Private Universities: tax dodgers who do the same work as the corporate media?

At Columbia University yesterday for a family event, I had a couple of thoughts.

One, the fact that the endowments of private universities are not taxed means that the rest of society is subsidizing elite institutions.

Two, there is no constituency for changing anything pertaining to the maintenance of a status quo and a huge and powerful constituency for maintaining the potentially illogical tax-free status of these institutions. Thus, no political force is willing to touch this issue or even considers: even Ilhan Omar’s daughter was there yesterday at Columbia and Bernie Sanders went to the University of Chicago. Rather than revoking the tax-free status, you could also make this status conditional. Nothing is now on that table and any political force that put some kind of change on the table would get hammered immediately.

Three, morally, institutions that benefit from this tax status have an obligation to do something that benefits the world as a whole, as they are not paying taxes. Research is a benefit, although state institutions, which are also elitist, can do that just as well. Building fancy buildings for the people in the institution or handing out vast salaries to administrators is not benefiting the society as a whole and while politically and legally hard to stop, it is morally wrong. The university should pay taxes when they take millions from hedge fund managers to fund think tanks that help make a social order beneficial to hedge fund managers, or when they upgrade facilities to appeal to the children of the wildly rich to assure more donations in the future, etc.

Four, not a single word was uttered yesterday at the convocation about the hourly staff people that make the food, clean the floors, make sure the lights stay on, keep the servers up and running, provide life-saving security to the staff and students, etc. It’s as if the people that we clearly saw and interacted with did not exist. True, clocking in and getting paid is not necessarily heroic, but getting a PhD and teaching is not necessarily heroic either, or administering a university, and there was plenty of praise for that part of the “community” or “family.” At a minimum, some kind of respect and acknowledgment of this work is required: treating people as nothing more than a line in the budget (electric bill, labor bill, sewer bill…) is offensive when they are right there standing next to you. Hard to “change the world” when you don’t have anything to eat or if someone is stabbing you to take your wallet, right?

Five, in the United States very little we do seems to work well- infrastructure, politics, etc. Our universities, including elite private ones, are working well, even if one of their main jobs is to re-create the class structure from generation to generation. They are also critical for R&D, and doing something that might jeopardize one of the few institutional areas in which the United States is performing well is risky.

Six, while the hourly staff that was standing right there at the convocation was not mentioned or alluded to in any way, the people who actually put the chairs out that we were sitting in, Amazon, various investment firms, and Google all got shout outs. If, as the president says, “truth” is the mission of the institution, it’s likely that this mission is impossible, as, speaking of climate change as the school did, research is only a piece of the puzzle and there is unlikely to be research on, say, the harmful effects of private jets given where the tax-free endowment is coming from. There was no doubt that at least one guy on the podium bought his way up there and the rest are not going to rock that boat.

In conclusion, I’m glad my son has the chance to be part of this institution and I believe aspects of universities, including elite private ones, are vital to everything that is important in life, and that some kinds of winnowing process and elitism are not intrinsically bad, I would absolutely vote to revoke the tax-free status of that and like institutions, unless they become more immediately and directly responsible to the community at large and distance themselves from the oligarchy that also controls the government, media, finance, and military. The same elites dominate every institution in the country without exception.

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