Sunday, February 10, 2008


After I reported that Harvard University was trying to get approval to sell 99 acres of forest land that it had been willed in 1927 on condition that it remain forest, Harvard reversed course and announced that it had abandoned plans to sell the land.

The decision will sit well with my readers, most of whom thought it out of bounds for the university to use assets given to it for any purpose other than the one originally intended.

"If Harvard agreed 81 years ago to accept the 99 acres by promising to keep it in use as an experimental forest, then it is committed to continue keeping it in that use," writes Lee Quarnstrom of La Habra, Calif.

"The interest of the donor is the primary interest to be upheld," writes William Halbert of Laguna Beach, Calif. "About the most unethical/immoral offense anyone can commit is to violate the trust of the departed."

"The purpose of the bequest must be respected, maintained and not changed," write Fred Peet of Brentwood Bay, Ontario. "Further, in my view, organizations are taking a risk in changing the purpose of bequests, since others who are contemplating giving a gift for a specific purpose will think twice about giving if they think that there is a chance that their wishes will not be followed."

Veronica Ross, of Garden Grove, Calif., seconds that notion.

"Why would anyone want to will land to anyone ever again after reading this?" Ross writes. "Disgusting!"

Merrilee Gardner of Irvine, Calif., is looking for common ground.

"Harvard should be able to break the trust to sell the land," Gardner writes. "However, I think that, in the spirit of the trust, the land should only be sold to an organization involved in experimental forestry or something similar, such as environmental studies of some kind."

Check out other opinions at "This Land is Your Land...To A Point," or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...

The ethics of this situation turn on what Harvard was actually granted. If the land grant was a fee simple grant, then Harvard is ethically open to change the use after a reasonable period.... a fee simple grants them total rights in the land. If they were granted a defeasible fee, then the land may revert to other users upon the different use.