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.


Written by epopp

September 26, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. This is so very true. The disparities are neither new nor surprising but the extent to which the gaps are growing and the rapid rate of increase in disparity is mind-blowing. Thanks for noting this specific instance.



    September 26, 2014 at 2:48 pm

  2. Besides donors, a number of state university systems are moving in a direction that will increase such disparities. I am a professor at a system where universities will now get state funding based on how many students graduate, instead of the old system based on enrollment. Which in practice creates a transfer of resources from the lower tiered institutions to the flagship ones. That is, the open or quasi-open access institutions, which would naturally have lower graduation rates, will see drops in revenue due to students dropping out. And this is exacerbated by the fact that the good students will frequently transfer to the flagship institutions.

    So not only will these lower tiered institutions (that were already struggling) see an immediate decrease in funding since it won’t be based on enrollment anymore, but they will also be “transferring” money to the flagship ones, as there are many students who will get the first 2 or 3 years of education at the lower tiered institution and then transfer and graduate from the flagship one.



    October 4, 2014 at 5:58 am

  3. @dlp, along those lines, focusing heavily on graduation is even more of a problem for community colleges, where “graduation rate” doesn’t map very well onto successful fulfillment of the institution’s mission. Dean Dad had an interesting column recently that addressed this problem:



    October 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm

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