Last week, hedge-fund manager John Paulson announced a $400 million donation to Harvard University, the largest gift in the school’s history. As with any high-profile donation, the gift attracted more than its fair share of criticism.
Late last week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported:
The hedge-fund manager John Paulson is giving $400 million to Harvard University for its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, the largest gift ever to the university. The school will be named for Mr. Paulson, who earned an MBA at Harvard in 1980 and went on to establish the $19 billion Paulson & Company investment firm in 1994.
Discussing his motivation, the benefactor said, “The education here opened up a lot of doors for me.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “He described the donation as an effort to ‘ensure that Harvard, Allston and Boston and the East Coast will be a center for technological innovation.’” Commenting on the gift (one of the largest ever to a U.S. university) in the Harvard Gazette, university president Drew Faust exclaimed, “John Paulson’s extraordinary gift will enable the growth and ensure the strength of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard for the benefit of generations to come.”
Almost without missing a beat, critics turned bright green with ivy envy.
Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews did not mince words, writing, “There is a special plaque in philanthropist hell for John Paulson.” Characterizing Paulson’s previous philanthropic endeavors, Matthews writes, “[H]e’s given big chunks of [his fortune] away to the least worthy charitable endeavors he can find.”
Matthews’s argument is quite straightforward: “Harvard is not a charity.” As the author rightly acknowledges, Harvard serves an unrepresentative segment of the population. (Thank you, Vox, for pointing out that “Harvard also overwhelmingly serves smart kids.”) Instead, Matthews proposes “any other charity is a better choice” and he even suggests a few of them, such as the Open Philanthropy Project or the Gates Foundation. If Paulson wanted to donate to education, Matthews suggests, “He could give $400 million to a public university that’s serving overwhelmingly poor students.”
Slate was not much kinder. Headlining, “Billionaire’s Ego Donates $400 Million to Harvard,” one author commented, “So Paulson is helping to exacerbate the severe and growing gap between schools that teach predominately well off students and schools that teach the rest of America.” However, Slate offers a tacit defense of Paulson’s actions considering that they are simply an effect of the current tax code: “If we want to support any worthwhile charitable giving through the tax code in this country, we probably also have to stomach supporting Paulson’s style of munificence.”
Even the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell weighed in on gift, leading Business Insider to describe the situation saying, “Malcolm Gladwell just went nuts on a Wall Street billionaire’s $400 million donation to Harvard.” Gladwell took his comments to Twitter with gems like: “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!” and “Paulson to Harvard: is there a way to give back without actually giving anything back?”
Others on Twitter echoed the modern mantras of justice: “Good thing John Paulson came through with that $400 million. I hear Harvard was about to run out,” “Paulson just donated 400 million dollars to Harvard and I’m over here struggling to buy a Starbucks coffee,” and “Roughly 12% of the world is starving and John Paulson donates $400 million to richest institution on earth. Harvard needs it more. #Harvard #smh.”
Almost every criticism of Paulson’s gift focuses on the theme of inequality, either explicitly or implicitly. Without a doubt, this position is logically valid. However, the premises on which the argument rests depend on information that we could not possibly know. If we accept, for argument’s sake, the utilitarian framework posited by these criticisms (characterized as, “The money would be spent better elsewhere because there it would achieve greater good and influence more lives”), it presumes that we know the limits of Harvard’s capacity to influence. It necessarily assumes that the research performed at this engineering and applied sciences school will fail to reach those outside of the ivory tower. Maybe this $400 million donation will lead to opportunities to do even better things around the world (or in the students’ own backyard) than the other suggested endeavors. Or maybe it won’t. But let’s not pretend that we already know the answer.
Having a discussion about bloated university budgets is one thing but picking on a philanthropist by saying there is a special plaque for him in philanthropist hell is an entirely different conversation. We should not belittle philanthropy just because we lack the imagination for what it might accomplish.