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On June 15, The New York Times published an interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, in which he was asked about his philanthropic interests, now that his net worth exceeds an estimated $80 billion. His philanthropic giving to date has been modest by the standards of many other multibillionaires.
Bezos responded, “If you have any ideas, just reply to this tweet …”
Within a day, Bezos had received more than 18,000 replies. No doubt the flood of tweets will continue unabated for days to come. Yet it’s very difficult to compress a good idea into the 140-character limit of a tweet.
With that in mind, I offer my own suggestion.
Dear Mr. Bezos,
You indicated to The New York Times that, when it comes to philanthropy, you are interested in making investments that are “at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.” I have a suggestion that I think would do just that. But first, let me set the table for you.
In 1992, Henry M. Rowan Jr., an industrialist living in southern New Jersey, did something literally unprecedented: he gave $100 million, virtually all of which was unrestricted, to a local public institution, Glassboro State College. He had no particular history with that institution, but it was the only four-year college near his business offices. It was, at the time, the largest gift ever given to a public institution -- and Glassboro State College then had an endowment of less than $1 million. In recognition of this gift (and not, as some people have speculated, because it was a condition of the gift), Glassboro State College changed its name to Rowan University.
Rowan was rolling the dice with an enormous bet. He was betting that a gift of this size could be transformational for Glassboro State. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that institution was soliciting a major gift from him. But he decided that MIT was already so rich that even $100 million would do little to effect a transformation there, and he wanted his gift to have an impact.
Rowan’s gift was paid in installments over 10 years, and I had the good fortune to be hired as president of Rowan University in 1998 to move the university “to the next level” -- a concept that was not specifically defined but was assumed to mean making the university better, stronger and more recognized.
The gift was intended to be an endowment, with some of the investment earnings available for spending every year. But the sheer size of the gift allowed us to leverage it in the market for purposes of borrowing funds to improve the campus. We built engineering, science and education buildings. We renovated many of the existing buildings and improved landscaping. We constructed a town house complex to increase student housing. We acquired 600 acres of land near the campus for future expansion and the construction of a technology park.
Over a 10-year period, working with the town of Glassboro, we constructed campus-related buildings (residence halls, a hotel, a bookstore and a parking garage) on city-owned land adjacent to the campus, and to benefit the town, we orchestrated a public-private partnership to ensure the new buildings would be taxable at normal rates. Most of them included shops and restaurants on the ground floors, as a way of attracting the local populace to the area.
The campus grew in size and reputation, and shortly before I left in 2011, we built the first new medical school in New Jersey in 40 years. The work continues under my successor, with an intention of growing the student body from 8,000 in 1998 to 25,000 by 2025. (It’s more than 17,000 today.)
Rowan died two years ago, but he lived long enough to see his legacy in full bloom. His gift was every bit as transformational as he had hoped. He was a tough businessman, but when he spoke of the university that bore his name, his eyes filled with tears, and on more than one occasion he told me, “That was the best money I ever spent.”
Some cynics speculated at the outset that the university would never receive another gift, since any gift would pale in comparison to Rowan’s gift. To the contrary, philanthropists reasoned that a university that could attract a gift of $100 million must certainly be worth their much smaller investments, and over the subsequent decade, we received more than a dozen gifts of $1 million or more, with one gift of $10 million. Success breeds success -- and large philanthropic investments attract other philanthropic investments.
The Rowan story is gradually becoming better known. For instance, it was featured in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast last year as an example of how philanthropists should be investing in colleges where their gifts will have meaning and impact, as opposed merely to swelling the bank vaults of well-known institutions that are already fabulously wealthy.
So, Mr. Bezos, here is my suggestion for a philanthropic investment.
- Transform 10 colleges or universities each year for 10 years by awarding them an unrestricted endowment gift of $100 million. That’s $1 billion annually for 10 years.
- Any public or private four-year, nonprofit institution with an endowment of less than $100 million would be eligible to apply.
- An anonymous panel of experts whom you select would review the applications each year and select the 10 that promise to be the most transformational, affect the largest number of students and have the greatest societal impact. The specific criteria for evaluation would be yours to state, and those criteria may well change over the 10-year history of the plan.
- As a condition of the gift, each recipient institution would be obliged to prepare an annual report, for 10 years, documenting their success (or failure) in achieving the goals they stated in their initial proposal. Those reports would be public, so that everyone could see the ways in which the colleges and universities were being transformed by virtue of winning a Bezos grant.
Mr. Bezos, this proposal, if funded, will positively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of students every year -- forever. But more important, if something like this does not happen, our country will continue to see a major shortfall of college graduates relative to our economic needs, and that shortfall will occur largely among would-be first-generation students, many of whom are members of ethnic and racial minorities.
There are many worthy philanthropic investments that you might make. But the economic future of our country depends on doubling the percentage of American adults with a four-year degree. A study last year by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce showed than 73 percent of all jobs created since the Great Recession required at least a baccalaureate, and only 36 percent of adult Americans currently have that level of education. The current system of higher education will never get us to where we need to be, but philanthropists such as you can show us the way.
Donald J. Farish, president
Roger Williams University