graf is the first sentence: “If an ordinary corporation had the kind of fiscal year Harvard University just had, some of its directors would be gone.” Abernathy and Lewis proceed to summarize what we have been hearing for months, but in their capsule version, it’s even scarier-and more outrageous. Their recounting underlines how the public interest is not served when a large nonprofit fails to act prudently. In Harvard’s case it means withdrawing its commitment to Allston-Brighton; cutting jobs; reducing its positive economic impact on our economy; and seeding skepticism that colleges and universities are worth our private support.
But they also make a claim that seems to me incorrect. They write that “But the Harvard Corporation is legally answerable to no one.” I think this is not true. As a Massachusetts tax-exempt corporation the President and Fellows of Harvard College are regulated-as are all non-profits-by the Attorney General’s Division of Public Charities. In the case of the Harvard meltdown the attorney general on watch is Martha Coakley. Questions, anyone?
Non-profits, especially colleges and universities are huge in Massachusetts. But the resources the state devotes to ensuring honesty and transparency are vastly inadequate to the task. With an open slot for the position, we need to raise the issue of oversight of the state’s nonprofits-a huge part of our economy. Progressives tend to follow the meme: “nonprofits=good; for-profits= not so good.” But too many of our very large nonprofits operate at the extreme edge of their requirements to work for the public good. Time for some changes.