A recent $6 million give to the business school at the University of Maryland, College Park, drew attention recently because one of the donors kicking in funds was Charles Koch, the controversial billionaire political activist.
But since Koch money flows to many campuses, as we've explained, we were more intrigued by the other funder in the mix, Ed Snider—especially since he put up the lion's share of the funding, $5 million, for what will be called the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets.
We had never heard of Snider before. Who is he?
Well, he's a big deal in both Philadelphia and in the sports world, as chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, a Philly-based sports and entertainment firm that owns the Philadelphia Flyers, among other enterprises. At one point, Snider also owned the Philadelphia 76ers.
Snider has a compelling story of success, graduating from—you guessed it—the University of Maryland and working as an accountant, only to quit and start his own record distribution business out of his car. Later, he mortgaged his home to found the Philadelphia Flyers, an NHL expansion team.
So how'd Snider end up in bed with Charles Koch and giving big for a center at UMD's business school?
Well for one thing, John Hardin, program officer at the Koch Foundation, received his doctorate from University of Maryland in 2011. Hardin had a chance meeting with Snider's son who made him aware of the new center in the making. Eventually this led to discussions of how the two funders could work together.
Snider and Koch share a lot of ideological common ground. Look no further than the Snider Foundation's stated mission, which says that it is "committed to promoting and preserving the core American values and principles of limited government, individual liberty and free enterprise."
As it turns out, the pair also share similar notions about how to promote their vision by investing in scholarship and ideas. Koch and an economist named Richard Fink teamed up in the 1980s to found a libertarian think tank which would eventually become known as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Snider, meanwhile, was a founding contributor of the Ayn Rand Institute, established in the 1980s. The stated goals of the institute are to "spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today's culture." Headquartered in Irvine, California, the institute holds classes and offers internships and fellowships, much like many of Koch's efforts.
Other recent grantees of the Snider Foundation include the Atlas Foundation (Ayn Rand again), the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the David Horowitz Freedom Center (DHFC), which has received around $100,000 annually over recent years. Located in Los Angeles, DHFC is "dedicated to the defense of free societies whose moral, cultural and economic foundations are under attack by enemies both secular and religious, at home and abroad."
Yes, this all sounds like it's coming from the same ideological script. Which is why the UMD gift has made some on campus uneasy.
Despite all of this, University of Maryland officials have said that they will conduct hiring and research for the new Snider Center independently of Snider and Koch. The last thing anyone wants, we're betting, is a replay of the controversy around a proposed Koch gift to Florida State University in 2007, with allegations that the Charles Koch Foundation tried to influence hiring and other decisions.
Playing it by the book is all the more important given that activists have been mobilizing against Koch influence on campus, staging protests on 30 campuses this week with the slogan: "UnKoch my campus."
At UMD, the Snider-Koch gifts will allow the hiring of three tenured professors, along with five Ph.D students and four post-doctoral fellows. Plans also include hiring a managing director and two support staff members.
But back to Ed Snider. It's also worth noting that he's spent much of his career in Philadelphia and has been quite involved with the University of Pennsylvania in the past, establishing the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center in his father's name at Wharton through gifts in the 1980s and 1990s.
As Snider puts it, "this gift to the University of Maryland is a homecoming for me. I cherished my time at UMD and never lost my connection to my alma mater."
Alums often leave the orbit of their alma maters, which can be a particular loss when they end up rich. In Snider's case, though, it wasn't just the prospect of returning to UMD that got him excited, but putting his money behind something that he was passionate about. All of which is a reminder that, yes, identifying and cultivating those wealthy alums is key, but just as important is figuring out what cause excites them most.