Politics is about how we govern ourselves and move our societies forward. In this process, we rely on philanthropy a lot, especially when it comes to the best kind of politics, the kind we remember as shared foundational moments with our fellow citizens.
Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. These days such shared moments dwindle as we reinterpret and reconsider with whom we share common bonds of affection. This tension also infuses education, where our future is being forged. What role will philanthropy play?
“Low” politics uses access to education to secure status and perpetuate advantage. This is what we see at its extreme in the Varsity Blues scandal. It is easy to condemn this kind of politics, which pursues private advantage at the expense of others. But we still need to understand it and manage it.
It is precisely because people will always pursue their personal interest and form factions with others to do so that our founders sought to create a system that would channel such motives, thereby safeguarding liberty and advancing the common good.
But people will also act to benefit others, wherein we see the philanthropic impulse. This plays into the high politics of public purpose. We hear the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaim that “everyone has a right to education.” Though the founders of the United States did not mention education in the Constitution, they generally expressed the view that the republic would not survive without it.
In fact, much philanthropic activity in early America busied itself with standing up schools and colleges to serve community members and the emerging nation. Wealthy individuals like Benjamin Franklin founded early libraries and universities, a tradition that continued with Carnegie’s libraries, Rosenwald’s schools and the Gates’ educational efforts today.
Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania as an alternative to existing colleges that trained the scions of the privileged. “His university” would prepare students from all stations of society to be the civic leaders the new democracy needed.
Because the low politics of private interest compete mightily with the high politics of public purpose, many have focused on addressing inequity as a guiding principle, but it is not easy. Parents are willing to vote for reforms as long as they do not affect their children’s position of privilege.
Even before we get to the sordid business of bribing coaches and test-takers, we need to ask how much we should favor our children above the children of others? And what kind of a democracy will we have if education is used as a means of preserving distinctions and conferring different degrees of opportunity rather than binding us together in a common project of educating all our offspring?
Today, education is our country’s largest philanthropic sector after religion: our research for Giving USA indicates that education across all levels received $58.9 billion in 2017. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE)’s annual survey found that some $43.6 billion went to higher education during the 2017 fiscal year. And research shows that in all regions of the world, education ranks first among recipients of million dollar gifts.
We see education as a way to address social problems, as a means to rebalance the scales of equity gone out of whack, and to promote the kind of progress that comes when more of us know more useful things about the world and each other. We even used to think that education was going to make war preventable as public opinion became more learned, and thus able to discern the folly of armed conflict.
We are now less idealistic about the simple promise of more education and better appreciate all the different kinds of work that happens in and through education, ranging from the family to schools, colleges, workplaces, and beyond. And reforms in education are not easy, as shown by the example of the celebrated goal of getting more children into primary schools around the world that did not lead to commensurate outcomes in learning.
We have built complex educational systems where the low and high politics are so entangled that it becomes difficult to know what will happen when you pull on one of its strings. Consequently, it is not surprising that philanthropists, small and large, try to expand the pie rather than disentangle the complexity so we can do a better job at educating our citizens.
When Michael Bloomberg announced his $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins for student aid, making the institution of just over 6,000 undergraduates affordable to all who qualify for admission, some wondered what kind of access would have been made possible if such resources went to our community and public colleges where most Americans receive their higher education. In fact, the Philanthropy Roundtable is convening community college leaders and philanthropists to explore just this question.
But this kind of convening is much too rare. On the asking side of educational philanthropy, in the higher education subsector (which attracts the majority of educational philanthropy), the top ranked and best endowed universities account for most of the funds raised. Fundraising professionals share their practices to improve the work of all colleges through associations like CASE.
Yet no matter how much collegial sharing occurs, such as through the vital annual Voluntary Support of Education study, higher education fundraising remains highly competitive and territorial. The logic that big ideas across disciplines attract large “transformational” gifts rarely leaps over campus walls. The Broad Institute is one philanthropically funded example, but it is an outlier. Federal funding agencies seem to have more success in compelling cooperation.
Our wonderful institutions of higher education, whose very missions are devoted to the highest public purpose, end up engaging in a kind of low politics, not only in competing for gifts, but also in attracting students and faculty.
I recently had a fascinating conversation with Bill Moses at the Kresge Foundation, who reflected on the foundation’s program that provided generous funding for universities across the country to engage in capital campaigns that built buildings and engaged trustees and alumni in multi-year drives to raise funds according to a well-established method. After practicing it for much of the 20th century, the foundation has since turned away from this model, but it has left its mark on how our universities approach philanthropy.
In Indianapolis, we are fortunate to have two leading national foundations devoted to higher education, both working with laser-like focus and spurring innovations like impact investing to tackle two key priorities. Lumina Foundation is pushing to expand access to higher education for more Americans, and Strada Education Network is working to make sure that students graduate and enter careers that reflect the purpose of their education.
The range of partners they engage and the range of analyses they consult is vast. Still, informed opinion as seen in Kevin Carey’s recent article, “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education,” reflects a broader concern that the low politics of education is overwhelming the high. Carey argues that because online program management was outsourced to for-profit operators, and because colleges kept their share of revenues instead of passing the savings onto students, online education has failed to make college more affordable.
Though he vastly underestimates the costs a typical, legitimate college faces in delivering quality online education, his depiction of the low politics of some online program providers will add to the public’s skepticism about the management of our higher education institutions.
Philanthropy has played a role in American higher education from its founding, through which it has helped shape our nation through both low and high politics. We need to better understand philanthropy’s role in the past and present to better inform those who want to give to the cause so that our future citizens will have a common public language and the skills needed to advance our republic.
There is a rich area of scholarship that could be better connected to those who make decisions about education through philanthropy. And we have some good recent examples to build on. Noah Drezner of Columbia University, who recently spoke at our Diverse Speaker Series, edits Philanthropy and Education, a journal that “examines prosocial voluntary actions benefiting education,” and is intended to engage practitioners.
Grantmakers for Education benchmarks trends across foundation giving, highlighting for example, the current shared emphasis on tackling equity issues. But just as more practitioners should consult the knowledge producers, those who research and educate in this field have an obligation to guide their work by listening to those whose giving seeks to untangle the web of educational inequities that plague our polity.
The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and other institutions committed to creating and sharing knowledge have an obligation to provide more ongoing connections to bridge research and practice. We can do this by recognizing the low politics that impede our work as we work toward the high politics we will need, informed by rigorous knowledge, good will, and hard work. As Benjamin Franklin said:
Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean