Two rueful thoughts before I begin:
- One of my college graduating class’s big reunions is next year. Harvard always does an amazing job of throwing a party (having a bank account larger than the treasuries of some countries let you do that , I have many friends and room mates I yearn to see again, and I haven’t been back home to Boston in 17 years. But I’ll be damned if I’ll honor Harvard with my presence. It has been an ethics disgrace consistently for several years, and I am ashamed of my association with the institution, as well as my family’s association (my father and sister graduated from the college, and my mother worked there for over 20 years, culminating in her becoming an assistant dean.)
- I could really enlighten NPR’s listeners about the difference between law and ethics in this case, if I hadn’t been blackballed for daring to explain how accusations of sexual harassment against public figures like Donald Trump were not necessarily fair even if they were sincere. Oh, well—NPR can bite me.
With that introduction, be it known that in the case of Barkhordar et al v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University won a dismissal today of a lawsuit by students over its decision not to partially refund tuition when it evicted students from dorms and moved classes online early in the Wuhan virus pandemic. U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani held that the three students leading the proposed class action failed to show that Harvard had contractually promised them in-person instruction and access to on-campus facilities during the spring 2020 semester. She then offered the rationalization that “spring 2020 was not a normal time.” This, readers here will immediately recognize, is Rationalization #28, The Revolutionary’s Excuse or “These are not ordinary times” on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List.
The lawsuit was brought by law student Abraham Barkhordar and two master’s degree candidates, Ella Wechsler-Matthaei in education and Sarah Zelasky in public health, on behalf of students in Harvard’s 12 degree-granting schools. Many colleges and universities with ridiculously high tuition have been sued by students over the refusal to grant tuition refunds. Tuition for Harvard full-time students in the 2021-2022 academic year is $67,720 at the law school, $64,998 for a master of public health, and $51,904 for a college degree. Basic common sense and logic dictates that nobody should pay such a sums for remote instruction over, yecchh, Zoom, without being able to enhance one’s education with the other aspects of the college experience Harvard crows about—the associations and contacts with “the best of the best,” extensive and well-funded extra-curricular activities, one-on-one in person discussions with renowned professors, access to the second largest library system in the nation, and more.
The ruling is probably right on the law, but so what? Harvard, the richest university in the world with money to burn, could have and should have established an exemplary ethical standard by refunding a significant part of the tuition money to all students because those students did not get what they paid for and had a right to expect, regardless of what Harvard was contractually bound to deliver. That’s what ethics is, in great part: doing the right thing even when you don’t have to.
Harvard choosing ethics over narrowly interpreted contractual obligations would have also put pressure on other elite institutions to do the same. Why would we expect this university to suddenly care about being fair and ethical, however, after the evidence of recent years?