MOST colleges offer a wide range of deserving programs and activities. Many of these already receive handsome support. In general, endowments receive larger gifts than specific academic programs. Physical facilities receive more support than educational activities. Research and publishing are better supported than teaching. Graduate and professional education receive much more support per student than undergraduate education. Your dollars will have the greatest impact if you direct them to areas that receive less support.
Foundations and universities have a lemming-like tendency to rush after the latest scholarly or pedagogical fashions. They want to be "innovative," at the "cutting edge," in tune with the latest trends. By comparison, such ideals as liberal arts education, high academic standards, careful analytical reading, clear writing, and rigorous thinking can look hopelessly old-fashioned. Some donors forget that, for the typical student, it is rock music that is old and familiar; Plato and Adam Smith are new and dazzlingly different. So remember: The best program is not necessarily the most "innovative" or "trendy" one; the best program may be the one that resists trends in favor of the timeless.
The addiction to trends leads to truly bizarre results. "Dead White European Males" are so out of fashion that even Shakespeare has been dropped as a course requirement for English majors at three quarters of the 70 leading institutions surveyed in ACTA's study, The Vanishing Shakespeare. Less than a quarter of schools surveyed by ACTA for WhatWillTheyLearn.com require graduates to take even one survey course in U.S. history or government; fewer than five percent of schools surveyed require economics. Courses on pop culture, sex, and politics - such as "The Graphic Novel" and "Seminar in Criticism and Theory: Animals, Cannibals, Vegetables" - are taking the place of classics.
Donors who really want to make a difference may wish to consider programs that uphold classical educational values. The distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has called on donors to support "oases of excellence" at our institutions of higher learning. Funding a specific academic program has several advantages. It is part of the intellectual life of the institution. For students, an excellent program - courses with high intellectual standards that have not been politicized or dumbed down - offers a challenging alternative to standard campus fare. For professors, a special program offers an opportunity to draw young people into the life of the mind. For the institution, outstanding programs set a standard that puts competitive pressure on other programs. Honors and Great Books programs have had this impact at several colleges, as students are attracted to the more demanding and prestigious course of study. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has compiled brief descriptions of programs donors may wish to consider. The best program to support may be the one that creates an "oasis of excellence" at your alma mater.
Ideally, colleges and universities expose students to a wide range of viewpoints. But too often campuses fall short of this ideal, either failing to ensure intellectual diversity among speakers or even disinviting speakers who are deemed too controversial. Donors can make a major difference by supporting speakers who will expose students to new ideas. They can also support a faculty or student group on campus or a national organization that makes speakers available to colleges and universities. Supporting outside speakers is an excellent way to stimulate discussion and bring intellectual diversity to campus.
Finally, there is a critical need to support the research of scholars, especially untenured faculty, whose work is excellent but not "trendy." These scholars often cannot get funding from campus, foundation, or government sources -- and much good can be done even with modest gifts. In 2000, Harvard alumnus Robert Krupp gave $25,000 to support professor Harvey Mansfield's new translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. The gift had a much greater impact, and was much more satisfying to the donor, than just throwing money into the annual fund. Supporting outstanding individual scholars may be the best way to help your college.
Carefully targeted giving can have a vast impact on institutions engaged in serious curricular reform. For reasons of cost and quality, some institutions are contemplating a movement back to a more disciplined core curriculum. They understand the reasons to move away from the common system of allowing students to base their liberal arts education on a selection - often random - of courses from several broad academic areas. Intelligent donors can help a worthy institution leave behind the "smorgasbord" approach to undergraduate education. Seed funding could bring faculty from different departments together to plan team teaching and resource sharing that would replace an existing array of narrow, niche courses with multiple sections of a carefully structured foundational course for all undergraduates. Imagine a campus where freshmen and sophomores have as a common topic of conversation their explorations of the Federalist Papers or Marbury v. Madison. Once such a core requirement is in place, it becomes self-sustaining and cost-effective. ACTA's What Will They Learn? project has identified the state of core curricula around the country as well as schools that seek to improve and strengthen their core requirements. ACTA can help donors with suggestions on where and how to make such a gift. Your thoughtful investment can help create a new model of undergraduate excellence.
Think twice before you fund a building or an endowed chair. If your aim is to improve education or research, a building does little to enhance the intellectual content, pedagogy, or methodology of either. The key to education and research is not the building itself, but what goes on inside the buildings.
Most donors who endow chairs have an image of the kind of scholar or teacher who will hold the chair.That image may bear little relation to reality, as schools historically have given donors little or no role in selecting the holder of the chair. Even if you approve of the first person to hold the chair, you do not know - and will have even less control over - who subsequent holders will be. One donor who funded a chair in Western civilization was shocked to learn that the holder was "deconstructing" Western civilization. There was nothing he could do... And remember: Money is fungible. If your chair goes to a current faculty member, all you are doing is freeing up funds to be used elsewhere, perhaps to hire someone who represents the opposite of what you want to support.
If you want to help your college live up to its highest ideals, support something that will really have an impact on the intellectual life of the campus. Decide what is important to you. Do not let others talk you out of doing what you want to do with your money.
*The American Council of Trustees and Alumni's publication Inside Academe follows events and trends on campus. We can refer you to other organizations and publications, such as campus newspapers and student publications, that would be helpful. We can also assist you in finding course syllabi. Contact ACTA at 202.467.6787 or visit us at www.goacta.org.