With Fran Lebowitz’s words in mind (UD, you recall, interviewed Lebowitz not long ago), let us once again, very gingerly, sidle up to the Sketchy Benefactor problem — the problem with your university taking hundreds of millions of dollars from people who… eh… meh… bleh…

Take Michael Milken. Start with him because he’s local – I mean, local to ol’ UD, because he bought her university a very beautiful building which houses a very fine school of public health, which he also bought for us.

If there is a poster boy for the redemptive powers of philanthropy, it’s Michael Milken. In 1993 the former junk bond king of Drexel Burnham Lambert emerged from a minimum security federal prison after serving 22 months of a 10-year sentence for securities fraud. He seemed a new man — partly because he had abandoned his toupee — and this revised Milken took advantage of his freedom by dedicating himself to giving back. (His finances quickly recovered after he paid the $600 million in fines and restitution; his current net worth is estimated at more than $2 billion.) In the decades since, he has donated consistently and significantly: more than $60 million to teachers and $50 million to George Washington University’s school of public health. His Prostate Cancer Foundation has raised $210 million. There is plenty of evidence that these good works are sincere. Is it also useful? Well, when news of a new SEC investigation into whether Milken’s involvement with Guggenheim Partners had violated his lifetime ban from the securities industry, Milken’s official denial in Fortune magazine read like a recap of his past 20 years of giving.

So no problem with Milken’s name being all over the GW landscape because he paid his debt to society and though in a perfect world we might prefer not to be associated with someone who had to do that in the first place, okay. But what if, while no longer flagrantly stealing, he’s still a sketchy person who when cornered on alleged continued sketchiness points directly at my university and what he gave it in order to exonerate himself?

Yes, GW’s had to deal with sketchy performers and sketchy honorary degree recipients lately; but this is small-time one-off stuff compared to (switching universities here) putting Steven Cohen or Bernard Madoff on your board of trustees or plastering sketchy names all over your most prominent buildings.

I mean… Seton Hall!

Or, staying with Catholic schools here, there’s the lawsuit against Georgetown University for failing to put a donor’s name on a building he bought just because the donor was convicted of insider trading. A long lawsuit between the guy and the university ensued, and if you go to the campus today you can take in the Scott K. Ginsburg Sport & Fitness Center — although, curiously, when you click on the Google link to an article in a university publication titled GEORGETOWN LAW CELEBRATES THE SCOTT K. GINSBURG SPORT & FITNESS CENTER, the connection times out. UD‘s gonna guess they caved, they settled with the guy, they put his name on the building and grimaced through its christening, and then they removed from sight all online references to having celebrated any of this…

Anyway, it’s an old story. Lure of lucre. Lure of respectability. UD only brings it up because of the very strange ongoing latest Caspersen story. The sketchy Caspersen family has a long and important donor relationship with Harvard, and as the alleged actions of the father and now the son tarnish the name more and more, there’s the question of how much tarnishing-by-association Harvard will tolerate. It’s not merely that the Caspersen name is prominent on campus; it’s that in virtually every news article about Andrew Caspersen’s court dates and bail amounts Harvard prominently appears.

You might say Harvard’s too rich and prestigious to care. You might be right. But remember that Harvard is under constant pressure from the government and the media and even from within to account in some way for its immense accumulated wealth. Fighting an ongoing battle against releasing a nickel of its money (this cartoon is out of date; the endowment’s now worth way more than 35 billion) is not made easier by one story after another about sketchy rich people who have helped put Harvard way over the top. In the case of Caspersen’s father, for instance, if it turns out that he did in fact evade taxes on a large scale (this has not been proved; he was under investigation by the IRS at the time of his death), Americans might actually stop and ask themselves why they are both giving huge tax breaks to Harvard University and tolerating donors who are tax evaders. Is zat how Harvard got so rich that the fact of its richness has now become a national controversy? Through ripping us off via tax breaks and then ripping us off again via tax evasions?

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7 Responses to ““No one earns $100 million. You steal $100 million.””

  1. adam Says:

    We gave them a nickle to add to their mickle,
    Leaving us in a pickle with language so fickle.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    adam: I didn’t know “mickle” meant a large amount…! Nice one.

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    And thanks for the correction of my spelling of nickel.

  4. adam Says:

    I know SOS agrees that turnabout is fair play! 🙂

  5. Mr Punch Says:

    Milken’s an interesting case because he made his money mostly (maybe entirely after fine) by doing things that were widely regarded as bad for the existing financial system, but were perfectly legal. He was, in current parlance, a disruptor. It’s not in fact “dirty money” in the sense of being “stolen” in any practical sense. This is, I think, more about the name than about the dollars.

  6. david foster Says:

    JK Rowling has made considerably more than $100 million…more like 10X that amount. Did she steal it? If Lebowitz had made $100 million from royalties, would she have considered herself a thief?

  7. Margaret Soltan Says:

    david: Yes, and some people inherit that much money and more. Lebowitz doesn’t pretend to be stating a fact that covers every imaginable case; her context is things like hedge funds.

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