When the donor becomes the decider

Rui Shi

While the era of “big government” spending on higher education is over, the era of big philanthropy has just begun. According to a recent study conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s top 50 donors gave a total of $10.4 billion to higher education in 2011, up from $3.3 billion in 2010. Nineteen of these charitable individuals gave more than $1.5 billion to universities. These numbers no doubt come as a relief during times of perpetual budget cuts. However, a suspicious trend is emerging.

In the past, large philanthropic foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Foundation have made large contributions for the advancement of research on college campuses. These foundations invested in research that solves problems related to their fields. They had a broad, long-term vision and stressed the independence of the research programs. In other words, foundations funded research in order to expand human knowledge.

The past two decades have seen this attitude morph into something different. Foundations have become increasingly like venture capitalists. They have turned to a strategic decision making process — with respect to grants — with an emphasis on the effectiveness of the end results. Recipients of grant money must deliver tangible results in the short term rather than field-changing breakthroughs over the long term.

While this strategic model can be justified in a business or corporation, it does not work well in higher education because universities do not operate like businesses. The goal of higher education is to expand human knowledge. A university’s role is not to turn a profit from the commercialization of research. The role of research is to solve real-world problems that require extensive technical expertise. Granted, while many commercial products are direct results of research breakthroughs, it should not be researchers’ main focus.

Another problem with the strategic model is that short term goals can cause tunnel vision. Because researchers focus on what can be measured quickly, they might not take into account the importance of long term results, thereby avoiding risky but groundbreaking projects.

Despite the shortcomings, the strategic model of higher education investing is not without merits. Many foundations devote themselves to the financing of organizations and projects concerned with higher education reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in particular, focuses on goals such as increasing graduation rates and increasing minority and low-income students’ access to higher education by contributing to programs that have been proven to be effective.

The shift toward the strategic model has also produced another interesting development: overt advocacy of favored policies.

For example, Charles G. Koch pledged $1.5 million to Florida State University to be used for hiring in the economics department. In exchange, however, he will have the power to sign off on hires. This buying of influence is a particularly disturbing trend as it conflicts with the missions of universities nationwide. The diversity of ideas is a major achievement and must not be sold at any price.

The importance of continued investment in higher education cannot be understated. But at what point do dollar signs outweigh the integrity of higher education? A conversation must be started on whether or not education policy should be in the hands of the big philanthropists.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.