Gifts to Ivy League Schools More Self-Serving Than Philanthropic?

Kimbrough.jpg Thanks to Scott Jashik at Inside Higher Ed for pointing PhilanthroMedia to a compelling opinion piece by Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College, entitled, "The Perpetuation of Priviledge." Here's a taste:

I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country — inequities that one day will come home to roost.

Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill — no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less!

What's great about this piece, and makes it worth the time to check out, is the robust dialogue which follows it. I've never seen a better example of how a new media format can advance thoughtful dialogue. I'm not sure where you will come down on Kimbrough's premise, but the give and take you will find there is worth the price of admission. And if you feel like logging into the debate, be sure to bring back at least a copy of your comments to PhilanthroMedia. We need your comments like Philander Smith College needs your philanthropy.

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:15 AM, Jun 18, 2007 in Education | Permalink | Comments (3)


Curious minds want to know where Philanthromedia "comes down" on Kimbrough's premise. As for me, philanthropy has always been a matter of personal choice. However, one hopes those in a position to give will base decisions on more than just emotion and will do some due diligence to help them make wise choices. I guess donor education plays a role in that too.

Posted by: Bruce Trachtenberg

As you suggested, I went and read the Kimbrough piece. Nice writing, strong argument, but I don't know what more to say. I've been forced over the years to defend different foundations for decisions they made regarding their giving. In the end, when all the arguments failed to persuade, all I could say was "It was their choice." Fortunately or unfortunately, private philanthropy, while made possible by public policy, does not require decisions be made that support the greatest number of people in need or those whose needs are the greatest. It's like constitutionally protected speech, until someone changes the rules, we have to live with the freedom of choice to give where we please. Sure, people like Kimbrough have important things to say and should argue as forcefully as they can, but criticizing someone for giving to one cause vs another isn't going to get someone to rethink their giving choices. Instead, next time around they'll just give anonymously!

Posted by: Bruce Trachtenberg

I don’t understand the source of Mr Kimbrough’s anger and cynicism. The press report announcing this donation clearly states that the entire $400 million pledge will be designated for financial aid to undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia University. This money won’t be going to the wealthy 60 percent of Columbia students who “don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid”, those who can “pay the bill — no problem”. If they’re to be believed, the University intends to “enhance financial aid by eliminating the debt burden on students whose families earn less than $50,000 per year while attending Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science-replacing loans with grants for these undergraduates beginning in the 2007-2008 academic year”. It seems that this gift has the potential for promoting the kind ethnic and social diversity within the student body at Columbia University which Mr Kimbrough is demanding. Mr Kluges donation is philanthropy in its purest and noblest form.

As for his contention that this University “serves a population that looks nothing like America presently or in the future” I decided to see how this statement squares with the facts by comparing the racial profile of Columbia’s student body in 2005 (provided by the Economic Diversity Of Colleges web site) with that of the nation as a whole in 2005 (provided by the US Census Bureau). In doing so I found that Mr Kimbrough was right, but probably in ways that even he wouldn’t have expected. The percentages of non-hispanic whites were almost identical for both, but while the black and hispanic communities were somewhat underrepresented on campus, asians, who make up less than 5 percent of the nations population are about 20 percent of the student body at Columbia.
I suspect that the reason that the asian community is so disproportionatly well represented on this campus, is that they are disproportionatly well qualified academically to be so represented. I am in favor of any plan which seeks to be more inclusive and elevate broader segments of our society unless it involves lowering or manipulating the standards at our schools and universities to do so.

Posted by: dan scott