Higher Education Donors: Meet Effective Altruism, Your New Worst Nightmare

In early September, I wrote about Robert Morin, the former librarian at the University of New Hampshire, who left $4 million to the school upon his passing. 

He never spent money, he never went out, and he didn't have any relatives to give the fortune to. What he did do, however, is tick some people off, proving that no good deed goes unpunished. Buried toward the end of my post, you'll see that while $100,000 went to the school library, $1 million was earmarked toward the scoreboard at the school's new football stadium. (School officials say the money for the library was the only "dedicated gift," meaning the rest was unrestricted.)

While not as audacious as, say, Rutgers University's plans for a new $100 million athletic center or a recent $5 million dollar gift to Notre Dame's marching band program, the scoreboard component of Morin's non-acadmic gift has rubbed some folks the wrong way, including the governor of New Hampshire. Maggie Hassan recently said "there were more appropriate uses" for the $1 million, "such as a new science building or holding down tuition costs."

Isn't this fun?

Indeed, Morin's well-intentioned gift speaks to the encroaching influence of effective altruism in the higher ed space. Generally relegated to the arts sphere—e.g., How can David Geffen give $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art when people are starving?—the concept is nimble and transferable to all facets of modern philanthropy. And as tuition rates continue to skyrocket, higher education is the new effective altruism battleground.

Beyond the New Hampshire hullabaloo, consider a story from Southern California.

Extending a remarkable philanthropic run for the University of Southern California, which recently netted $60 million from alumni and pioneering social worker Suzanne Dworak-Peckand and a $15 million pledge in June from trustee David C. Bohnett to endow and name a residential college at USC Village, the school announced an endowment gift of $6 million from real estate investor Amy King Dundon-Berchtold for the USC University Club at King Stoops Hall. In recognition of the gift, the club will be renamed the USC Amy King Dundon-Berchtold University Club at King Stoops Hall.

The gift continues her family's decades-long support of USC. Over the years, the family has funded student scholarships, the education library and an endowed chair for the dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. According to the USC press release, personal health challenges and an unexpected second chance at love prompted her to give back to the university that meant so much to her mother, EdD ’66, and herself.

"I had a wake-up call," she said, "that it was time to give back and disperse some of what I have accumulated over the years."

Which brings me to the inanimate recipient of Dundon-Berchtold's gift, the USC University Club at King Stoops Hall. The University Club is a members-only club and restaurant on USC’s University Park Campus. According to the school, it serves as an "important campus venue that promotes intellectual, cultural and social interaction among USC faculty and staff." 

Detractors might argue, "Six million dollars for a private club?" And indeed, given the logic of effective altruism, they'd have a point. On a purely objective plane of reasoning, there are better uses for that money.

On the other hand, I feel a little context is needed. No gifts occur in a vacuum. As previously noted, Dundon-Berchold's family has provided support to the school for decades. What's more, the club

...currently serves as a "home away from home" for Dundon-Berchtold and her husband, where they enjoy seeing her family’s photos, books and memorabilia adorning the walls and bookshelves and sharing these mementos with the club’s visitors. A donation from her mother and stepfather endowed the building in 1983, and it was renamed King Stoops Hall in their honor.

In short, she's earned the right to cut the check.

Secondly, regarding the dreaded football scoreboard, be wary of individuals making hay out of a gift that, in the big scheme of things, is practically meaningless. Our higher education system is plagued by out-of-control tuition costs. Federal aid continues to flow and universities lack the financial incentive to control tuition due to this guaranteed income. All the while, loan officers continue laughing all the way to the bank.

And as for the kids, many of whom blindly sign a student loan agreement as doe-eyed 17-year olds? Well, they're shackled to debt for the rest of their lives. Would a measly $1 million from Morin effectively and meaningfully "hold down tuition costs" at the University of New Hampshire? Of course not.

Complaining about $1 million for a scoreboard is a straw man that fails to address the root causes of the crisis. Detractors' frustrations should instead be directed towards the two types of individuals who are in a position to make the most impact. One, alumni donors who, rather than funding scholarships that kick the can down the road, might ponder ways to hold schools accountable for freezing or reducing tuition, and two, federal politicians who write the laws and their brethren at the state level who actually, y'know, control the university system.