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MAY 9, 2022
Kuttner on TAP
Cheap Grace
Anti-slavery meets the modern sale of naming rights at Harvard.
With a great deal of fanfare and self-congratulation, Harvard issued a report last month acknowledging its complicity in slavery and setting up a $100 million research fund to dig deeper and make amends. The report reveals that “Enslaved men and women served at least 70 Harvard presidents and professors and fed and cared for Harvard students,” in the period from 1636 to 1783. This only ceased when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slavery was illegal.

“I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society,” Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said in a letter to the school community and the public. The university pledged to spend $100 million toward a “Legacy of Slavery Fund.”

The fund will support further research, and develop partnerships with other nonprofits, notably with historically Black colleges and universities, to address “enduring inequities” that affect descendants of slaves who served Harvard. It does not propose financial reparations.

The response to this mea culpa was appropriately underwhelming. Harvard, with a $53 billion endowment, could easily provide a tuition-free education to any descendant of slavery and increase its Black enrollment from its present 7 percent of undergraduates.

Harvard’s use of slaves ended more than 200 years ago. Here’s something that happened just last year, when Harvard opened a whole new campus across the Charles River in Allston, to house its science and engineering complex.

The complex is named the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It cost Harvard about a billion dollars to build. Wall Street billionaire Paulson got his name on the school by purchasing naming rights for $400 million.

This would be the same John Paulson who made an estimated $4 billion—most of his fortune—by using credit default swaps to bet against the subprime housing market. When that market crashed, a disproportionate share of the victims were African Americans who lost their homes. The SEC fined Goldman Sachs a record $550 million for Goldman’s part in facilitating the scam, which cost investors billions.

As a modern assault on Black wealth, the subprime collapse was a 21st-century sequel to slavery. But it’s a lot easier for Harvard to shame slaveholders who are long dead, while it besmirches its new campus every day, with Paulson’s name.

Maybe, 200 years from now, some Harvard president will discover with shock and dismay that the university’s science and engineering complex is named for a speculator who made his billions at the expense of African American wealth, and issue an apology. If anything, Paulson’s name belongs, in scarlet letters (not Crimson ones) at the Business School.

Or maybe Harvard could send Paulson a check and buy back its good name now. The W.E.B. Du Bois School has a nice ring.

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