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Why are universities with huge endowments such cheap dates?


Tom Scocca raises a point I’ve made before with respect to Harvard and Jared Kushner — it’s amazing how comparatively little money it takes for Ivy League universities to kowtow to what should be completely unacceptable requests from unscrupulous rich donors:

Two hundred and fifty million dollars! Seventeen point five million! That’s a lot of money—unless, that is, you’re Yale University. Billionaires and millionaires may be accustomed to getting their way in this world, but Yale itself is a billionaire. If it were a person, its endowment of $31.2 billion would make it the 19th-richest person in the country, by the Forbes 400 list, right behind Michael Dell of Dell Computers. Except presumably then Harvard would also be a person, and Harvard’s $41.9 billion would give it 17th place (between the Koch Industries billionaires and Phil Knight’s Nike fortune), bumping Yale down to 20th.  

Charles B. Johnson currently sits in a tie for 170th place in the actual human standings of the Forbes 400, with a net worth of $4.3 billion, a mere fraction of Yale’s riches. The $17.5 million funding of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy would represent 0.06 percent of Yale’s money. Johnson’s donation of $250 million may be bigger than every other gift in Yale history, but it’s not even 1 percent of the university’s wealth. (It’s 0.8 percent, to be exact.)

To put this in perspective: the median household net worth in the United States is $121,700. On the scale of the median U.S. household, the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy—for which Yale forced out a director, allowed donors to dictate its academic agenda, and earned itself an embarrassing story in the New York Times—would be worth the equivalent of $68. Johnson’s $250 million gift, the loss of which was presented as an apocalyptic threat, would be the equivalent of $973.

Would a normal person let Henry Kissinger call the shots around their house for $68? Would you grant a rich person the indefinite power to jerk your chain, whenever they wanted, for less than a thousand bucks? 

In 1998, when Harvard took a $2.5 million donation from New Jersey real estate mogul Charles Kushner shortly before admitting his academically mediocre son Jared, the university was sitting on an endowment worth $13 billion. In household income terms, Harvard helped inflict Jared Kushner on the world for the equivalent of $23.40. 

The $9.1 million Harvard collected from Jeffrey Epstein, meanwhile, would be .02 percent of its current endowment, or $26 to a normal household. M.I.T., with an endowment of $18.4 billion, tallied up its own Epstein gifts at $850,000—$5.60, relatively speaking.

Again and again, top universities disgrace themselves chasing what ought to be, by their own standards, paltry sums of money. Schools that would seem to have the reputation and financial resources to stand up for themselves instead let random bigshots boss them around, or chase overseas branding projects that require them to sell out basic standards and freedoms (only to be humiliated anyway). 

The obvious conclusion to draw, of course, is that the administrators don’t actually place any value an academic freedom and integrity, and the money is more a pretext than a causal factor.

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