Occupy Harvard is Poorly Conceived

By Alex Pak, HBS Class of 2013

As much as I am a fan of both social movements and camping, what is occurring on our campus under the guise of Occupy Harvard disturbs me.

My perception of Occupy Harvard is that it is less of a social movement than a proxy war being waged by unions for leverage in labor negotiations. (The fancy tents erected in Harvard Yard were supplied by the Service Employees International Union.) I find it immoral to recklessly spend the social capital of young students for personal gain. The compensation of Harvard custodial workers (who receive competitive wages and benefits) is used so that Occupy Harvard can quote sensationalist figures such as the 180:1 ratio in compensation between the highest and lowest paid employees at Harvard. Focusing on these types of statistics only encourages non-productive dialog around the outliers (the top and bottom 1%) rather than meaningful discussion on how to create jobs and economic growth in the U.S.

Another concern that Occupy Harvard raises beyond compensation is centered on the companies that the Harvard endowment is invested in through the Harvard Management Company. I find it ridiculous to expect this institution to be held accountable for every one of the thousands of companies that their fund is invested in. As a diversified investor who owns index funds, am I personally accountable for the behavior of all the companies in the S&P 500? Effectively, the Occupy Harvard movement is requiring Harvard to invest only in socially responsible (by their determination) companies with potentially lower returns and higher risk, increase the pay for their faculty, and maintain the benefits that come from a growing and healthy endowment (generous scholarships, etc.) These demands seem to be in direct conflict with one another. Of course Harvard should take steps to limit investment in unethical companies if it is under their direct control when brought to their attention, but given the size and scale of Harvard’s endowments, I suspect that regardless how they choose to invest, they will always manage to offend someone. Like most social movements born of frustration, Occupy Harvard has many complaints yet offers little in the form of solutions.

So let’s get to the rallying cry of Occupy Harvard that they want “a university for the 99%.” (Cue eyes rolling across the country.) The vast majority of Harvard students are part of the 99% and are here in part due to the generous need-based scholarships that Harvard provides to even the playing field. As the son of blue-collar immigrant parents, I find it a bit sad that my attempts to better myself through education here at Harvard are summarily dismissed as the product of a self-perpetuating system of elitism. Criticizing students who are part of the 99% because they may become the 1% some day is ridiculous. Most of my classmates aspire to make a positive impact on society, and we need your encouragement, support, and guidance, not your judgment.

I empathize with the frustrations of many who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and I freely acknowledge that capitalism in its current form does not adequately address many issues of social justice. I see value in dialog that helps us understand the tenuous balance between business as an engine for societal progress, our role as stewards of the environment, and our duty to preserve the dignity of the human person. Issues of corporate greed, accountability, and business ethics are important ones that absolutely should be discussed, debated, and shared. However, Occupy Harvard genuinely offers none of this and the reality is that at best it is an unproductive use of time and at worst it’s a distraction from the real issues that we need to address.