Philanthropy Can't Stop War, But It Can Sure Try. Why This $100 Million Campus Gift Matters

Last week, Timothy and Thomas Pearson—the twin multi-millionaires known as the Pearson Brothers—gifted a whopping $100 million to the University of Chicago to establish a research institute dedicated to the study and resolution of global conflict. The gift to the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts represents the second-largest gift in the university’s history.  

If you’re scratching your head thinking, "Haven’t I read this story before?" The answer is no—but kind of. Earlier this year, a different elite Chicago university, Northwestern University, received a $101 million contribution to establish its own global studies center—the Buffet Institute for Global Studies. The gift from Bertie Buffett Elliot, a Northwestern alum and sister of business magnate and billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett, was the largest in the University’s history.

The Pearson gift, like the Buffet gift, fits squarely with what we’ve been telling you about charitable giving to institutions of higher education: they are on the rise with no sign of slowing. In fact, earlier this year, I reported—with fancy bar graphs and all—that charitable giving to elite colleges and universities had jumped 10.8 percent in 2014, totaling nearly $38 billion, shattering all previous records, and naturally garnering some criticism along the way. 

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Wealthy people funding wealthy institutions rubs some people the wrong way, but you'll rarely find Inside Philanthropy piling on with other critics. After all, elite colleges and universities are critical incubators for research and innovation and—oh, right—they also are largely responsible for producing the men and women that eventually run the world.

Universities can play a crucial role in global security—if they have the resources. In case you haven't noticed, the world is a scary mess right now, with nonstate actors like ISIS and Boko Haram spreading instability, while major powers like China and Russia are throwing around their weight in new and alarming ways. 

So it's a good thing, as we've reported in the past, that more campus donors are backing both research and education around global issues. In 2013, Boston University landed a $25 million contribution to launch the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies. Less than one year later, the University of Notre Dame announced the creation of the Donald R. Keough School of Global Affairs, its first new school in over a century, made possible by a $50 million gift from Donald and Marilyn Keough. And since the start of 2015, we've already seen UC San Diego give $4 million for global studies, and $5 million to establish a Program in History and the Practice of Diplomacy at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. We could cite other gifts in this area, too. 

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What every one of these programs hopefully signals is a recognition that as our world continues to become increasingly more interconnected, our ability to understand and respond effectively to existing and emerging global challenges is absolutely critical.

This latest gift is an example of donors recognizing the need for the U.S. to better deal with a changing international landscape. Explaining the $100 million gift, Thomas Pearson pointed to "our belief that non-state conflicts, from drug cartels to insurgent organizations such as ISIS, increasingly constitute the foreign policy challenge of our time. The imperative is to identify new strategies now that will address the spectrum of entities engaged in violent conflict from global superpowers, to state and sub-state, and non-state groups. Cold War-type solutions alone are less effective in today’s era of global conflicts, which requires a complex interaction of military, economic, political and cultural factors."

Information about the Thomas L. Pearson Foundation and the Pearson Family Members Foundation (The Pearson Family Foundation) is hard to come by, and the brothers like to keep a low profile. Thomas was senior vice president for the Alliance Resource Partners (self-described as “a diversified coal producer and marketer”) and is now an adviser on business, law, and international finance. Timothy heads Pearson Advisors Partners, a marketing consulting firm. But if the Pearson family is known for one thing, it's their long history supporting global conflict resolution—even underwriting the costs of the Nobel Peace Prize Concert that follows the awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway. So this latest move seems perfectly aligned with the family's values and philanthropy. 

Regarding the goals of the gift, Daniel Diermeier, dean of Chicago University’s Harris School of Public Policy had this to say:

The Pearson Institute will be built on the principle that the new era of violent conflicts calls for data-driven, analytical approaches to inform better policy solutions. Clearly, the goals of The Pearson Institute will embrace the University’s pioneering use of quantitative tools in the social sciences.

One of the goals of the new funding will be educating "the next generation of scholars and practitioners through new courses and programs, all designed to help resolve conflicts and inform more effective policies." As part of the gift, the university will establish four professorships in conflict studies and create a fellowship program for Masters and Ph.D. students.

Judging from recent years, there will be plenty of need for this kind of expertise going forward. In fact, since 2010, at least 15 major conflicts have erupted in economically and developmentally vulnerable regions, including Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and this year in Burundi); the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan) and Europe (Ukraine). A result of all this conflict has been a heartbreaking rise in the number of refugees worldwide. 

When it comes to global violence and conflict resolution, many of us find ourselves wanting to help but not really sure how. Even for those with deep pockets and friends in high places, the answers aren't always clear. Some donors choose to fund groups that provide direct, on-the-ground support for refugees or human rights. Others fund peace organizations. All this makes sense. But for sure, underwriting new scholarship about conflict and training new experts in this field are urgent imperatives. And with few major foundations funding in this space, it's good that more donors like the Pearsons are coming along. 

Related: Thank God Somebody Still Funds Russian Studies