When most donors think about the housing crisis, images of poverty-stricken families and eviction notices come to mind. But not Charles Munger, the Berkshire Hathaway billionaire who has made it his personal mission to help graduate students find and afford nicer places to sleep and study.
Munger made nationwide headlines recently when he gave $65 million to fund a student residence at UC Santa Barbara and $110 million for graduate student housing at the University of Michigan. His enthusiasm for school housing isn’t anything new. Back in 2004, Munger gave $43.5 million to build residence halls at Stanford University.
Related: Read IP’s Profile of Charles Munger
It’s becoming clearer as the years go by that Munger has a much different approach to philanthropy than that other famous Berkshire Hathaway guy, Warren Buffett. While Buffett continues to pour billions of dollars into the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well bankroll the politically edgy philanthropy of his three kids, Munger is giving millions to top national universities to house graduate students.
This is the kind of philanthropic cause that might inspire yawning. I mean, think about it: global poverty, climate change, pandemics, and... substandard housing options for grad students. What's wrong with that list?
The fact is, not everyone is on a mission to save the world. And anyway, graduate education actually is pretty crucial to human progress, and those students need a place to live.
More concretely, Munger apparently believes that good housing is a key element of a completing a successful graduate education. But making grad students comfortable on campus is a notoriously low priority for universities, even as undergrad dorms are coming to resemble luxury hotels. And certainly the free market isn't going to solve this problem, with rents near record highs.
So Munger has decided to be the one to stand up for grad students across the country. Every donor needs a niche, right? Over the years, the bulk of Munger's giving has been exclusively centered on education institutions that he has been affiliated with. These schools include the University of Michigan, Harvard Law School, Stanford University, Polytechnic School in Pasadena, and California Harvard-Westlake.
The 90-year-old Munger insists that he doesn’t just toss money at his alma maters, but puts a lot of time, energy, and thought into spending down his billions. Yet this generosity doesn’t seem to extend to low-income individuals struggling to pay the rent and feed their families.
So it seems that Munger is uninterested in broad housing support funding, focusing solely on higher education. He hasn’t established a private family foundation and opposes the idea of signing the Giving Pledge.
“There's nothing as insignificant as an extra $2 billion to an old man,” he told the Omaha World-Herald.
If Munger is anything like the 90 year olds that I’ve met, he isn’t likely to change his approach to philanthropy anytime soon. So hopefully, all these nice new dorms will somehow translate into a better educated batch of scientists and policymakers and a stronger workforce in the years ahead.