Why Harvard Invited President Sirleaf As Keynote Speaker?

By J. Yanqui Zaza

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 11, 2011

Few weeks ago a Commencement Speaking invitation to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sparked controversies across Liberian Web Sites. Comments came from both critics and supporters of the President. Some critics wondered why an Ivy League University would invite the head of a country that was reported to be the most corrupt country in the world in 2011. Transparency International, a reputable institution, had reported in 2011 that Liberia was the most corrupt country. Other critics asked why Harvard University wants to reward a leader who has failed to replace corrupt officials, but did not hesitate to remove the most effective corruption fighter, John Morlu II of the General Audit Commission? On the other hand, Sirleaf supporters saw the invitation as an opportunity for the President to sell her success story to a receptive audience.

Sitting in the audience with a relative and a friend, who had travelled along with me to witness the graduation of my son, we were shocked to hear stories about Liberia: President Sirleaf has brought light and water to Liberia; She is defeating corruption, she is lifting Liberians from poverty to prosperity, she is reducing the high rate of unemployment, etc. These stories, far from the realities in Liberia, were uttered by both President Sirleaf and her host, including the first female President of Harvard University and the Master of Ceremony.

Astonishingly, neither did anyone of the speakers mention about how friends of the President were disproportionately benefiting from the enormous good will of the international community, while majority of the Liberian citizens was living on less than U.S. $1 a day. Also, none of the speakers ever mentioned how experts from Wall Street continue to strategize on how to sell Liberia’s resources on the cheap to investors such as Bridgestone, Liberian Firestone’s parent; how investors including Liberian Firestone and Arcelor Mitall Steel continue to pay $3 per day to their laborers; or how investors should continue to dump chemical debris onto Liberia’s farmlands and rivers, etc.

Formalizing or institutionalizing the idea of dumping chemical waste onto the territories of poor countries was recommended by Lawrence Summers, former President of Harvard University and also former adviser to former President William J. Clinton and current President Barack Obama. On December 12, 1991, Lawrence Summers, who served as chief economist at the World Bank, wrote an internal memo that stated the World Bank should “be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs,” referring to less developed countries (Vallette 1999).

So yes, President Sirleaf’s critics fear came through because the introductory comments and speeches were not far from comments that would have been made by partisans at the ruling Party (Unity Party) Convention. More so, President Sirleaf and her host gave inaccurate stories to an important audience such as heads of charitable institutions, and alumni. Like it or not, alumni of Ivy league colleges have significant influence in the world including poor countries like Liberia, said David Leonhardt of the NY Times. For example, the last four presidents of the United States each attended a highly selected college. All nine US Supreme Court Justices did too as did the chief executives of General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil and Google, said Mr. Leonhardt. Moreover, Alumni of Ivy League universities are employed within strategic corporate organizations, including rating agencies that determine the productivity of country, and interest rate a country pays on an external loan. They also devalue a country's currency, forcing governmental agencies as well as companies to pay more for goods and services.

Two questions came to my mind after listening to the speeches. Was the authority of Harvard University unaware of the true economic hardship in Liberia, which will not improve as long as there is a high rate of unemployment, rampant corruption, and the selling Liberia’s resources on the cheap? Or even if the first female president of Africa were to give the correct picture of the economic conditions in Liberia, would the Harvard alumni help to institute programs, which would reduce the profits of the superrich? In rephrasing the latter question, would graduates or alumni institute programs to reduce their profits or profits of their parents since majority of the top colleges remained affluent, as stated by Mr. Leonhardt?

I guess the late President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy would have answered positively. It was because of such thinking that he, at a commencement speech, asked, “What good is a private college unless it is serving a great national purpose?” Assumingly, President John F. Kennedy’s question to a private institution (profit-making institution) presupposes that Ivy League colleges, even though they are profit-making entities, do not seek super-profits. Additionally, they might institute programs that would make their alumni as arbiters between business and citizens, rather than employees who generate profits for their employers. Indeed, had President Kennedy researched the role played by Ivy League universities in the slave trade, maybe he wouldn't have asked the question. According to Andrew B. Schlesinger' 70, a historian who has written about Harvard University, Harvard did benefit from the slave trade. Brown University, another Ivy League, did not only receive donations from slave traders and slave owners, but its founder, Rev. James Manning did also own slaves.

Equally true, critics of President Sirleaf who did not want Harvard University to invite the President are under the illusion that Harvard University is not a profit-making entity. In fact, the records of Harvard do suggest otherwise. For instance, besides the excessive college tuition it charges students, Harvard has invested its cash in portfolios for higher profits. In the past two decades, the Harvard endowment has averaged annual returns in the 15% to 20% range - (John Hancock Mutual Fund). Harvard generated its profits from corporations around the world. The $26 billion dollar endowment is not only invested in portfolio of domestic corporations, but Harvard did invest $5 billion (22% of its portfolio) in equities (stocks) of foreign corporation, which might include companies such as Bridgestone, Liberian Firestone's parent.

In addition to their corporate profits in the form of dividends, interest income or capita gains received from Liberian Firestone through its parent, Bridgestone, Ivy League universities benefit from the huge bonuses corporations pay to Ivy League's alumni because such lucrative salaries attract more new students. Further, prominent academic economists (and sometimes also professors of law and public policy) are paid by companies and interest groups to testify before Congress, to serve on boards of directors, to defend companies in antitrust cases, and, of course, to lobby. This is now, literally, a billion-dollar industry and has created conflicts of interest because these professors support group for financial services and other industries against government policy. (The Chronicle Review).

One of those policies of Ivy League professors is the tax break for multinational corporations. A Report issued on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 by Citizens for Tax Justice stated that 12 Fortune 500 companies had a negative tax effect of 1.5% even though these companies made profits of $171 billion from 2008-10. Yet, professors at Ivy League universities are arguing that tax laws are hurting corporations.

Again, don't investors use the lower tax policy arguments and deregulation arguments and pay minimal taxes to Liberia? In case you are not aware, the coded phrase for lower tax policy and minimal regulations is "favorable business environment." The World Bank's policy asks every country to create favorable business environment. In the case of Liberia, the World Bank appropriated $2 million dollar to be used in helping to create favorable business environment. So folks, President Sirleaf was invited by an institution that has trained her to implement anti-people's policy such as downsizing, rightsizing, lowering taxes for corporations, and allowing corporations to give kickbacks for sweet heart deals, etc.

If you still believe that Ivy League colleges do seek the interest of humanity (i.e., as implied by John F. Kennedy) or are adverse to corporate exploitation (i.e., as indicated by critics of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), try to find out why Ivy Leagues professors and economists did not encourage the discussions of the merits and demerits of many of warnings about the 2008 financial mess in the world. As the Chronicle Review reported, many of the Ivy Leagues professors were making huge salaries, and apparently, did not have the time to do anything about the 2008 financial crisis.