(Chronicle of Philanthropy) — The most important philanthropy headlines of the last few weeks were about gifts rescinded, not gifts received.
I refer, of course, to the many reported cases of major donors pulling significant dollars from schools such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania over a lack of clear support for Israel following the October 7 Hamas attack and perceived antisemitic responses from student groups.
I understand some of the frustration from donors. I absorbed large quantities of ideological rigidity during my undergraduate years and, in my worst moments, made stupid self-righteous pronouncements that make me want to hang my head in shame today.
Thankfully, social media did not exist back in the 1990s, when I was in college. I imagine most people reading this have expressed a similar sentiment. Social media not only spreads outrageous statements — it encourages people to make those statements. So, as frustrated as donors might be with the unfiltered assertions of 20-year-olds, remember that they were formed in an environment that rewards the outlandish.
Whenever the present moment feels especially fraught and all-consuming, wise philanthropists should focus their attention on the long game. When it comes to long-term societal impact, few institutions are more important than universities. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “If you want to build a great city, create a great university and wait 200 years.”
I spend a lot of time in higher education. My organization, Interfaith America, has worked with nearly 1,000 campuses on religious diversity and bridge-building programs. I have spoken at more than 150 colleges and have been a visiting professor at schools such as Washington University in St. Louis and Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
I have a message for the philanthropists who find themselves frustrated with their alma maters for what various student groups said, and/or for what the president did not say: Believe in universities.
Universities and Democracy
In his important book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia University Professor Andrew Delbanco points out that if you were to put together a list of the greatest achievements of American democracy, the nation’s network of colleges and universities would almost certainly rank near the top. (A few others at the top of my list: jazz, baseball, the Constitution…)
The reasons universities land near the top are multifaceted. Colleges develop a knowledge base that strengthens our society, prepares the next generation of leaders, and sets the civic priorities of the nation. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, for example, expanded and grew in force on college campuses.
Colleges gather people of different identities and divergent ideologies in a concentrated space with common activities, ranging from biology class to intramural badminton. When those differences are ignited by certain events or circumstances, people’s disagreements take center stage, and they scream at one another on the quad.
When diversity works well, students learn how to disagree on some fundamental things and still work together on others.
In a pluralistic society, such skills are vital to civic life. After all, achieving complete agreement on the most important issues isn’t possible— whether we’re talking about the conflict in the Middle East, the politics of abortion or gun control, or even laws about charitable giving.
The operative word here is skills. Cooperation can be learned, and colleges should focus more energy on both researching and teaching it.
If I were a donor frustrated with how students are behaving and administrations are responding, I’d endow centers for cooperation or pluralism on campuses across the country.
For at least the past decade, the dominant framework for thinking and learning at university campuses has been social justice. The interesting thing about social justice is that different people have different definitions of the term. Both pro-life and pro-choice activists firmly believe they are advocating for social justice. Us vs. Them thinking is bound to thrive when diverse people are in a confined space that promotes free speech and encourages advocating for social justice, no matter how one defines it.
To counter this unproductive cycle, universities need to make pluralism a central value of campus life, co-equal to free speech, diversity, and social justice advocacy. The framework I use is straightforward: respect, relate, cooperate. But the literature on how to turn this simple formula into a concrete reality is complex, making it ideal for college coursework.
The syllabus might include Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which looks at how people with different identities often develop different understandings of morality. David Brooks and Monica Guzman, a senior fellow at the bridge-building group Braver Angels, have each recently published books on how to have conversations with people you disagree with, and might not even like.
Danielle Allen’s classic text Talking to Strangers is about why engaging proactively with people you don’t know is actually the cornerstone of our democracy. John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths goes even deeper. The Jesuit priest and theologian says the definition of civilization is conversation, and that a pluralist civilization is both special and challenging because it is a conversation between people of differing identities, ideologies, and moralities.
What a terrific class discussion all this would make.
Imagine a center for pluralism where such classroom discussions regularly take place, where a paid fellowship allows students to build bridges across campus, where faculty research and teach the most effective approaches to conversations between people with different views. And imagine that graduates of this center are highly sought after for employment by school boards and city councils whose meetings have grown so contentious that they need people with the knowledge and skills to help them work through disagreements and achieve common goals.
Imagine the pride you would feel if you were the donor that endowed that center at your alma mater.