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It’s not just cowgirls who get the blues. Apparently, even the nation’s wealthiest campus faces its own first-world problems.

Recently, Harvard announced that it is considering issuing $1.65 billion in bonds to raise capital through debt financing.

This isn’t unusual. After all, Princeton recently issued a $600 million bond offering. But since the announcement comes amid political and economic challenges and “a dramatic decline in donations” in the wake of campus protests over the Gaza-Israel war, rumor and speculation run rampant.

The Harvard Crimson reports that “The potential ten-figure bond sale … would see Harvard’s debt reach $7.85 billion—higher than any point in recent history, including during the 2008 financial crisis.”

Other threats loom, including a proposal by two Massachusetts legislators to impose a 2.5 percent tax on Harvard’s endowment, which would generate $1.2 billion annually for the state.

Harvard, of course, doesn’t face the same financial challenges as the University of Arizona, Penn State or West Virginia Universities. But in its 2023 financial report, Harvard said that its expenses rose at a rate “double the increase in revenue,” which, it added, “is not sustainable.”

If Harvard with its $50 billion–plus endowment faces some economic headwinds, then higher education’s financial plight is even more significant than many of us thought.

Let me be clear: the whats, hows and whys of Harvard’s investment strategy are not publicly known, so whatever the media reports is likely wrong.

Harvard’s internal finances have always been a bit of a mystery. The campus appears to have tons of money. But much of the endowment is tied to particular programs, and, as at your institution and mine, it’s very difficult to sunset anything. The result is that hundreds of isolated programs are insufficiently funded or endowed and linger on for decades.

It’s also hard for Harvard to identify significant sources of revenue apart from investments and donations—both of which aren’t wholly reliable sources of income. As Bill Ackman, Harvard’s billionaire gadfly, notes, “The substantial majority of the Harvard endowment is invested in illiquid assets, principally private equity, real estate and venture capital.”

At the same time, according to one source, nearly half of its yearly income comes from philanthropic donations, which have fallen significantly since Hamas’s attack on Israel.

In other words, even the nation’s wealthiest universities face a harsh reality: every new presidential priority must come at the expense of something else, whether that’s campus maintenance or faculty and staff salaries or any other items requiring attention.

Almost certainly, Harvard won’t go back to its Great Recession mindset, when major projects were paused, programs were frozen or combined, and snacks at guest lectures were eliminated. But there is pressure not to expand and not to try to generate new resources but, instead, to do more with what already exists—just not in ways that pile up more work on staff and faculty.

I do wish that this was a time when institutions would open up and be honest about what’s working and what isn’t. Some degree of bureaucratic rationalization would make sense. But colleges and universities are unlikely to do this. They prefer to cling tightly to the mythology of being utterly unflappable.

Let me shift gears radically and turn to a very different topic: campus pluralism. I have yet to encounter anyone on campus who opposes the goal of diversity, equity and inclusion. Controversy centers on the details.

  • Whether DEI initiatives underplay forms of diversity based on religion, social class, geography and veteran status.
  • Whether DEI programs inadvertently suppress free speech, academic freedom and open debate by labeling certain viewpoints as offensive or unacceptable.
  • Whether the funds allocated to DEI could be better spent on financial aid and academic and nonacademic support services.
  • Whether mandatory DEI training sessions are effective.
  • Whether DEI programs represent an overreach of administrative power in areas, like hiring and curricula, which historically were the domain of the faculty.
  • Whether DEI initiatives enhance campus cultures or contribute to a climate of self-censorship.

I fall into the Bill Clintonesque “mend it, don’t end it” camp. What might a next generation diversity, equity and inclusion program—a DEI version 2.0 (the phrase is Susan Harmeling’s—look like?

A next-generation diversity, equity and inclusion program would adopt a more holistic approach that embraces the full spectrum of human identity, including often-overlooked dimensions such as religion, geography and veteran status, alongside race, gender, disability and sexuality. This evolved DEI framework would not only focus on acknowledging and celebrating diversity but also on fostering an inclusive culture that actively engages with pluralism, promotes global awareness, encourages open debate and equips individuals with the skills necessary for thriving in a diverse society.

It would:

  • Recognize and address the intricacies and individuality of people’s identities, understanding that people’s experiences of advantage and disadvantage intersect in multifaceted ways.
  • Broaden the scope of DEI initiatives to include a wider range of identities, ensuring programs are responsive to the needs and experiences of religious minorities, individuals from various geographic regions, veterans and others.
  • Foster inclusion and pluralism, including physical spaces welcoming to all, platforms for sharing diverse perspectives and forums for open debate.
  • Involve a diverse range of voices in decision-making processes to ensure policies reflect the needs and experiences of the entire community.
  • Do more to promote global awareness, support efforts to integrate global perspectives into the curriculum and encourage students to engage with ideas and traditions from around the world.
  • Offer training and workshops focused on developing interpersonal skills, such as empathy, active listening and constructive dialogue, that are essential for navigating a diverse society.
  • Provide resources and training in conflict resolution and mediation to equip individuals to address disagreements and tensions in ways that strengthen community bonds rather than erode them.
  • Create thematic and career-aligned communities and cohort programs that bring students together across intersectional lines.
  • Use data analytics to assess the effectiveness of DEI initiatives, identify gaps and tailor programs to meet the evolving needs of the community.
  • Encourage community engagement, outreach and service-learning projects that bring diverse groups together to work on common goals and understand the value of solidarity and mutual support.

In short, DEI 2.0 would embrace all forms of identity, focus on promoting pluralism and inclusion, recognize the intricacies of individuals’ identities, emphasize student success, and stress global awareness, open debate and the skills of living in a diverse society. Its goal is to prioritize a campus environment where differences are not just tolerated but celebrated as sources of strength and enrichment.

The promotion of pluralism should, I think, be an essential part of higher ed’s mission. Pluralism is a concept with diverse meanings. There is:

  • Political pluralism, a recognition that multiple interest groups and viewpoints coexist and compete within the political landscape of a society. The goal is to ensure that a diversity of opinions and interests is represented and debated, that no single group holds all the power and that various stakeholders can influence policymaking.
  • Cultural pluralism, which celebrates the existence of diverse cultural identities, emphasizes mutual respect and embraces the idea that every community is enriched by learning about these diverse cultural heritages.
  • Philosophical pluralism, which embraces the principle that there are multiple perspectives or truths on most issues and denies the existence of a single philosophical doctrine that can explain all aspects of life or reality. This form of pluralism encourages open-mindedness and dialogue, recognizing that understanding complex issues often requires integrating insights from various philosophical frameworks.
  • Religious pluralism, which refers to the acceptance and coexistence of multiple religions or faith traditions within a single community or society. It goes beyond mere tolerance, advocating for interfaith dialogue, mutual respect and the freedom to practice one’s religion without fear of persecution. It holds that spiritual truth and moral guidance can be found in multiple religious traditions and that no single religion holds a monopoly on truth or salvation.
  • Social pluralism, which focuses on the coexistence and equal standing of various social groups, including those defined by race, class, gender, sexuality, age and ability, among others. It emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing social inequalities and power imbalances to ensure that all members of society have the opportunity to participate fully and equally.

Perhaps the leading theorist of pluralism is Kwame Anthony Appiah, the British-Ghanaian philosopher. His writings emphasize the importance of recognizing and valuing human diversity while advocating for a shared sense of global citizenship and ethical responsibility across cultural and national divides.

He argues that societies are inherently composed of individuals with varied beliefs, values and practices and that acknowledging and respecting this diversity is crucial for social harmony and mutual understanding. For Appiah, pluralism is not merely tolerating differences but actively engaging with them in a way that enriches society and promotes dialogue among its members.

But Appiah also embraces the value of cosmopolitanism. He argues that individuals have ethical obligations to others that transcend our local affiliations and national identities. He suggests that, as global citizens, we should care about the well-being of people everywhere, not just those in our immediate communities or countries.

Appiah’s ideas about pluralism and cosmopolitanism, to be sure, have sparked considerable debate and critique. Some critics argue that Appiah’s vision of cosmopolitanism is overly idealistic, emphasizing global solidarity and ethical obligations across cultural and national borders in ways that may not be feasible in practice.

Other critics suggest that his approach underestimates the depth of global inequalities and the challenges of navigating entrenched national, cultural and economic interests. Still other critics maintain that his arguments fail to account for the depth of systemic inequalities and structural injustices, the significance of cultural differences and the potential for cultural imperialism. Then there is the criticism that he fails to offer concrete strategies for social change. Nevertheless, his ideas provide a valuable foundation for the kinds of discussions that campuses need to foster.

Which brings us back to the catchphrase with which this piece began. The saying “even cowgirls get the blues” comes from Tom Robbins’s irreverent, picaresque 1976 novel. A celebration of nonconformity and defiance of traditional gender roles, the novel is also about the quest for adventure, the pursuit of freedom, the degradation of the natural environment and the struggle to assert identities beyond society’s norms. It is, in addition, a meditation on the universality of hardship, suffering, disappointment, sadness and the blues.

No one and, yes, no institution is immune to life’s difficulties, even though some suffer much more than others. The great challenge is to persevere, learn and grow from those experiences.

Rather than evading the rifts that divide our campuses, let’s address those differences and disagreements head on. A phrase coined by the opinion columnist David French strikes me as right on target: let us strive to live together with profound differences.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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