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Trump says he wants Harvard to pay back $8.6 million in stimulus funds

Harvard Hall in Harvard Yard.
Harvard Hall in Harvard Yard.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe/File 2020

President Trump took on Harvard University during a White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday afternoon, saying he would personally ask the school to return $8.6 million it is receiving from the federal government as part of an emergency stimulus package.

The president appeared to be referring to money allocated to helping small businesses. But Harvard says it has been allocated only money set aside for institutions of higher education. It is one of thousands of universities nationwide and across New England tapping into the federal money — some of which are getting greater sums.

Boston University, for example, is due to receive $15 million, and Northeastern University $11.6 million, from the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, according to a list of recipients.

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Harvard is in line for more aid than other Ivy League schools in New England. Dartmouth College has been allocated $3.4 million, Brown University will receive $4.8 million, and Yale University $6.8 million, according to the data.

The allocations were made through a funding formula based largely on the number of low-income students at each college receiving federal financial aid through Pell Grants and on the overall institutional student enrollment.

But Trump mentioned only Harvard when he answered a question directed at Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

“Harvard’s going to pay back the money,” Trump told reporters in the White House briefing room, after an ABC News reporter asked Mnuchin if he would request money back from large corporations that received assistance intended for small businesses.

The president made the statement after he interjected while Mnuchin was speaking of the federal relief program for small businesses.

Mnuchin noted that more than 1 million companies with fewer than 10 employees had received money, but that some “big businesses," had also taken loans. Shake Shack, a restaurant chain known for its burgers and milkshakes, has pledged to return $10 million it received, Mnuchin said.

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Mnuchin said the government would release a list of frequently asked questions about the small-business loans and said, “the intent of this money was not for big, public companies that have access to capital.”

The president then interjected, “And not for Harvard, you might say.”

Then, as an ABC News reporter asked Mnuchin if he would request money back from large corporations that received assistance intended for small businesses, Trump again jumped in, saying he himself would make the request.

“ They shouldn’t be taking it,” Trump said of Harvard, adding later, "They have one of the largest endowments anywhere in the country, maybe in the world, I guess. And they’re going to pay back that money.”

Later in the briefing, a Fox News reporter asked the president how confident he was that he could “claw the money back.”

“I’m going to have to look,” Trump responded. “I don’t like that Harvard — that has a $40 billion endowment, some incredible amount of money — that Harvard gets this money? Harvard should pay that money back. I want Harvard to pay that money back, OK? And if they won’t do that, then we won’t do something else.

“They have to pay it back,” he continued. “I don’t like it. This is meant for workers. This is not meant for one of the richest institutions, far beyond schools, in the world. They have to pay it back. I want them to pay it back.”

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Harvard responded by saying it had not sought or received any money through the US Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the initiative Mnuchin was discussing through which some major corporations have received funds.

“President Trump is right that it would not have been appropriate for our institution to receive funds that were designated for struggling small businesses,” Harvard said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Instead, according to the university, Harvard has been allocated $8.6 million from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund Half of that money is supposed to go directly to students; Harvard is instead putting 100 percent of the funding into financial assistance for students, the university said.

“Harvard will allocate the funds based on student financial need,” the university said. “This financial assistance will be on top of the significant support the University has already provided to students — including assistance with travel, providing direct aid for living expenses to those with need, and supporting students’ transition to online education.”

Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.