Select the Best: An Excerpt from The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving
February 14, 2022
Most universities offer a wide range of deserving programs and activities. Many of these already receive handsome support. In general, a university’s endowments receive larger gifts than specific academic programs. Physical facilities receive more funding than educational activities. Research and publishing are often better supported than teaching. Graduate and professional education receive much more assistance per student than undergraduate education. Your dollars will have the greatest impact if you direct them to areas that receive less funding.
Donors who really want to make a difference may wish to consider programs that uphold classical educational values. The late Gertrude Himmelfarb, a distinguished historian, called on donors to support “oases of excellence” at our institutions of higher learning. Funding a specific academic initiative has several advantages. It is part of the intellectual life of the university. For students, access to courses with high standards that have not been overly politicized or dumbed down offers a challenging alternative to standard campus fare. For professors, a special academic initiative provides an opportunity to draw young people into the life of the mind.
For the institution, outstanding programs set a standard that puts competitive pressure on other departments. Honors and Great Books programs have had this impact at several colleges, as students are attracted to the more demanding and prestigious course of study. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has compiled brief descriptions of programs that donors may wish to consider. You can find a list without the descriptions in Appendix C. The best program to support may be the one that creates an Oasis of Excellence at your alma mater.
Ideally, colleges and universities expose students to a wide range of viewpoints. But too often, campuses fall short of this ideal, either failing to ensure intellectual diversity among speakers or even disinviting speakers who are deemed too controversial. Donors can make a major difference by supporting speakers who will expose students to new ideas. They can also support a faculty or student group on campus or a national organization that makes speakers available to colleges and universities. Supporting outside speakers is an excellent way to stimulate discussion and bring intellectual diversity to campus.
Think twice before you fund a building or an endowed chair. If your aim is to improve education or research, a building does little to enhance the intellectual content, pedagogy, or methodology of either. The key to education and research is not the building itself, but what goes on inside the building. Most donors who endow chairs have an image of the kind of scholar or teacher who will hold the chair. That image may bear little relation to reality, as schools historically have given donors little or no role in selecting the holder of the chair. Even if you approve of the first person to hold the chair, you do not know—and will have even less control over—who subsequent holders will be. One donor who funded a chair in Western Civilization was shocked to learn that the holder was deconstructing Western Civilization. There was nothing he could do.
And remember: Money is fungible. If your chair goes to a current faculty member, all you are doing is freeing up funds to be used elsewhere. If you want to help your college live up to its highest ideals, make a gift that will really have an impact on the intellectual life of the campus.
This excerpt is taken from the third edition of The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving.