Beware Big Donors

By Stanley N. Katz

What is obvious to me, as a historian of the emergence of private philanthropic foundations almost exactly a century ago, is how far we have traveled from the fears of the first foundations that they would be perceived as antiegalitarian and threatening to the democratic process. For years Rockefeller and Carnegie pussyfooted around financing economic and social efforts that might be perceived as politically sensitive. Ford got into trouble with Congress when it immersed itself in school reform in New York City and had to back down. But while Gates is often seen as antiunion and pro-charter school—politically contestable positions—it shows no signs of hesitating to push its overtly political agenda. Gates and Lumina are clearly untroubled to be, and to be seen as, players in education policy.

Universities—and their associations—have been silent on this development, perhaps reluctant to bite the hands that feed them. But shouldn’t we all be concerned when public officials defer to private institutions when reforming higher education? Are we outsourcing parts of our education policy to the private philanthropic sector? I think so.

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