what you can do with a $10 billion endowment
The Penn Gazette — the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine — is one of the only paper publications I still receive. Cause it’s free, and they somehow find me wherever I move. (The other two are The Atlantic, which I often think about dropping, and Consumer Reports, because my mom keeps sending it to me.)
President Amy Gutmann has a column at the beginning of each issue. The most recent one touched a nerve in a way I could go on about at length, but will just mention briefly. (Man, it turns out blogging during the semester is a lot harder than blogging on sabbatical.)
Penn has implemented a new award for graduating seniors called the President’s Engagement Prize, which “will be competitively awarded annually to Penn seniors to undertake fully funded local, national, or global engagement projects during the first year after they graduate from Penn.”
Gutmann’s larger explanation for why they are creating the award is worth quoting at length:
While any time would be a good time to create an award for civic engagement, I think it is especially appropriate to launch this initiative at this time. Increasingly in recent years, the national discussion about higher education has come to take an extremely narrow and atomistic view of the utility of attending college. “Value” in higher education in these discussions is measured primarily in metrics focused on the individual’s post-graduation economic experience—typically by the average or modal salary range for alumni five years out—with little or no attention to the enormous value society gains by going through the time, effort, and expense to richly educate each new generation of graduates. The focus today on the economic gain to college graduates is almost a complete inversion of the tradition and expectation that girded the founding of Penn, as is evidenced by Benjamin Franklin’s own assertion at that time that an educated youth is “the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths.” A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create social good, he argued, that had as its chief aim the cultivation of educated individuals “qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.” Yes, educated people do well, but they do so by doing good.
I couldn’t agree more.
But at the same time, from the perspective of someone at an underfunded public university, the scale of the award is just mindblowing: “Up to three prize recipients (either individuals or teams of up to three students each) will receive a generous living allowance for one year after graduation and up to $100,000 in project expenses.”
I am sincerely delighted that Penn is using some of its wealth to encourage public service projects. But I also look at that and think about my undergraduates, who take almost no classes with fewer than 100 people in them, who have very limited access to advising, many of whom are working 30 hours a week or taking care of family members, and the disparity is just gobsmacking. And the strategic plan of this university is all about educating even more students with fewer resources.
There have always been disparities between wealthier and less wealthy universities. And I realize that the half-million a year or so Penn is using for these awards is just a drop in the bucket, though I could certainly put such a “drop” to work. It is reflection, though, of how our university system is going the way of society at large — toward massive, massive inequalities. And the wealthiest universities attract the biggest donors — as in the record-setting $350 million donation Harvard’s School of Public Health just received.
Wealthy universities can use this money to do good things, of course. But at the same time, a future in which we have 15, maybe 25 extremely well-funded universities and then hundreds that are desperately trying to generate revenue from all sources possible does not seem healthy for the future of the nation.