Opinions, Column

Growing Wealth Comes at a Cost

Boston College is a rich school.

Our endowment now sits at $2.4 billion, up from $1 billion at the turn of the century and 13.4 percent over last year. We have the largest endowment of any Jesuit university and the 48th largest globally. One source even claims that we might “have the fastest growing endowment” of any university in the world.

Bloomberg recently revealed that BC is adopting “Wall Street-style pay packages” that include a $1.1 million package (with a $250,000+ bonus) for Chief Investment Officer John Zona. This is double his pay from 2014, when his salary was $535,708.

This decision to attract Wall Street talent by paying millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses is a worrying sign and indicates a radical shift in BC’s values alongside our burgeoning endowment. It isn’t about the exact numbers per se, but rather part of the larger trend of focusing on our endowment above all else. Our wealth is undeniably growing rapidly, but to what end?

While a larger endowment can provide better opportunities for students and faculty, it can also become an end in itself rather than a means to a better school. There is something sinister at play. BC has fallen away from its Jesuit values and is worshipping a different god: money.

A 2009 study found that the human brain thinks of money just like it thinks of drugs. Money can literally become an anesthetizing agent to replace love and companionship in the endless race to accumulate more and more. Just like any drug, money has disastrous consequences.

A 2011 study showed that rich people are demonstrably less ethical than poor people because they are, on average, less able to empathize with other humans. As a result, wealthy families give proportionally less to charity than poor families.

Want some concrete examples? Just ask BC’s own Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.

In its 500 page-long study on families, among which the average wealth was $78 million, it found that most wealthy families feel financially insecure despite being in the top 1 percent. On average, the families thought they needed 25 percent more money to feel secure. I’ll quote directly from the study because it’s just that good:

“One respondent, the heir to an enormous fortune, says that what matters most to him is his Christianity, and that his greatest aspiration is ‘to love the Lord, my family, and my friends.’ He also reports that he wouldn’t feel financially secure until he had $1 billion in the bank.”

You might not learn this by simply going to BC, though. Even though we pride ourselves on our Jesuit values, we very rarely talk about the perils of wealth, about its addictive and immoral qualities. This is partly because the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy closed in 2015 (which itself could be seen as a twisted symbol of our changing values). I also think we don’t learn about the perils of wealth because BC is suffering from them.

With its rapidly growing wealth, BC exhibits symptoms of money addiction. We are cutting costs, such as relying more on adjunct professors who only earned $24,000 a year in 2014.

We also can be stingier on financial aid. Because of the way BC calculates financial aid, one source considers it to be among the most expensive private universities to attend.

The University takes into account a family’s home equity, while the FAFSA does not. This means if a prospective student’s parents own a house, but don’t have jobs, BC will be much more expensive to attend than some other schools. Although BC meets 100 percent of student need, this need is determined based on BC’s calculation, and not the FAFSA, according to BC’s website.

And this wealth addiction spreads to the donors themselves. Mario Gabelli, who has donated to attach his name to Gabelli Hall as well as the Presidential Scholars Program, gave BC $10 million for campus beautification in the area surrounding Conte Forum.

It’s telling of BC’s culture that one of our biggest donors chose to give millions for a couple of trees outside the athletic facilities while BC nursing students still have to pay for their own transportation to clinicals and the arrival of a promised student center seems far off at best. What are we telling donors that BC needs? For what purpose are we courting their money? Is our growing wealth changing our priorities?

The transformation to full-on money addict is not complete. I still think BC has many great qualities and genuinely emphasizes community service and justice, something not often found at many American universities. Yet, I feel dark clouds beginning to form, and I think we should be more wary of the coming storm.

I’ll concede that our penchant for wealth is not unique. We are a part of the growing tide of universities nationwide who have supersized endowments that continue to grow each year, and in certain terms we are just following the lead of our peers. But BC likes to claim that our strong Jesuit values make us unique, so I’m holding BC to the standard to which it supposedly holds itself.

It took BC 136 years to cobble together a mere $1 billion in our endowment coffers. But then, it only took us 15 years to get the second billion.

How much longer ’til the the third? Or the 17th? At what point does more wealth automatically equal a better school? Does a larger endowment make our education more enriching? Does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave become twice as potent when our endowment is $4 billion? Is your BC experience 13.4 percent better than it was last year?

Above all else, we need to ask what BC’s end goal is. Are we planning on paying for every single student’s tuition once we have a large enough endowment? Or are we going to continue to seek prestige through wealth accumulation ad nauseam?

A large endowment has many undeniable benefits. I just can’t help but ask, though, whether something gets lost in the endless pursuit of wealth, if our values of social justice and truth get cast aside when our eyes are only filled with dollar signs, and if our increasing coffers cloud our collective judgment and make us blind to the suffering of the world.

Is BC acting like a money addict? Is our endowment a means to an end or a means in and of itself?

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

October 3, 2017