Meet the Harvard alumnus that wants to abolish tuition and is now running for Senate

Ron Unz
Republican Ron Unz, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, talks with reporters after facing four challengers in a U.S. Senate debate at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

Ron Unz doesn’t mince words when he talks about his issues with Harvard University.

First and foremost, the Harvard alumnus and former publisher of The American Conservative finds charging tuition at the Ivy League university absurd.

“It’s sort of like if Goldman Sachs bought a community college and declared itself tax-exempt,” Unz told Business Insider in an interview.

Unz’s professional aspirations have run the gamut from an unsuccessful campaign for governor of California in 1994 to an entrepreneurial turn that led him to found Wall Street Analytics, eventually acquired by Moody’s. That may make him seem an unlikely proponent of free college at Harvard. But he’s proposing just that.

Unz ran for the Board of Overseers in spring 2016 with four other alums — including former Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader — on a ticket to eliminate undergraduate tuition.

As the most outspoken of the bunch when describing his motivations for running, Unz unapologetically called attention to the fact that Harvard has a massive endowment yet enjoys a tax exemption as an educational institution.

Harvard’s endowment at the end of last year was $37.6 billion, the largest university endowment in the world.

For now, at least, Unz has put the aspiration to be a Harvard overseer on hold. Harvard alumni elected a new lot of members to the Harvard Board of Overseers on Monday — but none of them were part of “Free Harvard Fair Harvard.”

Naturally, Unz feels disappointed but also sees the impact of his campaign.

“I do think we succeeded in focusing a great deal of attention on the hugely disproportionate size of the investment income of the top universities,” he said.

Unz’s decision to run for the board and try to change Harvard’s tuition policy developed slowly over a decade, he said. Unz graduated from Harvard in 1983 with a double major in physics and ancient history. Year after year following his graduation, Harvard fund-raisers would visit him in Palo Alto, California, asking whether he wanted to donate money to the university.

The library at Harvard's Adams House
The library at Harvard’s Adams House. Flickr/Paul Lowry

He engaged in friendly discussion with the fund-raisers but always made the point that given Harvard’s enormous endowment, he didn’t think donating to the university made any sense — just like people wouldn’t donate to a wealthy company.

“I use Google all the time, and I think Google’s a great company and has great technology, but if Google asked me for a donation, I’d say Google has more money than I do,” Unz told Business Insider.

Then, at the end of lat year, he decided to run for the board on a platform of abolishing tuition at Harvard, a move he thinks would make the school more attractive to students from low-income families and ultimately, increase diversity. In addition to racial diversity, he said he’s targeting other, less talked about measures, like geographic and socioeconomic diversity.

Unz also aimed to bring more transparency to admissions at Harvard, claiming wealthy families can ” buy their children a place at Harvard.”

He calls it “the Harvard price” and explain that families with the right connections can give the university “a few million dollars” and gain a spot for their child at the prestigious school.

It’s an allegation echoed in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Daniel Golden’s book, “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.”

Golden writes that admissions decisions at elite universities don’t come down to merit but instead, are a marketplace in which wealthy families can buy admission for the right price.


Critics of Unz feel differently about his goals and argue they fail to recognise the already substantial contribution Harvard makes toward tuition.

Harvard provides generous financial aid and has awarded more than $1.4 billion to undergraduates in the past decade, Jeff Neal, a Harvard representative, told The New York Times.

Harvard also notes online that approximately 70% of our students receive some form of aid, and about 60% receive need-based scholarships and pay an average of $12,000 per year.”

The opposition also feels the university doesn’t have the ability to use endowment money the same way it uses funds from tuition. The endowment isn’t like “one big bank account” that can be drawn from for any purpose, Robert Reischauer, an economist and former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, argued in a letter to the Times.

But Unz claims the financial-aid office still misses a huge population of mostly low-income people who have no idea they’re eligible for free or discounted tuition. These people, who aren’t plugged into to the message that Harvard is need-blind, miss out on the opportunity, Unz argues, and they never even apply.

“Abolishing tuition at Harvard is a very shocking idea when people first hear about it,” Unz said. “But tuition is such a negligible part of Harvard’s income that they could very easily abolish it.”

For the 2015-2016 school year, Harvard reports 6,700 students and a tuition price of $57,200. If all students pay full tuition, that equates to about $383 million in income for the school year — not so hefty a a sum when you consider the school’s endowment as well, on which investment income earned Harvard $1.2 billion in 2015.

For now, Unz is focusing on running as a Republican for a Senate seat in California. Notably, he’s bringing attention to education issues in California as well, like removing bilingual education in classrooms and cutting tuition costs at colleges. But he said that he will continue to press the issue of free tuition at Harvard.

“Down the road, I’ll certainly be revisiting the issue …. It’s surely more than a pure coincidence that just a few weeks after our campaign was covered on the front page of the NYT, several influential senators began pressing Harvard and the other wealthiest universities,” Unz said.

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