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April 22, 2002

Conference connects philanthropy, universities

By Michael Terrazas


Nearly 100 people from a range of relevant perspectives—university administrators, academics, developers, foundation executives and professional analysts—gathered at the Emory Conference Center April 15–16 for the first “Philanthropy and the Research University” conference, which explored the historical and contemporary links between two of America’s pillar institutions.

The aim of the two-day event was to define the relationship between American higher education (specifically, graduate education and academic research) and the private philanthropic foundations that have provided integral financial support to universities since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

“Philanthropy, specifically the emergence of the great trusts and foundations, has been essential to what [University of Virginia’s] Olivier Zunz calls the ‘matrix of knowledge’ in the United States for the last 100 years,” said Gary Wihl, acting dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the main organizer of the conference. “Foundation support, endowments and charitable giving are among the driving forces that created the distinctly American research university system.”

Speakers included individuals from academia, from philanthropy—and from both at the same time. The conference’s opening panel discussion featured Zunz, Commonwealth Professor of History at UVA, and Harold Shapiro, former president of Princeton University and current chair of the board of trustees of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Shapiro maintained that both higher education and private philanthropy are, in fact, institutions of “public trust.” Before the Industrial Revolution that roughly coincided with the Civil War, American colleges were “peripheral institutions” that mattered little to issues of national import. However, once foundation and government money entered the scene, colleges that previously had concentrated on classical education began to shift their focus to more practical matters, in realms such as science and politics, and the modern research university was born.

Still, as important as “professional philanthropy”—directed grants from large foundations—has been to education, Shapiro said the “affective” philanthropy (usually smaller donations from individuals made partly for emotional reasons) was much more important to Princeton during his tenure.

In his remarks, Zunz identified three 20th century periods in higher education funding: the first, centered in the period between the world wars, witnessed “the emergence of the science of funding,” marked by a convergence of scientific and philosophical movements and a national investment in research.

Following World War II, Zunz said, there developed a “bureaucratization of funding,” in which funding institutions began to develop criteria for measuring the efficacy of and return on large grants, even those given for hard-to-quantify work in the humanities. The peer-review system for academic publication also developed during this time, he said.

Zunz’s third and latest period, during which he said the foundations have watched their influence diminish somewhat, has witnessed the emergence of the “professional fund raiser” as a vocation. This period, he said, was signalled by Harvard University’s unprecedented capital campaign of the mid-1950s.

Other speakers in the conference included leaders from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, academics from New York University, Pennsylvania State University and Georgia Tech, as well as professional analysts from the national consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Each panel was moderated by an Emory administrator or faculty member.

Coupled with the April 5–7 Sam Nunn Policy Forum, which examined “Commercialization of the Academy,” the conference marked a significant amount of intellectual thought and activity devoted to the relationship between higher education and the Almighty Dollar.

“I am delighted that, with these two events, Emory is being identified as a center for provocative thinking and critical analysis of strategic issues facing research universities,” Wihl said. “I sincerely hope that the recognition we are getting from other universities and educational institutions will give a boost to our planning as a major university.”