Are Rich Donors Ruining Higher Education?

By Robert Frank

Rarely in our history have the rich been so unpopular with the public. Thus, it probably was inevitable that even their good deeds–namely philanthropy–would come under sharp criticism.

Associated Press
A student carrying bags moves into Princeton University’s Whitman College, named for main donor Meg Whitman

First came the critiques of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge. Now comes a book called “The Trouble with Billionaires,” from a Canadian tax-law professor and a Canadian journalist, who say that philanthropy by the elite could be bad for society, especially for education.

In an excerpt in the Toronto Star, Star columnist Linda McQuaig and tax law professor Neil Brooks cite the example of the University of Toronto.

In recent years, as government cut funding to education, the university turned more and more to the rich to fund its expansion. It has pulled in more than $120 million from wealthy alum and benefactors in just the past five years, according to the book.

A good thing? Not so, say the pair. As a result of the alms from the elite, the university has become “a showcase for the wealthy,” where people such as pharmaceutical businessmen Leslie Dan, mining chief Peter Munk and merchant banker Joseph Rotman get buildings named after them and countless honors and plaques.

Meanwhile, they say, “genuine heros” such as Tommy Douglas–considered the father of Canada’s health-care system and voted in a 2004 TV poll as the greatest Canadian of all time–don’t get their names on anything at the University.

The result of this dependence on the rich is that “the priorities of the university have been skewed towards areas that interest the elites,” says Paul Hamel, a biologist in the UofT Faculty of Medicine and backer of an effort to name the university’s Health Studies Program after Mr. Douglas, “rather than towards the priorities of faculty, staff and students who are engaged in critical analysis, research and teaching.”

It is true that the wealthy, or anyone else for that matter, fund things that matter to them. And their money inevitably comes with influence.

But the idea that the rich are crowding out true intellect and heroes from our universities seems hard to prove. It also assumes that if the rich weren’t paying for new buildings, new education programs and scholarships that governments would be doing more. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case–either in Canada or the U.S.

Good educations cost money. Like it or not (and most don’t), the wealthy are among the few that can supply that right now. Would universities be better off if the wealthy spent their money only on yachts and planes rather than global-studies programs?

I doubt it.

Do you think the wealthy have “crowded out” the ideas and people that matter most to universities?

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