The Wilson Quarterly

Last February, when Jerry Yang, CEO and ­co­founder of Yahoo, donated $75 million to Stanford University, where he is a trustee, it did little to satisfy Stanford’s hunger for money. The university is in the midst of a $4.3 billion fundraising cam­paign, launched last year after it was ranked the top ­dollar-­getter for the academic year 2005–06, having amassed a whopping $911 million. Harvard took in $595 million that year, and Yale $433 million. The total endowments of the three institutions at the top are truly ­eye-­popping: Harvard’s stood at $29 billion as of June 2006, Yale’s at $18 billion, and ­hard-­driving Stanford’s at $14 billion. Yet the dollars just keep coming. Why do philanthropists continue to donate so generously to the institutions that need the money ­least?

There is a natural tendency to give to one’s alma mater, allows Steve O. Michael, vice provost of Kent State University. But “when your alma mater is already fabulously wealthy, it is advisable, indeed wise . . . to adopt other institutions that can yield better returns,” just as investors redirect their cash to ­better-­performing stocks. Michael insists that “donations to ­mega-­rich universities do not directly improve the academic experience of their professors and students, or result in any qualitative improvement in student learning.” Philanthropic dollars could go a long way toward off­setting the burden higher education places on middle- and ­lower-­class families, especially “when states’ appropriations to higher edu­cation are declining relative to the cost of tuition.” The money would help sustain the diversity, repre­sented by more than 4,000 colleges and universities, that is one of American higher education’s great ­strengths.

Yet according to the Council for Aid to Education, $1.2 billion of last year’s $2.4 billion increase in private donations went to the top 10 fund­raisers. The process is ­self-­rein­forcing, as donations allow the richest institutions to beef up fund­raising staffs and encourage them to judge university presi­dents “less by the academic success of their institutions and more by the size of donations generated under their watch.”

In Michael’s opinion, donors “should think of where their dollars will make the most difference,” places where even small donations would mean that “classrooms can be up­graded, libraries renovated and expanded, and the burden of cost on students alleviated.” At such places, unlike at Ivy League schools or other top fundraising universities, donor dollars have the “potential to trans­form the institution,” and fundraising campaigns are “for genuine academic excellence, not merely the growth of the endow­ment or the ego of the president.”

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The Source: "Why Give to a College That Already Has Enough?" by Steve O. Michael, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2007.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Christopher Wells

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