Donor Intent and Unwelcome Results

Note: The following appeared in the August 29, 2014, edition of the Wall Street Journal as a letter to the editor. Here is the unedited version of the letter.

Numerous cautionary tales for all sides can be found in Abusing Donor Intent, Doug White’s accounting of the Robertson family’s dispute with Princeton as reviewed by Leslie Lenkowsky (August 18).    The Robertson’s generous donation with the intent of increasing the numbers of Princeton graduates pursuing careers in government service could be considered laudable but any experienced grant-maker would have had reservations that the donation would achieve its goals.   The typical conversations such gifts to academic institutions tend to raise are usually about the impact of the gift on the institution (control, academic freedom, and the like) obscuring a more fundamental concern about whether the institution can actually (or even intends to) make good on its promises to the donors.

Too often, the good intentions of donors become mismatched with institutional needs that lead to the development of programs that will eventually have to be evaluated on the basis of unobtainable outcomes.    This mismatch is an unfortunate but all too easy a trap for donors and institutions to tumble into as is clear from White’s Princeton case study.  The mismatch of intention and execution becomes serious when institutions attempt to use funds dedicated for one set purpose to fill other needs.    There is often the hope that outcomes can be massaged to make it all look like a win-win.

Academic institutions have as a core mission providing educational opportunities and funders can and do help support rigorous programs of scholarship.   I think a difficulty comes creeping in when higher education is held to outcome measures based on the career choices of graduates.    Of course, academic institutions can broaden awareness and inspire students’ professional directions, but ultimately whether a student pursues public service or not is influenced by a number of factors not under the institution’s control – and this is as it should be.     Not everyone can (or wants to) pursue narrow post-education careers when the opportunities to pursue good works through public service or private enterprise can take a rich diversity of routes.   Of course, it is hard to know what actually transpired but perhaps the Robertson family and the Princeton leadership should have had a more transparent conversation about what is realistic for an academic institutions to achieve.    Saying not to a generous gift is difficult but it can be the right thing to do.       Perhaps the most Princeton could have reasonably been expected to promise was to expose students to careers in public service while providing them a first rate education.

A parallel case study to the one discussed in White’s book could be drawn from the continuing effort by public and private funders to increase the numbers of M.D., Ph.D. graduates pursuing academic medical careers by pouring money into programs incentivizing students to pursue dual-degrees.    A recent National Institute of Health report documents the percentage of the dual-degreed physicians pursuing academic research has not budged in the past few decades despite the huge investment.   As with the Princeton graduates, numerous factors influence physician career choices.   Maybe a better outcome measure of the programs should be: Do these educational opportunities create smarter, engaged, enlightened professionals regardless of initial and future career choices?

Perhaps donors should be more willing to accept that philanthropy has its limits and institutions might, in turn, be more honest about what it is that they have the ability to achieve.

Susan M. Fitzpatrick

James S. McDonnell Foundation

St. Louis

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