Higher Education Philanthropy Priorities

Hollis-Hall-Harvard-Yard

April’s big higher education philanthropy news left me grumpy. I mean, yes, it’s nice that financier Ken Griffin has pledged a gift of $300 million to Harvard University. In exchange Harvard will rename its Graduate School the “Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.” Higher education is good, philanthropy is good, and Harvard is good. It should be all good.

Hollis-Hall-Harvard-Yard
Hollis Hall, Harvard Yard

Still, here’s why I’m grumpy. Harvard is the least worthy use of hundreds of millions of philanthropic education dollars I can possibly think of. They need it the least.

Among universities, Harvard already boasts the largest endowment of any university. With $50 billion under management, cynics (like me) have long quipped that Harvard is a world-class hedge fund with a fine educational institution attached to it. 

Harvard does not really elevate learning in our larger society, except in the most extreme trickle-down kind of way. The profile of a student actually boosted by Griffin’s donation is extremely narrowly selected. A $300 million gift seems like a bizarre over-allocation of resources to people for whom resources are truly not scarce.

Among 4-year colleges, Harvard is already quite generous with families of demonstrated financial need. But these students admitted from low socioeconomic strata are extremely few. The path into Harvard is so narrow that only rarely does a student from a lower-income family gain admittance. Second, these narrowly selected students – rich, poor, or middle class – probably would thrive wherever they went. Third, most of Harvard is made up of students from relatively privileged backgrounds, making the institution far less impactful on society as a whole, when considering it as a recipient of philanthropy.

Griffin giving $300 million to Harvard helps an organization that doesn’t need it, which in turn serves mostly students who largely don’t need it, or students who would succeed without it.    

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Ken Griffin

What Ken Griffin mostly bought for his $300 million was naming-rights as a monument to himself in perpetuity, burnishing his own reputation as a “success,” via brand-affiliation with Harvard. A personal monument and a name brand. It’s Griffin’s money and he gets to prioritize what he wants. But the gift just struck me as the worst kind of higher-education philanthropy. 

Meanwhile, the contrast with the very best in higher education philanthropy is very stark. 

In the midst of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 MacKenzie Scott – author, philanthropist and via divorce from Jeff Bezos a 4 percent owner of Amazon – set a new and better standard for higher education philanthropy. Scott’s lessons were ones that Griffin either didn’t notice or chose to not learn.

She gave billions in total to organizations vetted for accomplishing great work but that suffer from insufficient resources. The opposite of Harvard in terms of need. She gave to hundreds of organizations that actually needed the money.

She thoughtfully targeted institutions – like Big Brother Big Sister, or community colleges, that serve a broad and inclusive swath of people who themselves had insufficient resources. Again, the opposite of Harvard. People who actually needed the support.

Because social and economic class is self-reinforcing (in contrast to our national myth of social mobility) higher status and more selective higher education institutions matriculate students from higher income families, on average. Also, higher status and more selective institutions generally cost more. As a result, if you want to help social mobility through increasing educational opportunity, the place to focus is regional and community colleges. So that’s what Scott did. That’s where the transformation in people’s lives and in society is likely to take place.

At Harvard, less than 12 percent of students come from the bottom 40 percent of households by income. A larger cohort at Harvard, 15 percent of students, come from the top 1 percent of households by income. All of this is according to research done by Harvard’s own Raj Chetty and a team of economists.

At UT Austin, 15 percent of students come from the bottom 40 percent of households by income. Which itself is a result of its highly selective status. At UT San Antonio, 26 percent of students come from the bottom 40 percent of households by income.

In Bexar County’s Alamo Colleges, 43 percent of students come from the bottom 40 percent of households by income. So that’s where Scott gave. Where the students with the most financial need are actually studying.

The socioeconomic origin of families of students is just one measure – but an important one – of the role higher education does, or does not play, in creating pathways to social mobility. 

For all of Harvard’s successes in championing lower socioeconomic access to higher education – a pitch made with just about every alumni solicitation for donations that it sends out – a much more effective way to support this cause would be to donate to higher education institutions that truly serve middle and lower-income families. Like community colleges, or public universities that serve a region or state.

In San Antonio, Scott gave $20 million to San Antonio College, and $15 million to Palo Alto College, both part of the Alamo Colleges District. 

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Dr. Mike Flores

Dr. Mike Flores, Chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District, admires Scott’s philosophy of giving to under-resourced communities. Further, Scott allows the recipient institutions full discretion in how to best spend her gifts. 

Scott’s donations went into programs such as $4 million to support students in high-demand degrees in tech or nursing that will likely transform their lifetime economic prospects for the better. $5 million went toward the $75 million endowment for AlamoPROMISE, which provides scholarships to make an Associates degree affordable for most area high school students. 

I think what MacKenzie Scott got for her $25 million to Alamo Colleges was life-transforming social mobility among people who need it most. And they didn’t name anything after her. She doesn’t really get bragging rights through brand affiliation with a community college. Instead she just gets to make a difference. 

A huge priority for Alamo Colleges is to make sure any area high school graduate can get free or greatly subsidized tuition, with wrap-around services, on the way to getting an Associates degree, what Dr. Flores deems the “moonshot” program known as AlamoPROMISE.

Dr. Flores, when asked how he thinks about transformational gifts in higher education, “Just imagine, an $80 million dollar gift could guarantee graduating high school seniors access to AlamoPROMISE in perpetuity for Bexar County graduates for decades.”

Scott didn’t build a monument to herself when she gave her gifts, but she demonstrated a far better philanthropic model than the old one Griffin followed this month.

Harvard is not a bad institution. It represents greatness in many fields and is a cool place for a fortunate few. As a destination for philanthropic dollars, I just would personally place it last on my list.

Disclosure: In 2022 I offered consulting services – online personal finance lessons – for employees of the Alamo Colleges District.

A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News and the Houston Chronicle

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In Defense of John Paulson

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a picture of Paulson giving precisely zero fucks

I feel like there are lessons about philanthropy in John Paulson’s $400 million gift to Harvard that I haven’t seen explained yet.

I don’t know John Paulson (maybe that’s already obvious?) but I feel like I know a little bit about how he thinks, having worked with, for, and as a mortgage bond professional, and with, for, and as a hedge fund investor.

John Paulson is most famous for making $4 Billion in 2008 via the The Greatest Trade Ever, shorting sub-prime mortgage bonds through his eponymous hedge fund. Last week he shot back into the public eye for his philanthropy and the subsequent negative reactions to his gift, spearheaded by smart guys like Malcolm Gladwell and other pundits.

In reviewing reactions to his $400 million gift to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, I’m struck that I haven’t heard an accurate description of Paulson’s reasoning, based on what we know about him. The overwhelming reaction of the smart guys is to complain that Harvard is one of the least deserving ‘charities’ around. Further, the conventional-wisdom smart guys complain, couldn’t he have found a charity to address poverty, or something more worthy, rather than make an already elite institution more elite?

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Having worked with guys like Paulson, and understanding a bit about his professional background and track record, I know the following four things:

1. He’s focused on value. He would prefer to die rather than overpay for something.

What I mean by that is that when Paulson pays $400 million to Harvard for naming rights and also to get credit for the largest gift ever to a University, he’s not being careless about the amount. If he could get that kind of value for $375 million, he would have paid $375 million, not $400 million. Whatever the ultimate purpose of the gift (and I don’t pretend to know that, any more than I really know the inner thoughts of Paulson) he didn’t come up with $400 million by accident. And whatever his reasoning, and no matter how large the headline number, he was not overpaying.

2. He wants the #1 best thing. Not tenth best, not seventh best, not second best. Just the number one best thing. This next statement may sound flippant, and it may sound like I’m being Harvard-proud, and I really don’t mean to be. But if Paulson felt like he could have gotten what he wanted by donating to Dartmouth he would have done it. He chose Harvard because it struck him as the best.

Giving to ‘the best,’ obviously, is a different mind-set than giving to the ‘most worthy.’

Paulson’s critics feel he should have found a worthier cause than Harvard. Maybe so. But is that theoretical preferable charity the absolute best in the world at what they do? I suspect that criteria mattered to Paulson, as it does to many people who think like Paulson.

3. Risks matter tremendously. If he’s going to pay good money, the risks should be minimized. I think this point is probably key to why he didn’t give $400 million to a program to combat poverty, or end malaria, or whatever it is that Gladwell would have preferred he do. By giving to Harvard, Paulson can be certain that the institution will continue to thrive and be a steward of his funds 50 years from now. Did Paulson analyze the existing anti-poverty charities and find them too risky? I wouldn’t be shocked if he did.

Short of giving to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 1, I’m not sure how one gives huge sums of money to an anti-poverty charity at that scale while still minimizing one’s risks.

I’m not trying to argue that anti-poverty charities (or whatever Gladwell wants him to give to) are inherently risky. I actually have no idea. What I mean is that Paulson – by trade and by training as a hedge fund guy – has to be incredibly focused on risk management. You can’t succeed the way he has without applying the same eye for risk to one’s philanthropy. The one thing Harvard has over almost any other ‘charity’ is its image as a prudent low-risk investment.

Why would anyone like Paulson give to a ‘charity’ that already has a $36 billion endowment? Its a safe bet, that’s why.

4. The “smart guys” like Gladwell who represent conventional wisdom? Paulson does not give a fuck.

Just to expand for a moment on this fourth point, and to boil it down further with mathematical precision: Paulson gives precisely zero fucks what Malcolm Gladwell writes on Twitter.

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Paulson’s “career trade” was made by understanding which way the entire mortgage bond market was positioned in 2008, and then he made the exact opposite bet, at extraordinary risk to himself and to his investors. In hindsight, he was a genius, but that move was incredibly difficult to make at the time, when every other short-seller of the mortgage bond market up until that point had gotten their ass handed to them.

Paulson’s smart enough to understand how the rest of the world thinks, but iconoclastic enough to lay that aside to determine what he alone thinks.

Most of us have a hard time going that strongly against the grain of public thought. Paulson’s entire career success is based on extreme contrarianism.

Lessons of Paulson’s gift

At the risk of trying to tie this all up with a neat bow, I think philanthropies can learn from the lessons of Paulson’s gift.

To appeal to a certain type of giver like Paulson, the point shouldn’t be to try to be the ‘worthiest’ cause in the universe, but rather to offer good value for the money. People who have made a lot of money in their lifetime tend to respond to value arguments – how will their gift have a bigger impact with you, rather than with someone else?

Further, are you the absolute best in your category? Forget neediness or worthiness. I suspect neediness is in fact a major turnoff for big donors. But excellence and being #1? Are you the Harvard of your category? I bet that’s very attractive to Paulson.

Next, are you a low risk? People who manage money for a living and who have a large fortune to steward want to see their money managed wisely, even after it’s given. Especially after it’s given.

Finally, does your donor give in order to be part of the in-crowd? Or to be an iconoclastic contrarian? We know by reputation that Paulson’s going to do whatever he thinks, not what the rest of the people think. That’s probably rare, but in the case of Harvard as a recipient, to their ultimate benefit.

zero fucksI bet most people are social givers, eager to become or remain as a member of a social group, and philanthropic efforts to keep them appreciated as part of an inner circle probably matter a lot. Contrarians are rarer, but in Paulson’s case, can turn out quite nicely too.

[Fake full-disclosure/non-disclosure: I have given precisely zero dollars to my alma mater Harvard in the twenty years since I graduated from there, and I also give precisely zero fucks about Harvard’s philanthropic needs.]

 

Please see related posts

On Philanthropy Part I – Giving Money Away

On Philanthropy Part II – Asking for Money

My actual preferred philanthropic interest, the Greatest High School In The World

TED Talk on Philanthropy

 

 

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  1. Which, frankly, would also have been a good bet as a 50-year steward of Paulson’s funds

When Business Theories Go Bad

jill leporeI’m a fan of New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, whose previous article on the History of Debt in the US was totally fascinating.

In a recent New Yorker article, she takes down the much admired theory of Harvard Business School ‘disruption’ guru Clayton Christensen. Christensen argues that companies that make incremental improvements to their products inevitably get ‘disrupted’ into oblivion by radical innovators. It’s the kind of zeitgeist-capturing idea that has taken hold of the business world, in an age of unforseen terrorist attacks, black swan financial events, and the zero-to-billionaire-in-18-months companies of Silicon Valley.

A cottage industry of ‘Disruption’ conferences, consultants, books, and speaking engagements has sprung from Christensen’s work.

Unfortunately, as Lepore shows in her article, the disruption theory just doesn’t happen to be true, or supported by any real evidence whatsoever.

Have you ever wondered whether these business gurus just invent cool-sounding theories that match the national mood?

Me too, I just never saw it presented so devastatingly as in Lepore’s New Yorker article.

I also just learned from Lepore’s bio that she recently became a Harvard professor. Those chance meetings between Lepore and Christensen at the faculty club are probably pretty frosty these days.

disruptingclassI also sounds like I can skip buying this book on ‘Disrupting Class.’

 

 

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