William M. Chace

Enduring benefactions

As do most university presidents, I often contemplate the reasons why people give away their money. The government, of course, gives them the enjoyment of writing off a certain amount of their tax bills to compensate for their charitable impulses. Much guilt, too, can be assuaged by cash donations to the right not-for-profit agency. And no doubt a certain number of gifts have about them the feel of a quid pro quo. But for most people, I believe, something else, something much more important, is at work when they give.

That something else can be illustrated by one of the more remarkable stories from Emory's long struggle for survival in the nineteenth century, in the face of initial floundering, the depredations of war, and frequent recessions. It is the story of George Seney's gift to the then-tiny college.

The year was 1881, the initial amount was $10,000, and the immediate cause of the gift was a sermon preached by Emory College President Atticus Haygood. The sermon--which gave thanks for the South's restored relationship to the national government, for the improving industrial and economic conditions, and for the abolition of slavery--was printed at the behest of President Haygood's friends. In due course, the sermon found its way into the hands of Mr. Seney, who was a Yankee Methodist, a Wesleyan University graduate, and a New York City bank president.

As it happened, President Haygood traveled to New York in February 1881 and was told by a mutual friend that Mr. Seney wanted to see him. By the end of the afternoon, George Seney had given his first gift to a college he'd never seen, stirred by the inspiration of a man he'd just met and determined to do all he could to help a poor institution in a state where he'd never set foot. By the end of the year, he'd given a total of $130,000 to Emory College.

This story is remarkable not because of the size of the gifts or their uses or even their provenance from a Northern city at the end of Reconstruction. In none of those respects was it unique. What is striking about it is its being a bolt out of the blue, lightning from a clear sky. For George Seney was not an alumnus and, apparently, had never before had any connection with Emory. Nor, after a single visit to the campus in 1881, did he establish any more lasting relationship. Seeking nothing from Emory but good stewardship of its resources, he loosed his gift on the tide of Emory's fortune and sailed into other seas closer to home.

The legacy of George Seney has been echoed at countless colleges and universities, where individuals have wandered briefly into an institution's course, have found something drawing them in, and then have felt the need to contribute something to the institution's store before continuing on their way.

Few institutions in the West are as old as its universities. The perdurance of this way of seeking and passing along wisdom and knowledge--its traditions and learning and virtues--has rested in large part on the stewardship of those who have treasured what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said." Whether of modest means or enormous wealth, the patrons of universities have more often than not included private individuals intent on the perpetuation of cultivated learning.

Perhaps never before has that heritage of stewardship been as much at risk as it is now. Despite a vibrant economy that has created much new wealth, private giving to higher education is flat. Despite the prominence of American higher education as the most envied and desired product our nation has to offer the world, there is every evidence that America's place as a global leader in education is as much at risk as America's place as an economic leader.

David B. Laird Jr., president of the Minnesota Private College Council, Fund, and Research Foundation, recently reported that higher education has become the kind of national priority for Asian countries that industrial development once was. Last year, Japan announced a seven-year commitment of $155 billion in new funding for scientific and technological research, as well as the development of ten thousand new postdoctoral positions. Malaysia will spend $2 billion over the next five years on direct research and aims to reduce its reliance on other nations for higher education. Almost every member nation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is spending more on higher education than on defense.

Ours is a nation with many unmet needs. Emory is a university with a mission worth paying for. At the present time, despite its handsome endowment, Emory simply does not possess the resources it needs to do the job it is destined to do. We must close the gap between our aspirations and our present capabilities. What we do is expensive, but what we produce is invaluable. Somehow, as a people, and as a university, we must find the will to follow that moral high road surveyed for us by George Seney and countless anonymous others.

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