Other People’s Philanthropy: Why Gladwell is Wrong About Higher Ed Giving


Esteemed essayist and bad debater Malcolm Gladwell has now entered the podcast game. And as one would expect, he’s already a formidable player. His new series, Revisionist History, is good. I’ve listened to three episodes so far and enjoyed each. However, I take issue with his criticisms of higher-education giving in Episode Six: My Little Hundred Million. Thus, a new post.

My Little Hundred Million is the third in a series on higher education, a topic Gladwell is evidently passionate about. The episode condemns the relatively recent philanthropic phenomenon of multi-billion dollar gifts to universities that already have enormous endowments. Think Stanford, Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, Columbia, etc (you can see a list here). Gladwell’s argument is that a major gift will have more impact if bestowed on a college or university system that needs the money more. This was the logic behind Hank Rowan’s $100 million donation to a small university in New Jersey (shunning his alma mater, MIT), which essentially kicked off the modern trend of billionaire gifts to universities.

(At least, I think that’s Gladwell’s argument. In the podcast, he curiously never makes the more obvious moral argument: that that type of philanthropy could be better spent on, say, helping feed the hungry, ala effective altruism. If he had, I would be more sympathetic to the criticisms. Instead, it seems like he thinks it should still go to higher education, just to less endowed institutions.)

As usual, Gladwell attempts to add assurance to the argument he’s examining by tying it to some kind of named social science theory or statistical analysis. This time, he connects the idea to David Sally and Chris Anderson’s popular analysis on “weak-link” and “strong-link” players in soccer (see their book, The Numbers Game). Essentially, in certain sports, having weaker players hurts your overall chances of winning more than in other sports. Think about soccer. There are very few opportunities to score, so mistakes by weaker players have a proportionally higher impact. Then think about basketball. There are many opportunities to score. So typically, one dominant player–Michael Jordan, say–can make up for the weak links on the team. Therefore, having a few weaker players isn’t going to have as big of an impact in basketball as it would in soccer. Basketball is a strong-link game. Soccer is a weak-link game. Gladwell apparently sees higher education giving as a weak-link game, and is appalled by the prevailing strong-link mentality of donors and universities.

And in some ways, Gladwell may be correct. I think often about philanthropy, particularly philanthropic efficiency and effectiveness. There is certainly waste and there is certainly mis-allocation of funds. But to make a strong call on the rightness or wrongness of a gift, you first need to agree on the 1) goals of the donor, 2) the timeline of impact, and the 3) type of difference the donor is trying to make. Gladwell doesn’t examine any of these in his criticisms, particularly of Phil Knight’s $400M gift to an unnamed graduate program at Stanford, initiated by outgoing president, John Hennessy. Instead, Gladwell assumes the goals for himself. He takes it for granted that donors should or do have the same goals, timeline, and types of impact in mind as he does. This leads to an overly broad conclusion and what is certain to be bad advice to billionaires in many instances: don’t give to top universities.

Why is it bad advice? Let’s examine the conclusion in the context of goals. What if my goal, as a donor, is to cure a particular type of cancer as fast as possible. Should I not give to a top-tier research institution like MIT? Would it be better to give to a small state school, with hardly any medical infrastructure to speak of? In which instance is my goal most likely to be accomplished in the shortest amount of time? I think the answer is obvious. The same would go for a number of different scenarios.

In My Little Hundred Million, we don’t hear from a single billionaire donor to a large university. Gladwell seems to assume the donors’ goals are (or should be) his goals: namely, supporting a “rising tides lift all boats” theory of education that will ultimately, in his view, lead to better economic output on the whole. Sure, that’s a fine goal*. But we don’t know if the donors have the same goal. And it’s their money. They’re smart people. Maybe they have a good reason or argument. Without talking to them about their objectives and rationale, it’s silly to broadly condemn, and Gladwell slips into a kind of simple, self-righteous moralism. It’s as silly as if I were to condemn him for not immediately giving his notoriously high speaking fees directly to, say, the Against Malaria Foundation**. After all, $80,000 for a speaking gig would buy some 18,000 mosquito nets in the DRC and Malawi, likely saving or pro longing hundreds of lives. Isn’t that better than spending money on podcast production?

In any event, I still recommend the podcast. But even more strongly recommend that you listen with a critical ear.

*Though I’m far from convinced by the economic output argument…wouldn’t the U.S. have a better chance of staying competitive if we gave more to universities that are already on the cusp of major innovations, rather than ones that need to catch up?

**The Against Malaria Foundation, petulance aside, is an excellent charity. 

Ahem…Islam is not a race.

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins set off another twitter frenzy with this factual but taunting tweet: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

This is of course true, and astonishing when you consider the sheer number of the world’s Muslims, some 1.6 billion. Dawkins point was similar to that of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in this 2006 lecture: Something has set science back in the Muslim world from their once preeminent position (they named most of the stars, for instance), and it’s likely fundamentalist adherence to religious dogma and the rejection of facts that disagree with their holy book.

In any case, you can find Dawkins’ blog post here defending his tweet and further explaining his intentions. He also responds to the most frequent criticisms from the twittersphere, in which large masses of users seem not to understand that:

1. Islam is not a race (rule of thumb, if you can convert to it…)
2. “Your” and “You’re” mean two different things.

Texas, abortion, and the greatly missed level-head of Carl Sagan

Texas’ senate just passed a bill to ban all abortions prior to the 20th week of pregnancy, approximately four weeks earlier than the guideline set by Roe v. Wade. The bill gained momentum largely by way of a disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain as early as 20 weeks (see article on controversy here). Among other consequences, the new law, which requires a facility upgrade for clinics not meeting outlined surgical standards, will effectively shut down all but a few abortion clinics in the state (a state, by the way, with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country).

The bill has created quite an outburst across Texas and the U.S., with Senator Wendy Davis emerging as the outspoken hero of the “pro-choice” movement (she successfully thwarted the the bill’s first attempt at passage during a 13 hour filibuster).

All the hullabaloo prompted me to revisit Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1990 article in Parade Magazine, “Abortion: Is it possible to be both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’?”, which is still the most thoughtful, level-headed discussion of the issue I have encountered. After reading, you may begin to see why defining the ability to feel pain as the metric for fetus viability stands on quite shaky moral ground.

I’ve reproduced the first paragraph here:

“The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed . . . ”


Is death really so bad? Yale’s Shelly Kagan explores one of our deepest fears…

While skimming the comment sections of a post by Jerry Coyne, I was turned onto this debate between philosopher Shelly Kagan and Christian theologian William Lane Craig. A little more study revealed this may be one of the few debates WLC has ever “lost” with an atheist, and I have to agree that he seemed taken off his game a bit by the informal setting and by Kagan (see a brief review here). I’m not sure I was convinced by Kagan’s argument that an atheist can have any kind of “objective” morality in the sense Craig is advocating for, though I am also not convinced that humans need objective morality, and finally I’m unconvinced that objective morality under theism is any more tenable (Why, for instance, is something good solely because God says it is? What if He were to say rape was good, would that make it objectively moral?).

In any event, I was sufficiently intrigued by Kagan to look up some more material, and found the video below that centers on death, given right across the street at Southern Methodist University. His main points can be summarized in this article, but for an even briefer taste, here are some of the questions he explores:

  • Why is death bad? (not the process or prospect, but death itself)
  • Is death intrinsically bad (like pain), or instrumentally bad (like losing your job and that leading to poverty), or is it comparatively bad (watching TV when you could be at a great party)?
  • If death is bad for you, when is it bad for you? It can’t be bad when you’re alive. Can something be bad for you if you don’t exist?
  • If you reject the existence requirement, can’t it be bad not to exist? If so, what about all the potential people who will never be born? Are we committing a great moral crime by not spending all our time trying to bring as many people from nonexistence into existence as possible?
  • And so on…

I have almost no background in philosophy, so I’m trying to ease myself in and Kagan’s a perfectly accessible and entertaining teacher to do that with. Additionally, his popular course at Yale, “Death”, is available for free on Yale’s Open Course site. I’m planning to check it out in the near future…provided I don’t die…which would or wouldn’t be bad for me?