Monuments Of Its Own Magnificence

Contra Yglesias, I try to be pretty conscientious about charitable giving. Perennial favorites include: Baith Israel Anshei Emes (my synagogue), The International Rescue Committee (the world’s premier organization devoted to assisting refugees from man-made and natural disasters), Technoserve (the worst-named charity in the world, devoted to helping third-world entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground and connect to the global market), The Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada (North America’s premier classical repertory company), The Nature Conservancy (the world’s largest private parks network and a global leader in traditional conservation efforts), and Democracy Prep Charter School (a charter school in Harlem focused on civic education whose board of trustees I chair).

My alma mater, Yale University, is not on the list – partly because they have more money than they know what to do with, partly because I’m still annoyed about the whole Lee Bass-Western Civ fracas from the 1990s, but also because, quite simply, Yale is neither an important part of my identity (which is, I think, an even more important reason why alumni give than the desire to improve the odds of their offspring attaining admission), nor pursuing a mission that I find especially compelling.

What saddens me the most about enormous bequests to organizations like Harvard or Yale is the poverty of the imagination of the givers. The elite university strikes me as precisely the kind of institution that is ripe for radical reinvention. People like Meg Whitman made their fortunes founding or leading companies that radically transformed sectors of the economy, and reaped enormous rewards for doing so. Why on earth wouldn’t they want to tackle philanthropic missions with the same seriousness? Why would they want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fancy residences for students, when they could put not only their name but the stamp of their personalities on an institution in a way that really shapes the future?

In part, I’m harping on some of the same themes I sounded in my two posts about zoos. Where’s the passion in this gift? If Whitman gave Princeton all this dough just as a very expensive valentine to her beloved alma mater, well, there’s not much more to say: that’s a heck of a rock Princeton can wear on its finger, and most girls wouldn’t turn one down if offered. I just wish our plutocrats had better taste and judgement.

And, as well, more of a sense of mission. What, if it comes to that, is Princeton’s (or Yale’s) mission? I said above that I don’t give to Yale in part because I don’t find it pursuing a compelling mission – but does it have a mission at all? Whitman’s gift is an attempt to help Princeton win (or at least stay competitive) in an arms race for the allegiance of the next generation of the cognitive elite, an arms race being fought (in this instance) with bennies. How does such a race further the mission of Princeton, or any top-tier institution of higher education. What are these places for?

I’m not saying that there are only two choices here, Meg Whitman or Lucien Lucius Nunn. But couldn’t we have a bit more Nunn and a bit less Whitman?