The Very Rich Hours

Peter Wood

Year-end is decisive: Midnight on Saturday was the deadline for 2011 tax deductible donations to colleges and universities as well as to all the other eligible non-profits, worthy and otherwise, that depend on charitable giving. This week, while students are still mostly on winter break, development offices will be tallying the online gifts, cashing the checks, and drafting thank you letters. 

I am no disinterested observer. In early December, I wrote to our “house list,” the people who have contributed in the last few years to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), asking them to give again. And I received similar letters from the dozen or so organizations to which I’ve contributed. Without these appeals, few of us among the nonprofits concerned with educational reform would survive. 

The large majority of contributors give modest donations—typically less than $100.   These donors are the backbone of any organization. Their charity adds up and it comes with other benefits. They pay close attention to what we do and often offer specific suggestions. My job includes following up and more than once this has led to a big story. And as often as I ask for support, I get some hand-written notes from people expressing keen interest in the work at hand and wishing they could afford to do more. Philanthropy for many means genuine sacrifice.  There is something prayerful about these small but rich gifts.  I think of  the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berrya 15th-century illuminated manuscript which took nearly 100 years and the combined efforts of dozens of artists to complete. 

I worked as an academic administrator for several decades at a large university which, of course, had a large and aggressive professional development operation. Later I worked for two years as provost at a small college that had its own hard-driving approach to fund raising. The former seemed like a soulless operation, focused on awakening sentiment among alumni who had no great abundance of fond memories to draw on. The process of winning financial support in this situation was rather like the technologies now being used to extract natural gas locked tight in the shale formations beneath Pennsylvania and New York, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), in which a mixture of sand and water is blasted in under high pressure, forcing tightly bound checkbooks to open.  I must have known five or six vice presidents of development, who provide a gallery of types: the hard-bitten cynic, the cool systematizer, the gimlet-eyed operator, the grizzled optimist, and the glad-handed sophisticate. Though I thought I had seen them all, I was wrong. When I went to the small college, I found perhaps even more colorful characters in charge of imaginary ways to make money appear. In one instance, a high-ranked staffer came to me with a question that had confounded him, “When someone mentions the ‘great books,’ which books do they mean?” 

The development office also paid a pricey consultant, who figured the college could attract support by doubling as a policy-oriented think tank. They suggested, by way of example, that I direct the faculty to spend a semester or so writing op-eds on “the amorality of the gas tax.” I could never get a coherent explanation from the consultant as to what this mysterious phrase was supposed to mean.

Most university development officers do more or less grasp the idea that faculty members are intellectually independent and cannot be ordered to produce research on spec in light of funding opportunities. Even so, development offices these days often play a significant part in steering research. They spot major grant opportunities usually in science, medicine, and engineering, and bring them to the attention of likely faculty members. They also often have a hand in picking the patents that universities attempt to develop into products or marketable intellectual property. 

Sometimes they do this with genuine insight and expertise. But I cannot escape a certain unease about development offices helping to shape the substance of higher education. 

Unease, but not fixed opposition. Last May the story broke about a 2008 agreement between the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and Florida State University,  in which the Foundation pledged $1.5-million to support faculty hiring  in the economics department in a new program on “political economy and free enterprise.” The arrangement allows the foundation to review candidates for appointment in the program, and this in turn has given rise to complaints that the deal compromises academic integrity. Critics such as Stanley Fish raised the alarm that a "line may have been crossed," in that the gift could well have pushed beyond opening up a discussion to an effort to “amplify a conclusion.” Charles Koch is interested in having students encounter a robust presentation of the value of free markets and the dangers of over-regulation. It could be that some Florida State University students are destined for an encounter with a version of “the amorality of the gas tax.” 

So I share Fish’s apprehension at the prospect of a wealthy donor renting a small piece of the curriculum.  But “the line” that Fish says may have been crossed is a very hard one to discern among the zigzags and curlicues of contemporary higher education funding. What is the vast majority of funding in areas such as “climate change” and “sustainability” other than an effort to “amplify a conclusion”? Universities are thick with research funding as well as faculty lines that have more ideological predestination in them than the Westminster Confession. It is hard to see that Charles Koch transgressed against a distinction that is upheld when it comes to “conclusions” that are in greater favor with the general run of faculty opinion. 

That doesn’t make my apprehension vanish. I’d rather universities compete for funding by setting out their programs forthrightly and having the donors who are attracted by those programs step forward with offers of support. That, I suppose, isn’t entirely realistic. For one thing, wealthy donors are increasingly suspicious that their support will be channeled into purposes they didn’t know about at the time they gave and don’t approve of after the fact. Universities are increasingly resorting to “donor advised funds” to reassure benefactors that their largesse won’t be artfully redirected. 

Fundraising for the National Association of Scholars is a smaller-scale undertaking. We have a handful of donor-funded projects and a small number of donors who contribute $10,000 or more per year. These are, by college or university standards, small stakes, but the essential issues are the same. Most of what the NAS does depends on annual contributions, and we are constantly in search of the people who see enough value in our work to support it financially. I haven’t yet faced the situation of someone wanting to give us a grant for a project that the NAS itself didn’t propose. 

The Chicago Tribune reported last week on a study (funded by the Russell Sage Foundation) led by Fay Lomax Cook, director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, on how the “1 percent” in the Chicago area think about “philanthropy and the public good.” In a season in which the very wealthy have been subject to a lot of abusive rhetoric about their greed and heedless attitudes towards the less well off, the research findings are especially striking. Cook surveyed “a random sample of 104 people from Chicago area households with a median wealth of $7.5-million,” and found that their top three concerns for the country are: “budget deficits (87 percent), unemployment (84 percent) and education (79 percent).” Ninety-two percent of the households in this cohort engaged in volunteer work and on average they gave four percent of their annual income to charity. 

Heedless they are not. The picture of wealth which many academics seem to hold—a picture of people living in baronial splendor and detached from serious thought about the cultural and economic condition of the country is, on the testimony of this survey, profoundly mistaken. Cook’s picture corresponds pretty closely to what I’ve seen too. There is plenty of grasping and cynicism in the world of riches, but it is far more likely to be found among the would-be benefactors than among those who have the means to give large gifts. 

Those large benefactors turn out to be a lot like the people who give more modest gifts: moved by ideals of the common good. 

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