Hopefully everyone made it through the holiday season in one piece. After all, holidays (along with funerals, weddings, and alcohol) bring out the worst in families and friends … probably a primary reason why 16% of all murders are committed within families with another 64% thanks to friends/acquaintances. (Be thoughtful with that guest list!) On the other hand, it was the season for giving—both what people wanted and what other people wanted to give them—so this seems an apropos moment to look at philanthropy in higher education.
See Robert Morin, most likely a harmless drudge: a graduate of New Hampshire in ‘63, then a +50 years librarian there, never married, drove an old car, and had a love of Fritos along with microwave TV dinners. Upon his death in 2015 he left his entire estate—almost $4M—to UNH. With the exception of $100K specifically for the library, the rest of the money—despite protestations from his financial advisor—went to the school as unrestricted funds to be used as it best saw fit.
The Dimond Library got its money. Roughly $2.5M went to upgrade the school’s career center. And the rest? A $1M scoreboard for the recently renovated football stadium. The school defended this by saying in the last year or so of his life he’d listen to football games on the radio from his assisted-living facility. And despite protestations here and there, this could well have been a key investment as per Erica Mantz, Director, UNH Media Relations:
“A facility like Wildcat Stadium is transformative to our campus experience in helping UNH to recruit the best and brightest students …”
Maybe. Maybe not. An informal poll at the ITN home office revealed nobody remembers much, if anything, about their college football stadium’s scoreboard, and as a result, it didn’t contribute to the decision to matriculate anywhere in particular or provoke any transformative experiences.
The Banker & The Telescope
On the other hand, we have William Johnson McDonald: Civil War veteran, childless bachelor, lawyer, banker, and amateur astronomer in Paris, Texas. Despite never having gone to the University of Texas, upon his death at the age of 81 in 1926 he left $1M to UT for the express purpose of building an observatory. Not only had he not informed the school of his plans beforehand—nor some distant relatives who subsequently contested his will without much net positive effect for them—the school had no astronomy department.
The result? After wrangling some land in far West Texas in the Davis Mountains, UT partnered with the University of Chicago, which did have astronomers, to build McDonald Observatory. Established in 1933, its first telescope, at the time the second largest in the world, was dedicated in 1939. Still a leading observatory, its four research telescopes are currently investigating areas such as dark matter, theoretical astronomy, and stellar spectroscopy in conjunction with a variety of other research equipment.
Sure, perhaps an unencumbered gift from Johnson would have had a significant impact on UT, which at the time was a dusty, lowly regarded state land grant university. Perhaps it might have even gotten a state-of-the-art 1926 football stadium scoreboard. But it wouldn’t have led to the research and advances thanks to McDonald Observatory.
Weak Link vs. Strong Link Philanthropy
This brings us to another question: Who are the “best” recipients for higher education philanthropy? The first major gift in US history was engineer and entrepreneur Henry “Hank” Rowan’s $100M donation in 1992 to Glassboro State University, a pokey (and broke) school in southern New Jersey. As detailed on this Malcom Gladwell podcast, while Rowan had gone to MIT—and greatly valued the education he’d gotten there—and his alma mater was engaged in a capital campaign to raise $700M, his “little hundred million” wouldn’t have had the impact there as it did at Glassboro State, which was quickly renamed Rowan University. There have been almost a hundred donations in excess of $100M since Rowan’s gift; however, the vast majority of them have gone to prestigious schools with, relatively speaking, well-funded, existing endowments.
Gladwell goes on to discuss two competing theories of higher education philanthropy: weak link (giving to the neediest schools to pull them up) vs. strong link (schools which already have massive endowments). This leads to a spirited exchange in the podcast between Gladwell and John Hennessy, then-president of Stanford University, who cannot admit that there is ever enough money to be received from donors or that he would ever suggest money be given to another school more deserving than his own. After all, Hennessy’s legacy upon retiring was the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which has an endowment in excess of $700M to fund 100 graduate students in an effort to produce future global leaders. What’s the hap at Rowan University? Hundreds of engineering students are admitted each year as Hank Rowan believed in training people who could actually make things.
We all want to make a difference. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves. We all want a legacy.