Tried and True: Why Financier Mega-Donors Remain Reliable Supporters of the Liberal Arts

Media Whalestock/shutterstock

Media Whalestock/shutterstock

Despite surging interest in areas like STEM education, artificial intelligence and expensive new medical and research facilities, a reliable segment of higher ed donors will always support the liberal arts.

That’s one big takeaway from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where alumnus David E. Goel and his wife Stacey L. Goel gave Harvard $100 million to fund the development of a new, state-of-the-art research and performance center in nearby Allston, which will also be home to a new location for the American Repertory Theater (ART).

The ART has been the professional theater on Harvard’s campus since its founding in 1980. According to the university, it draws “artists from around the world to develop musicals, plays and operas inspired and enriched by its partnerships with faculty members,” and “catalyzes discourse, interdisciplinary collaboration, and creative exchange among academic departments, institutions, students, and faculty members, acting as a conduit between its community of artists and the University.”

Goel said that he and his wife were eager to support the notion of “a versatile theater space that can be reshaped as appropriate to express and share the abundant ideas originated by the college, the American Repertory Theater, and Harvard’s community already at home in Allston—and connect them through music, dance, theater, debate, lectures, conferences and dialogue in any format.”

As the co-founder and managing general partner of Waltham-based Matrix Capital Management Company LP, Goel joins an ever-growing list of donors with a footprint in the world of high finance making massive gifts earmarked for the arts and liberal arts initiatives. In fact, Goel’s gift exceeds that of investor Bill Miller's headline-grabbing $75 million donation to Johns Hopkins University's philosophy department in 2018. (Not that anyone’s keeping track. Although, as Wall Street financiers, maybe they are keeping track.)

Familiar Talking Points

Goel’s CV notwithstanding, his gift shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. He served as a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 2010, where he and Stacey donated a gallery in the museum’s New American Wing. The Goels also endowed the Goel Center for Theater and Dance at Phillips Exeter Academy, which opened its doors in 2018.

That said, $100 million is a pretty big chunk of change. What was the motivation? According to Harvard’s press release, Goel said that he and Stacey were inspired by Harvard President Lawrence Bacow’s vision to more completely integrate Harvard’s arts programs across the university’s disciplines, and by a shared belief that “the arts humanize the pursuit and application of knowledge.”

“There is something almost metaphorically perfect about the architectural license to build a center for the arts at the nucleus of Harvard’s expanding campus, a physical representation of the idea that each set of academic disciplines is strengthened by proximity, dialogue, and contribution to the same tapestry of human understanding,” he said.

The Goel gift comes a year after alumnus John Atwater, who also hails from the finance world, and his wife Diana Nelson gave $20 million to create the Nelson and John Atwater Lobby in Brown University’s new performance arts center. The school described the project as a “hub for music, dance, theatre and multimedia arts scholarship.”

It’s no accident that donors are articulating familiar talking points and funding projects with a similar cross-disciplinary bent.

Support for the arts and liberal arts more broadly remains strong partly because proponents believe in their ability to complement and heighten other fields of learning, most notably STEM education. What’s more, donors, particularly those hailing from the finance and tech worlds, can speak from direct experience. Goel, who was born in Canada, studied international relations and majored in government at Harvard.

By framing the arts’ ability to “humanize” the application of knowledge, Goel also echoes the logic of some of higher ed’s patrons of philosophy. Bill Miller, who pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Hopkins’ Ph.D. program, said that philosophy "has made a huge difference both to my life outside business, in terms of adding a great degree of richness and knowledge, and to the actual decisions I've made in investing.”

Six months later, UCLA received $20 million to support its own philosophy department. One of the three donors, real estate executive Jordan Kaplan, said, “A philosophy education introduces students to captivating ideas and perennial questions while imparting crucial skills of analysis, argumentation, clarity and precision."

But it gets better: Conventional wisdom, slowly but surely, is catching up to Goel, Miller and Kaplan’s line of thinking.

In a recent piece on Mellon’s blog, venture capitalist Scott Hartley, the author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, laid out the value of the liberal arts in a “techie” world. “It's interesting that these strict vocational skills seem like the shiny objects that provide us with job security,” he said. “But in fact, it's the soft skills—curiosity, persistence, empathy, collaboration” that he says are essential for our digital future.

According to Hartley, the extensive list of tech executives with liberal arts backgrounds includes Salesforce co-founder Parker Harris (English), former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (medieval history), and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman (philosophy).

Additional Benefits

Of course, not every higher ed arts gifts needs to be framed through a prism of humanism or, in Hartley’s case, enlightened self-interest, since, after all, tech companies and hedge funds need intellectually curious employees. Funders believe that a vibrant arts center can also generate tangible economic and quality of life benefits for the university and the surrounding areas.

We’ve seen gifts of this nature flow to schools in urban areas, like Younes and Soraya Sarah Nazarian’s $17 million gift to California State University, Northridge, as well as university towns off the beaten path such as the $5 million gift from former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his wife to fund a new performing arts building at Eisner’s alma mater, Granville, Ohio's Denison University. Additional “small town” university art center gifts include those to schools located in College Station, Texas; Stillwater, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Not coincidentally, the Goels’ gift and the proposed relocation of ART comes as Harvard is expanding its Allston campus. The neighborhood will soon include the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a 500,000-square-foot facility funded by a $400 million gift from Paulson, which is slated to open in 2020. And in January, an arts innovation hub, dubbed ArtLab, opened on North Harvard Street. 

Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, approves of these developments. “We know for a fact that the ART, particularly under the leadership of Diane Paulus, has done extraordinarily well and it's been transformative,” she said. “We also know that many of the performances are sold out. The space just not big enough. So that's the reality."

Extending Jillson’s point a bit further, university arts centers can also act as conduits for the holy grail of arts philanthropy: audience engagement. “Dedicated to making theater accessible,” Harvard’s press release reads, “the ART actively engages more than 5,000 local students and a network of community members in project-based partnerships, workshops, conversations with artists, and other enrichment activities, both at the theater and across Greater Boston.”

The Goels’ gift also will support arts programs throughout the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, including new university uses for the Loeb Drama Center, as academic offerings in the arts continue to grow. Harvard will continue to assess its design, fundraising and planning needs for the new space in the coming months, and the ART will continue to produce work at the Loeb for several years while plans develop.

The gift follows what the Harvard Crimson called “a precarious situation at the ART.” In 2017, the Department of Education found that the ART Institute, which offered two-year graduate programs in acting, dramaturgy and voice pedagogy, was saddling students with high levels of debt, leading to an admissions freeze. Later that year, the ART decided to shutter its institute program for three years to “work on a strategic plan,” according to an email to affiliates at the time.

In related analysis concerning hedge fund titans with a penchant for the arts, check out our recent take on Kenneth Griffin’s philanthropy.