Michael Bloomberg: Channeling His Inner Johns Hopkins

Many commentators have missed how Bloomberg’s seismic donation can shift donor culture in higher education for the better, argues Michael T. Benson.

January 17, 2019
Johns Hopkins University

News of Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, has elicited a wide range of responses. But the most common refrain goes something like this: “Wow, what a generous donation, but the money should have gone to a cause for which there was a greater need.” Writing in Vox, Dylan Matthews put it more bluntly: “For the love of God, if you have $1.8 billion to donate, don’t give it to your alma mater.”

While I certainly understand the general desire to help those who need the money most, commentators have missed how Bloomberg’s seismic donation can shift donor culture in higher education for the better. In this regard, Bloomberg is channeling his alma mater’s first benefactor, Mr. Johns Hopkins, the lifelong bachelor who designated nearly three-quarters of his accumulated wealth for “these two children of mine, a university and a hospital.”

Having made his fortune through investments in the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the abolitionist Hopkins left funds for his extended family and many other worthy causes in and around his adopted city of Baltimore, with the remaining $7 million earmarked for a university and hospital that would bear his name. The heftiest gift in the history of American higher education to that date, Hopkins’s generosity would be the equivalent of a $150 million gift today. And now, more than 140 years hence, the estimated value of the Hopkins endowment together with its assets is in excess of $10 billion (not including the latest Bloomberg commitment).

While his directives relative to how his namesake university was to be established and operated were purposefully vague, Hopkins left specific directions to ensure a “judicious” number of scholarships for students from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina -- all states where he had made much of his wealth both in the dry goods business and in the railroad. Hopkins wanted to educate the “most deserving of choice, because of their character and intellectual promise,” free of charge. Hopkins’s desire sounds strikingly familiar to Bloomberg’s objective for his donation, which “will be used for financial aid for qualified low- and middle-income students.” In Bloomberg’s own words, “the school that gave me a chance will be able to permanently open that same door of opportunity for generations of talented students, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Hopkins’s bequest enabled his institution to host those who “long for a wide education and who will do great things someday” and resulted in the establishment of this country’s first research university. There is absolutely no earthly way Mr. Hopkins could have envisioned what his initial donation would let loose. The university’s first president, Daniel Coit Gilman, said in his inaugural address in 1876, “So far as I can learn, the Hopkins foundation, coming from a single giver, is without parallel in terms or in amount in this or any other land.” The result was a sea change in the American university. Under the leadership of Gilman, Johns Hopkins infused bona fide research into the core identity of modern academe. “If any single development had shifted values in American higher education, it was the remarkable success of Johns Hopkins,” wrote Roger L. Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University.

The impact of Bloomberg’s donation -- which may perhaps inspire other alumni to donate more toward scholarships for those who could most benefit -- could likewise catalyze a consciousness among donors of the most pressing need in modern higher education: broadening accessibility. Among the people receiving financial assistance at Johns Hopkins could very well be the next wave of scientists, investigators and other graduates who will help transform the world for the better.

Still, many observers are questioning why Bloomberg chose to give to Johns Hopkins and not to countless other worthy institutions or causes where such a mammoth amount could make an even more significant difference. And, indeed, it is impossible to put into words what a gift like this could mean for a university like Eastern Kentucky, where 51 percent of our students are Pell eligible. Yet if the primary purpose of a university is the discovery, development, dissemination and application of knowledge for the betterment of society, one would be hard-pressed to find an institution in America that has contributed more per capita than Johns Hopkins University has.

Mr. Hopkins’s gift in 1873 propelled American higher education to generate life-altering discoveries, and this tradition lives on. Four current faculty at the university are Nobel laureates; they are among the 27 people with ties to the institution to have received a Nobel Prize. According to numbers from the National Science Foundation, for nearly four decades in a row, Johns Hopkins led the nation in the amount of institutional dollars spent on research and development, coming in at $2.43 billion in fiscal year 2016. The next institution in the ranking, the University of Michigan, spent about $1 billion less. A separate listing reported that Johns Hopkins University surpassed the $2 billion mark in research funded by federal agencies such as the NSF and the National Institutes of Health in FY 2016. The institution following Johns Hopkins, the University of Washington in Seattle, was just shy of $1 billion.

Every member of our society benefits when the maximum number of citizens obtains as much education as they can, rendering even more true the axiom that higher education in America must be viewed as a public good rather than a private benefit. Further, I would argue that an institution like Johns Hopkins -- with all the collateral benefits accruing to the world from its discoveries, research and innovations -- should be applauded when it chooses to focus resources and the talents of its faculty members, administrators and students on addressing the intractable challenges facing our globe today.

Michael Bloomberg’s most recent donation to Hopkins is in addition to the $1.5 billion that he has already given toward research, teaching and financial aid. If Bloomberg chooses to donate additional resources to his alma mater, then we all should celebrate his generosity -- not just for the good that will accrue at Johns Hopkins but also for the message it sends to the academy and beyond.

Higher education’s doors should be open to all those able and willing to attend, regardless of their economic pedigree. Only then will it begin to fulfill President Gilman’s lofty mission for Johns Hopkins University as expressed in his inaugural address: “Less misery among the poor, less ignorance in schools, less bigotry in the temple, less suffering in the hospital, less fraud in business, less folly in politics … more study of nature, more love of art, more lessons from history, more security in property, more health in cities, more virtue in the country, more wisdom in legislation, more intelligence, more happiness.”

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Michael T. Benson, president and professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University, is currently pursuing a master’s of liberal arts at Johns Hopkins University. He is the co-author of College for the Commonwealth: Making a Case for Higher Education in American Democracy (University Press of Kentucky).


Michael T. Benson

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