It appalls her, and if you put endowment in her search engine, you’ll find years of UD being appalled.

These endowments are a classic rich-get-richer phenom, in which a hedgie, say, decides the best thing to do with his or her hundreds of millions of dollars is to give them to Harvard, so that Harvard’s endowment can go from $35 billion to $35 billion plus. To make matters worse, schools like Harvard hoard their endowments.

You don’t have to be Peter Singer to know that this is an unconscionable use of money.

Malcolm Gladwell has begun podcasting about how disgusting it is that “the biggest donations go to institutions that already have endowments larger than some countries’ gross domestic products.” Good.

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14 Responses to “UD has never understood why the fact that some universities have amassed endowments of $25, $35 billion doesn’t appall many people.”

  1. dmf Says:

    just like preachers driving oversized luxury cars it signals being tapped into the Source of all goodies

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:


  3. adam Says:

    Rolls Royces reflect a British Commonwealth influence. Our local preacher folk grandees usually settle for Cadillacs.

  4. john Says:

    while its certainly arguable that donating to harvard is suboptimal, it’s hardly “unconscionable”.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    john: I’d argue that donating vast sums to Harvard is indeed unconscionable.

  6. Dom Says:

    The sentiment is accurate, but comparing the dollar value of a university’s endowment with a country’s GDP, which is measured in dollars per year, makes an article (or podcast episode?) sound dumb. It’s like saying, “that suburb is further away than the speed limit.”

    Malcolm Gladwell, with all his magazine and book editors, must know better. I hope that’s just a bad summary by the Huffington Post author.

  7. john Says:

    i think the better argument is with what harvard does (and does not do) with its endowment.

  8. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dom: It’s a very popular comparison nonetheless – one of many prior examples:

  9. Dom Says:

    The headline at that link, “Harvard’s Endowment Is Bigger Than Half the World’s Economies,” moves the quantity-to-rate comparison from dumb to outright wrong.

    Writing “your car is fifteen times faster than you are tall” is dumb. Turning that into “your sedan is taller than you” makes it completely wrong—I know I can see over the roof!—and undermines everything else the author is saying.

    Harvard was founded in 1636. Divide its endowment by its age, and you get a (still completely meaningless) number smaller than every country’s GDP in the linked table except Tuvalu. And Harvard employs more people than Tuvalu’s population.

    No quibbles with the actual moral argument, but the frequent comparisons to GDP grate like an eloguent proffessor of oraltory who cant spell.

  10. Derek Says:

    I’m a Williams alum, and our endowment is, by liberal arts college standards, an insanely high $1.3 billion (give or take a hundred million). But not so insanely high that it seems quite as unconscionable to do targeted donations every year.

    But in 2008-10 or so I was really annoyed when the college tightened its belt. It seemed to me at the time that it was precisely the right time, when everyone else was cutting back, to make a big hiring push at a time when the market would have been unbelievably fruitful to pick up the best of the best potential faculty. Not that Williams doesn’t do very well, but being countercyclical could have produced the best new faculty crop in years even given that the new faculty crop at Williams (or Amherst, or Swarthmore, or what have you — I think the same idea applies across the board) is always fantastic. My argument was that you could do that without denting the endowment in any meaningful way, and set the college up to thrive even more than usual when the recovery happened.

    Not shockingly, my modest annual donation didn’t give my voice much credence.

  11. Mr Punch Says:

    Stocks versus flows – that a fallacy is widespread doesn’t justify it. I can’t help but notice that UD’s household appears to own millions of dollars worth of real estate, while poor Professor VE in the next office is barely earning six figures.

  12. theprofessor Says:

    UD, Harvard, like many institutions, draws down its endowment by 5% or so annually. That is hardly “hoarding.”

  13. Margaret Soltan Says:

    tp: You’re a significantly publicly funded institution operating for the public good and you spend barely five percent of your 36.5 BILLION dollar endowment per year?

    And remember: “[W]hen it comes to these fancy universities the official endowment figures are a drastic understatement of the real wealth of the university. Harvard’s real-estate assets are mind-bogglingly valuable, for example, but not part of the endowment.”

  14. theprofessor Says:

    In an age where interest rates on 30 year treasury bonds are about 2% and AAA corporate bonds are 3%, a 5% payout is entirely reasonable. Harvard has operating income of $4.5 billion, of which fully 35% is endowment draw.

    Understand that I hold no brief for Harvard, but I don’t think that they should be required to act recklessly.

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