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Big Money, Big Gifts, and Institutional Values

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Over the weekend I found among my late father's books a 1956 paperback by William Richards titled The Last Billionaire: Henry Ford. I guess in the postwar prosperity that coupled reasonable tax rates with rapid economic growth in pretty much every sector, it must have looked as though bizarre income disparities and wealth gaps were things of the past. Oh, well. The folks at Forbes must be so relieved at how things have turned out.

So, speaking of vast wealth, the last couple of weeks have been pretty good for at least a couple of fundraisers.

Stanford has wrapped up a six billion dollar capital campaign just as Harvard proclaims its own, for six-and-a-half. And on September 30 the president of Yale announced a single $250 million dollar gift from an alum, a sum that Yale plans to use toward the building of a couple of new residential colleges, thus expanding undergraduate enrollment by about 15%, a big increase but probably not one that will make a dent in Yale's already rarefied admission numbers. A quarter of a billion dollars is a serious gift, and I imagine there was some dancing in the offices of Yale's senior administration.

Then last week I heard from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania that it had received a $107 million gift from an alum, an amount that edges out of the all-time Number Two spot a hundred-million-dollar gift made by Walter Annenberg to his alma mater, the Peddie School, twenty years ago. Arguably inflation makes the Annenberg gift larger in practice, but at that level I don't think there's much point in quibbling over such things.

Private education in this country, college or K-12, often gets a bad rap as being elitist and all about money. No child of wealth on TV or in the movies can avoid going to a school where everyone wears insignia'd blazers and where the boys are named Chad and the girls Muffy. There they flounce about amid ridiculous luxury and privilege, one-upping one another in snobbery and acquisitiveness. High-profile gifts of nine digits don't exactly help dispel the image, as inaccurate as it is for so many private colleges--the majority of whom have to hustle hard for students and donations--and independent schools.

An October 7 op-ed by student Scott Stern in the Yale Daily News raises another, larger issue: What is the influence of Big Money on education, even at a place like Yale, where even a giant gift represents only a relative drop in a $20.8 billion endowment bucket? Put more edgily, don't big gifts tend to come with agendas and expectations, even if the expectations are carefully masked by words of openness and pure intention?

We've got a whole lot of billionaires in this country, and more than a few of them throw their money at various charitable causes at levels that I would be churlish to characterize as anything other than extra generous, although I'm guessing most could double their giving levels and still live fairly comfortably. Some of them make no bones about having an agenda behind their giving; Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, have an idea about education and are committed to funding that idea.

Skepticism along the lines expressed by Yale's Stern is nothing new, and it is part of a proud tradition in educational funding discussions that goes back at least to the days of the "divest in South Africa" controversies on college campuses in the 80s and protests against the military-industrial complex and even the Free Speech Movement on some campuses in the 1960s. We are aware in our society that money talks, and we're equally aware (well, all of us but the Supremes in the majority on Citizens United) that the trumpetings of money can stifle the voices of those who don't have it. There's also a modern practice of looking at the source of long-ago wealth on which contemporary institutions are based--such as the slaveholders and robber barons whose money formed the kernel of more than a few currently fat college endowments.

I don't know whether there's a secret agenda behind the Yale or Mercersburg gifts, or whether the moneys given were earned in ways that would pass everyone's righteousness test. Being generally pleased at the idea that these gifts are headed toward educational institutions I respect, I have to check myself. I was pretty thrilled at the formation of the Gates Foundation, too, but I am less pleased by some of its direction today, and what Diane Ravitch calls the "Billionaire Boys' Club" is surely not pushing public education toward places I'm entirely pleased with. I have my own agenda, of course, and maybe it's fortunate that I don't have billions with which to fund it. Big money and the spending thereof seem to make people weird.

A giant gift, in my humble opinion, should spur reflection on the part of the recipient, a time to take stock of the institutional values that such a gift should be, above all things, meant to sustain or promote. It's a time for institutions, even ones as vast and varied as Yale, to hold just a bit more tightly to their missions and fundamental values--the ones that are about people and society, maybe even ones that are a mite on the spiritual side, at least enough to remind us that unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. This is an old sentiment, but not, I think, an obsolete one, and I like to believe that it still means something to those at Yale and Mercersburg and dozens of other places on whom the philanthropic deities have been smiling of late.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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