Have you donated to your college alma mater?
I haven’t, even though I treasure the four years I spent at Cornell University. I met my wife there, and started down the path of full adulthood with an education far more valuable than the cost of tuition.
I told myself there were plenty of rich alums who would support all the great things happening on the campus far above Cayuga’s waters. My 250 bucks a year wouldn’t make any difference.
That was a mistake, the kind of lazy rationalization that discounts the merit of small donations. The analogy isn’t perfect, but Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have shown that many, many, modest contributions can really add up.
Fund-raising is the hot higher education topic these days in the wake of disclosures by Harvard University and MIT that they accepted money from Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender who preyed on young girls.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology took $800,000 from Epstein over 20 years, including $525,000 for its Media Lab, most after his 2008 plea deal on prostitution charges, according to president L. Rafael Reif. Senior leaders at MIT were savvy enough to know that Epstein could use the philanthropy to launder his reputation, but stupid enough to think that requiring the gifts to remain anonymous made it OK to take them.
Up the Red Line at Harvard, president Larry Bacow said Friday that the university received $9 million from Epstein before 2008, including $2.4 million that the school had not previously disclosed.
Reif has said MIT will donate an amount equal to the funds the school received from “any Epstein foundation . . . to an appropriate charity that benefits his victims or other victims of sexual abuse.”
Bacow has said Harvard has spent all but $186,000 of Epstein’s dough. The remaining money will be given to nonprofits working to help victims of human trafficking.
Harvard also should allocate the full amount it got from Epstein to good causes. Not because it can afford to — $9 million is a rounding error for its $39.2 billion endowment — but because it’s the right thing to do.
It would send the message throughout the academic world that plausible deniability isn’t an excuse and more rigorous donor vetting is needed.
Which would force administrators to rethink what is acceptable corporate and personal behavior when it comes to benefactors.
Which would make it easier for leaders to say no to some donors no matter how much good they could do with the money.
Yes, this would most likely mean less money flowing to colleges and universities. But it might also lead to a reassessment of spending priorities, allow faculty to focus more on academics and less on fund-raising, and reduce the great-white-whale obsession of many development officers.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but big money is chipping away at the integrity of our universities just like it has already undermined the integrity of our political system. Campaign finance seems beyond salvation, but there is still hope for higher education.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: So Mr. Know-it-all, are you finally going to write a check to Cornell?
Yes I am.
Go Big Red.