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April 22, 2020; Politico

In what looks to be a bit of an impromptu setup by a tag team of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, yesterday, the country was treated to an imaginary outrage to distract us from the real thing. Fox News and the conservative media fell in line, reporting that Harvard had applied for and received stimulus money meant for ailing institutions when they had an embarrassment of riches parked in their endowments. That would surely have been an outrage if it were true. In fact, reports Politico, the story went more like this:

Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesperson, said earlier Wednesday that the university hadn’t received nor applied for any funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and was still weighing its decision.

“We continue to review the additional guidance from the Department of Education related to the Fund and will make a determination as to whether we will seek to access the allocation that was made to Harvard by statute,” Swain said in a previous statement.

Later in the day, the university declared it would not seek the funds, referring in a statement to “intense focus by politicians and others on Harvard” and “the evolving guidance being issued around use of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.”

“We will inform the Department of Education of our decision and encourage the department to act swiftly to reallocate resources previously allocated to Harvard,” Swain said. “While we understand any reallocation of these resources is a matter for the Department of Education, we hope that special consideration will be given to Massachusetts institutions that are struggling to serve their communities and meet the needs of their students through these difficult and challenging times.”

As most NPQ readers know, we are no fans of Harvard University’s values set. We regularly dun them for not paying their fair share to the City of Boston through PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) programs, and even in today’s newswire lineup, we call them out on their investments in fossil fuel industries. But the recent flap around the stimulus money allotted to them through the CARES legislation seems like a media play that should have been stanched by the journalists who reported it. It stinks to high heaven.

It is true, as we reported in yesterday’s newswire, that schools of all sizes are receiving stimulus funds. The majority of that money is going to schools with greater proportions of low-income students, since half is going to support students who are suffering financially from their interrupted studies. As reported in Politico:

Most of the nearly $14 billion in higher education funding under the CARES Act is allocated to colleges and universities based on a formula in the law. Colleges are entitled to a share of the funding based on the number of students they enroll, heavily weighted toward low-income Pell Grant recipients.

Top recipients of the stimulus cash include public institutions like Arizona State University ($63.5 million); Penn State ($55 million); Rutgers ($54 million); University of Central Florida ($51 million) and Miami Dade College ($49 million).

Colleges are required to use at least half of their share of the stimulus funding to award emergency cash grants directly to their students to help cover expenses like food, housing and child care. The rest can go to the institutions, with some restrictions, such as not paying for salaries or bonuses of senior administrators or executives.

For the president, however, this was a moment to act as a defender of the working people against the elite. He’s spent some time and energy dragging Harvard for applying for the money, even though they were invited to do so. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, also not generally a champion of the unmoneyed, chimed in quite righteously.

“Schools with large endowments should not apply for funds so more can be given to students who need support the most,” DeVos said Wednesday. “It’s also important for Congress to change the law to make sure no more taxpayer funds go to elite, wealthy institutions.”

As a result, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, which represent the largest endowments in education, have all eschewed the money. MIT and Duke and Rice Universities are still in contemplation mode, while Notre Dame has said it will use its allotment “exclusively for direct financial aid to students whose families have been struck by unemployment or otherwise upended by the pandemic.”

While they were on the subject of education, the administration also took the time to bar undocumented students from any of the emergency cash assistance.

In the end, even fellow Republicans find the move outrageous.

A senior Senate Republican aide who worked on the stimulus legislation said the backlash to the higher education funding was misguided. “It’s ironic that it’s being stoked by two billionaires,” the aide said, referring to Trump and DeVos. “These funds are going to schools to help needy kids and poor kids.”

—Ruth McCambridge