Higher education had a very good year. That’s the news from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which reports that “during an election year soaked in populism, some of America’s biggest philanthropists bestowed an unusually large chunk of their charity on colleges and universities, including several elite institutions.” How large? Colleges and universities received almost half of the $5.6 billion given away by the top 50 donors in 2016, a larger share by far than in any of the past five years.
Is this, as the Chronicle implies, a message sent by America’s wealthy to show their support of elite academia in the face of a populist uprising? Not really. Rather, if America’s most successful businesspeople are making a vote of confidence, it is not in academia in general, but in scientific research—and medical research in particular.
Phil Knight, the cofounder of Nike, has said that declining public support for scientific research is what has led him and his wife to pledge half a billion dollars to the University of Oregon. They were at the top of the Philanthropy 50 list this year. The Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact is “designed to fast-track scientific discoveries and the process of turning those discoveries into innovations that improve the quality of life for people in Oregon, the nation and beyond.”
The Knights are hardly alone. Michael Bloomberg has given hundreds of millions to the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins University; Howard and Lottie Marcus left $400 million to the American Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, which promotes research in desert ecologies.
Many of the biggest philanthropists have made their money in the world of scientific innovation. So when they “give back,” that is what they support. Technology entrepreneur Larry Ellison donated $200 million to establish the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine at the University of Southern California, dedicated to the prevention and treatment of cancer. It’s only natural for those who have made their fortunes in technology to support scientists. For example, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has made large grants to Stanford and Tufts to foster bioscience discovery.
Such largesse isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the broader university. Philanthropists may see great potential for academic scientific research, but that doesn’t translate into support for undergraduate teaching or liberal arts education.
There are reasons it is more attractive to give to scientific research endeavors, reasons beyond just that they are noble and interesting pursuits. For one, money spent on science and technology is more likely to produce measurable results than money spent on improving undergraduate education.
Consider the fate of philanthropists who try to change college curricula to include a more substantive core or more exposure to free-market economics, efforts that have regularly been met with backlash on campus. Who wants to get grief—as Lee Bass famously did with his grant to Yale—trying to figure out whether one’s gift to support education in Western civilization is actually being used the way it was intended? Rare is the donor who is willing to take abuse, as the Koch brothers did in 2014 for giving money to the United Negro College Fund, and then make similar donations directed to historically black colleges, as Charles Koch did this January.
Most donors, even if they believe such efforts are useful, lack the stomach to get mired in university politics and bureaucracy. Giving their money to science-focused research centers, as opposed to a general fund or to nonscience faculty appointments, suggests that they know the rest of the university can be a sinkhole of ideology and mediocrity.
The hard-science laboratories and research centers, by contrast, are hotbeds of meritocracy. The cream rises to the top, and though the rest of the faculty and administration would like to drag them into the world of politics and protests, for the most part these researchers remain above the fray. But the faculty and staff of these research labs at universities are no more connected to the educational experience of undergraduates than are most schools’ football teams.
Universities are eager to tout the large gifts they receive; it burnishes their brands. Indeed, when young people apply to college, prestige is often a consideration. The easiest way to measure prestige is often by looking at the success of advanced research in the hard sciences. Some college rankings include factors like the number of Nobel Prize winners a particular school employs. But how many of them are teaching Introduction to Chemistry, let alone French Lit 101?
It’s not that most universities are starving when it comes to money for scholarships and general operating expenses. Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and number 7 on the Philanthropy 50, believes that housing is very important to the student experience, and so has pledged a small fortune to the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan for dormitories. Austin Marxe is supporting scholarships to the City University of New York, his alma mater. But very few donors are interested in supporting race and gender studies or in funding social activism on campus.
Most philanthropists would rather say they helped to fund a cure for cancer. And who can blame them? ¨
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard