Meet the Donor Making a Very Rich University Slightly Richer

It isn't very often that the comments section of an article looking at a donor gift is more interesting than the article itself. But this is one of those cases.

The article in question is this one, courtesy of of Syracuse.com, and the gift is a cool $25 million from David Breazzano to Cornell University's business school. The money will allow the school's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management to expand in Ithaca, NY. The comments, meanwhile, point to a very real debate we have here every day at IP: What drives an extremely wealthy individual to give money to an extremely wealthy university?

After all, Cornell's endowment stands at over six billion dollars—couldn't they find $25 million underneath the couch cushions somewhere?

And so, as you can imagine, this debate inevitably veers off into various tangents.

Tangent number one—the psychology behind such a gift. Clearly donors like their names plastered on building walls and have for quite some time. (The gift provides $4 million for the Breazzano Family Faculty Excellence Fund, by the way. Cornell officials will also recommend the board of trustees name the MBA program's new Collegetown building the Breazzano Family Center for Business Education.)  

But psychology is a complex thing, so we won't go down into that Freudian rabbit hole today.

Then there's the more practical—and, we argue, more urgent—impulse to view a gift such as this through the lens of "effective altruism," the idea that donor dollars are finite and should be earmarked for the greatest bang for the buck. Think anti-malaria bed nets. 

As previously noted in a post exploring this rabbit hole, Peter Singer is one of the foremost proponents of the effective altruism movement, and his manifesto is his book, The Most Good You Can Do. He says:

I’m not saying you can rank all possible causes in an objective hierarchy. But if you compare the amount of good done by the recent $100 million gift to Lincoln Center by David Geffen to giving that same amount of money to restore sight in people who are blind or will become blind, to me it's staggering that anyone would think having a nicer concert hall could compare with what you could get by restoring sight for a million people.

Which brings us back to the Cornell gift.

The donor, Mr. Breazzano, is the co-founder and chief investment officer at DDJ Capital Management. He received a master's degree in business administration for Cornell in 1980. The gift is one of the largest ever made to the school's business program and will "will substantially support a new, state-of-the-art, six-story classroom and office building under construction at 209-215 Dryden Road."

In a way, Breazzano's gift is the byproduct of simple supply and demand. As the school's business program continues to grow, it requires a larger (and arguably more luxurious) campus footprint, and more faculty, hence the aforementioned Faculty Excellence Fund.

"Dave's extraordinary gift will enhance the quality and capacity of our business programs. It recognizes the need for an additional facility to launch Johnson on its next phase of growth and is a wholehearted endorsement of Johnson's faculty," said Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III.

Breazzano's gift comes on the heels of a flurry of other business school-related gifts across this higher education space as of late, each broadly earmarked for a unique component of the educational experience. Notable examples include gifts focused on experiential learning, various program support, and career development.