Academic Philanthropy – A Lasting Gift
We overlook at our peril the freedom and independence of academic institutions to engage in philanthropy. It affects their ability to attract the talent we need to generate new knowledge and to pass on the wisdom we will need to thrive and survive.
Philanthropy in higher education is fundamental to our civic life and the ecosystem of invention and education that holds so much promise for the future. It is broader and deeper than the giving of money, and it extends to most institutions that have yet to receive a million dollar gift.
The year closes in the wake of a troubled election and a fraught aftermath that promises to endure. Presidential transitions normally bring a heightened sense of optimism or foreboding depending on one’s partisan loyalty. In the current peculiar case, we find the very foundations of our civic life exposed, leaving one exhilarated or terrified, depending again on how one’s vote was cast.
Karl Zinsmeister’s new publication for the Philanthropy Roundtable, What Comes Next?: How Private Givers Can Rescue America in an Era of Political Frustration, illustrates how voluntary action has generated positive public outcomes, ranging from abolition to schools for the disenfranchised, even in times of political paralysis and polarization. In a similar vein, we should recognize and nurture the vital role of philanthropy at the core of the academic enterprise.
The academy is not only a recipient of philanthropic dollars, which it generally employs quite well as demonstrated by the fact that it continues to attract philanthropic and other investments. Less well understood and researched is the academy’s own philanthropic orientation, a communal attitude toward producing knowledge and nurturing scholars and students that requires independence and a peer-driven culture.
The academy should be open to the idea that there are things it could do better, while helping policy makers and the public understand that the beneficial outcomes the academy generates result at least in part from the distinct approach and culture of the academy and its inherent philanthropic spirit.
Giving USA 2016, which we researched and wrote for Giving USA Foundation, reports that education is the second largest recipient of philanthropic dollars in the United States, after religion. And globally, according to our research with Coutts for the International Million Dollar Donors Report, most $1 million-plus gifts go to higher education, and the number continues to grow.
One reason typically offered for why higher education ranks so high is the capacity of well-resourced universities to absorb and make use of these large gifts. They tend to have the ability to engage in research, training and outreach across a broad spectrum of issues that interest donors.
But I also think there is a kind of reciprocity at hand. It’s as if donors recognize the voluntary contributions scholars and researchers make to discovery and to educating students. When done well, the value of their commitments far surpass the material compensation faculty receive as employees.
These themes are explored in the 2015 book, Faculty Work and the Public Good: Philanthropy, Engagement, and Academic Professionalism, edited by Genevieve Shaker, assistant professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
And in addition to faculty, it’s hard not to see in students who seize the full possibilities of higher education—building character and crafting an independent sense of purpose in society—a voluntary embrace of discovery as part of who they are becoming.
It seems a much more thorough investment of the self than the purchase of a training program that imparts discrete skills in demand at the moment. Philanthropy, whether from donors, faculty, or students, is an integral part of the academy.
I think we are seeing more of this implicit philanthropic culture coming to the surface. For example, the Do Good Institute at the University of Maryland is a movement engaging students across the university. Directed by our alumnus Robert Grimm, the initiative is channeling the kind of ferment on our campuses that seeks, in the University of Maryland’s terms, to enable every student “to transform idealism into impact.”
And importantly, this is part and parcel of the educational experience regardless of intellectual or career ambitions. It is not only a “nice thing to do” from a contemporary sense of noblesse oblige for those who are privileged enough to attend highly selective institutions of higher learning. It is what every emerging citizen needs to understand and participate in.
So as we engage in our peaceful and democratic change of regime in Washington, we should express our appreciation for the academy that has attracted, nurtured, and developed exceptional talent across a range of human circumstances. And we should pause to appreciate the power of the philanthropic impulse at its core.
Moreover, we should beware of doing harm to ourselves based on an incomplete understanding of the academy and all that it gives us, and all those who give to make it possible.
A zealous Athenian citizenry, vigilant to protect an order they understood only incompletely, condemned Socrates to death for not worshiping the established deities and for introducing new deities and new ideas to the emerging generation.
The jurors who condemned Socrates were convinced that his challenges to authority were diminishing their order and their own dignity. To the contrary, we now consider Socrates’ sacrifice as one of the great gifts of philosophy articulating the transcendent possibilities of inquiry to build knowledge.
We must continue to steward this lasting gift.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean