Ross Douthat addressing prospective donors to universities, the kind who keep giving to Harvard and Yale: 

If you want actual influence over American academic life, you’re just much better off finding a smaller or poorer school where your money will be welcomed, your opportunities to effect real transformation will be ample and your millions can build something dynamic or beautiful without always fighting through the thicket of powerful interest groups that grows up around powerful institutions. And to harp again on a frequent theme, if you’re absurdly, obscenely rich and care about higher education, you should Google “Leland Stanford” and then go and do likewise. 

Ross goes on to talk about donors who are motivated by the warm, fuzzy memories of their undergraduate days at such institutions — and tells them that they need to get over that — but I wonder: How many big donors are in fact thinking of their Happy College Days? Maybe they were happy, maybe they weren’t; maybe they appreciated the education they received, but more likely they don’t think about that at all. And how many genuinely desire to influence American academic life? Almost none, I suspect. I tend to think that the situation is more purely transactional: 

  • Assuming that these donors did attend an elite university, attending an elite university was for them a ticket to social capital and financial capital; 
  • Having acquired more financial capital than they could ever spend in a dozen lifetimes, they nevertheless find themselves longing for ever more social capital, more cultural approval, more cachet
  • And so they contribute to the universities that can give them that, which is to say, the most elite universities — no lesser school can provide what they’re willing to pay for. (How many of them have even had one instant’s thought about the future students they could help along the way? You don’t get that rich by thinking about other people.) 

Maybe in some general and theoretical sense they’d like to have influence over those universities, and maybe they complain when they discover that they don’t have it, but that’s like discovering that there’s no valet parking at the elegant restaurant where you’ve booked a table: annoying, but hey, you’re not there for the parking.