Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Annals of Philanthropy

 Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg just gave 1.8 billion dollars to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, thus removing for perpetuity and with one dramatic gesture the “tuition loan crisis” for future undergraduates at that great university.  In the future, forever, nobody will ever have to decline admission to Hopkins on financial grounds.  Fleming has two things to say about this: what a gift! and what a Mensch! 

I realize that my unalloyed enthusiasm violates canons of academic niggelkeit, which ought to be a German word meaning that ability to find the dark cloud that must necessarily accompany the most dazzling Sterling of silver linings, but I cannot help it.  Louis XIV, having advanced some fellow in aristocratic rank, is supposed to have lamented, “I have now made one man ungrateful and a dozen others jealous”.  Don’t allow it to be thus with regard to this princely gift.  I’ll explain why the worry even crosses my mind, but first I need to tell you about my lunch with Michael Bloomberg.

Shortly before I retired Mr. Bloomberg gave a hundred-room dormitory to Princeton in honor of his daughter, who had pursued a brilliant undergraduate career here.  I know it was “brilliant” because by chance I saw some of it first hand as the director of her senior thesis in Medieval Studies.  The dormitory, Bloomberg Hall, is actually named for her—a wonderful paternal touch, but also one that dramatizes the special undergraduate emphasis of our institution.  Compared with a gift of nearly two billion a splendid new dormitory costing merely many millions may suddenly seem small beer.  In fact, it is a very big deal.  When the building was finished, the University catered a small lunch party for the donor, the honoree, the donor’s formidably intelligent sister, some major officers of the institution, and a couple of spear-bearers, including me.  I don’t have a lot of high-and-mighty lunches, which is a pity if this was anything to go by.  It was really great.  After graciously and succinctly covering all the ceremonial topics required by the occasion, Mr. Bloomberg proposed that we have a general conversation, quite off any “record,” having to do with challenges facing the country and the city of which he was then the mayor.  What followed was an unforgettably stimulating academic seminar that did its best to avoid the academic even as it eschewed the partisan simplisms defining most of our current political discourse. I had heard a few glib politicians before.  Here was one who could think on his feet and carry on a smart conversation with other smart people.  That was the first and only occasion on which I have been in the presence of Michael Bloomberg; and it left me with a very high opinion of the man.

Hence the somewhat grudging reaction to this fantastic gift to Hopkins from various leaders in higher education caught me off guard.  I read about the gift in an op ed by Bloomberg on Monday.  Over the next few days—maybe even the next day—there was a cluster of vox pop letters to the editor.  I cannot find the relevant back copy of the Times, which I fear was used to wrap up discarded turkey bones; but I think I remember the letters well enough.  There were four of them.  Two were from “ordinary” readers.  The first of these was interesting but irrelevant, arguing that a college education is not a necessary prerequisite to social significance or economic success—a true observation, but one that Bloomberg’s munificent initiative had not questioned either in fact or by implication.  The gist of the other was what a gift! and what a Mensch!  But even this letter suggested that there was something problematic about the man’s charity—though the problem might be temporarily deferred while we applauded the charity   The niggelkeit factor was explicit in the two other letters in which two high-ranking academic administrators (provost of an important institution in New York City and president of a Seven Sisters college) weighed in.  Concerning the largest single private gift of money ever made to an academic institution at any time in history these worthies were, I thought, rather faint of praise.  The institutions they lead are very different from each other—as both are different from Johns Hopkins—but they joined together in a shared subtext: very generous, Mr. Bloomberg, but it would have been so much better, don’t you know, if you had given the money to us.

How well I can understand the feeling!  My first reaction to many a brilliant new publication is how much more deftly I could have handled the topic—never mind that that would require, contrary to fact, my having had the wit to come up with the topic in the first place.  It would seem inappropriate, however, to display my inner turmoil in this regard in the letters column of the newspaper of record.  Bloomberg has not resolved the issue of resource inequity among American institutions of higher education.  His aim is not so impersonal or so grandiose.  “My Hopkins diploma opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream,” he writes.  “I have always been grateful for that opportunity.”  Old-fashioned virtues—perhaps like the very notion of “the American dream” itself--are withering away.  I hope that one of the last to fade will be gratitude.