Analysis: John Paulson’s record donation brings Harvard fundraising unprecedented criticism
By Mariel A. Klein , CRIMSON STAFF WRITER July 7, 2015
UPDATED: July 7, 2015, at 12:25 p.m.
After the announcement that billionaire John A. Paulson had pledged $400 million to rename the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard administrators celebrated the huge stimulus to the growing school, the largest gift so far in University history and its record-seeking capital campaign.
University President Drew G. Faust lauded Paulson’s donation as “transformative.” The gift, she wrote in a University-wide email last month, “will place the School on sound footing as it establishes itself in new spaces on our campus in Allston, deploys knowledge in service to humanity, and pushes the boundaries of discovery.”
Outside the Harvard bubble, however, a number of commentators had a nearly opposite reaction: The world’s richest university, they said, did not deserve the money.
Boston Globe columnist Steven Syre argued that Paulson’s gift and the “sheer voraciousness of the Harvard money machine… shines an unflattering spotlight on the wealth gap in higher education and the ways in which it is perpetuated.”
Opinion writers and pundits joined the chorus, maintaining that the New York hedge fund manager’s money would have been better served at a needier school—at least not the country’s wealthiest—or to tackle other world issues, like poverty or malaria. “Literally any other charity is a better choice,” one critic wrote.
Paulson is not the first to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Harvard. Billionaire Gerald L. Chan pledged $350 million to the since-renamed School of Public Health last September, and Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 put down $150 million, mostly toward College financial aid, in early 2014.
But unlike those donations, Paulson and his $400 million donation have received much more than praise. Administrators maintain that the criticism will do little to hurt their fundraising efforts, but one fact remains: Paulson’s record gift has brought record scrutiny to Harvard’s $6.5 billion capital campaign.
A few factors, experts and administrators say, could make Paulson and his gift different from the high-profile donations that preceded them.
Harry R. Lewis ’68, who serves as SEAS’s interim dean, suggested that the gift may have received more flack because of the nature of the school it benefits. The impact of an unrestricted gift to engineering and science, Lewis said, is more abstract than the promise of public health research and financial aid.
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