Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pressure from a donor

An architecture school received an application for admission from the relative of a wealthy man, who had been talking about leaving a substantial gift to the university in which the architecture school stood. The admissions committee, upon reviewing the applicant’s portfolio and transcripts, decided to deny him admission, which angered the prospective donor, who threatened to rescind his promised gift. The university asked the school to reconsider its decision, although the admissions committee stood behind its choices.

Colleges and universities have become increasingly dependent upon wealthy donors in order to make up for such things as declining state support, dwindling grant amounts, or depressed endowment returns. Donors, of course, have long had a role in higher education. The medieval English universities, for example, arose out of the patronage of the nobility and the royalty. And virtually every North American campus has signs of donor largesse in the form of everything from named buildings to named bricks. Call it a kind of high-priced graffiti.

There remain limits, though, in how far that can go. Philanthropy, by definition, does not allow funders to have much control over specific application of their gifts. They can direct their giving to achieve a particular goal – to see a building built, research effort launched, or student scholarship established – but the details of how their funds get used or who benefits from their gifts lie beyond their purview. The tax deductibility of the donation demands it.

That does not mean that donors won’t try to influence faculty or university decisions. Rarely do those efforts become as blatant as the situation here, where the donor threatened to withdraw a planned gift when the school did not admit his relative. This shows that philanthropists, ironically, can have more control before they give a gift than afterward, given the voluntary nature of their donations. As a result, the university has to decide where to draw the line and when to walk away from the gift rather than sacrifice something of greater value.

In this case, that value lies in the ability of the faculty and staff to assess the quality of candidates for admission. That ability may seem elitist to some, but in the end, decisions about who to admit have a very practical purpose: to determine who can do the work required and who, among all of those seeking admission, will have the greatest likelihood of success. From that perspective, admissions committees do weak applicants a favor in not letting them in and setting them up to fail. That does not mean that errors in judgment do not occur. Sometimes, seemingly weak candidates can blossom in a program and excel far beyond anyones expectations.

However, that possibility does not negate the general rule that admissions should remain blind to any factor that does not pertain to the potential of the candidates to succeed in a program. In this case, if the school admitted the relative of the donor out of a sense of obligation to the institution rather than out of a belief in that person’s ability to do the work, it would have likely become even more of a problem later on. Would the donor be any less angry if his relative eventually failed out of the program, having spent tuition to no avail? The school has to support the faculty’s judgment as to the best candidates, since that judgment, in the end, has far greater value than any donation, however much it might be needed. Better to let go of a gift than to go after it and lose one’s self-respect in the process.  

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