Harvard Deserves Steve Ballmer's Millions

Bloomberg View , November 21, 2014

Now that he’s retired as chief executive officer of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer has time for popular billionaire pastimes. First, he bought a basketball team for $2 billion. Now he’s gotten into big-bucks philanthropy.

Ballmer and his wife, Connie, are giving $50 million in unrestricted funds to bolster the endowment of the University of Oregon, her alma mater. (She's also on the university's board of trustees.) They’re kicking in a seemingly comparable amount to significantly expand the computer science department at Harvard University, from which he received his undergraduate degree in 1977. The gift will allow Harvard to add a dozen computer science professors, bringing the department to 36 faculty, compared with 55 down the river at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (The exact sum wasn’t disclosed, but when the Harvard Crimson estimated $60 million -- 12 slots at an endowment of $5 million each -- Ballmer called the numbers “pretty good.”)

The Harvard gift sparked grass-roots grumbling. “What a stupid way to allocate one of the biggest donations in recent history,” someone with the handle “student” commented on the Crimson article, complaining that “now we’ll have 50% more cs professors being paid a huge salary to sit on their ass and teach a couple hours a week.”

Some suggested that the money would be better spent elsewhere. “Nice gesture but I am sure other universities could use this much more,” tweeted strategy consultant Bart van der Horst, “1% giving to 1%.”

“If these rich people would just donate their money to some of the smaller colleges, that make a real difference in students lives, it would be transformative. It really is a moral issue.... the very best ... get more and more and more... and the great little schools, are struggling to make ends meet,” wrote an ellipses-loving commenter on the Chronicle of Higher Education. “This is elitism at the highest levels. Ballmer should be ashamed of himself.”

The comments represent two common fallacies. The first is that the primary (perhaps the sole) legitimate purpose of universities is to serve students, especially undergraduates. The second is that the primary (perhaps the sole) legitimate purpose of philanthropy is to aid the less fortunate.

The gift is indeed elitist -- and rightly so. It is intended to support cutting-edge science, not to “make a real difference in students lives.” Given its purpose, the Ballmer money would be wasted at a rinky-dink school struggling to pay the bills.

Harvard is a research university, not a teaching college. Anyone who thinks its scientists “sit on their ass” when they aren’t in the classroom should be attending a different institution. Advancing the frontiers of knowledge, rather than conveying what is already known, is the university’s primary purpose and the main goal of the Ballmer gift. Adding faculty will also allow the computer science department to answer undergraduates’ demand for its courses. But that’s a nice side effect, not the point.

Explaining the donation in an article for Quartz, Ballmer talked about how “the next generation of computer science,” will bring “expertise in harnessing data and computing power not only to statistics, engineering, and applied math, but to biology, chemistry, neuroscience, design, the social sciences and public policy.” He barely mentioned students. Rather, he cited the possibilities for collaboration among researchers in different Harvard departments and across the research institutes in the Boston area, including MIT. “Imagine the puzzles we can solve -- the questions we can ask -- by uniting expertise. What is intelligence? Which disease patterns can be discerned through new algorithms? How can cities and urban environments become more efficient and more sustainable?”

The argument that “great little schools ... struggling to make ends meet” should get Ballmer’s largesse is a populist version of the coldly utilitarian case made by Peter Singer, who holds the Ira W. DeCamp chair of bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. Singer argues that “objective” measures dictate that philanthropy should go for the relief of suffering, not for cultural pursuits.

As an illustration, he writes that a $100,000 gift could save 1,000 people from losing their sight to trachoma, an eye disease common in tropical developing countries. So, he suggests with a thought experiment, giving $100,000 to an art museum instead is tantamount to depriving those 1,000 people of their sight. By such calculus, giving $50 million to a university -- or even to a poor, struggling teaching college -- would be tantamount to blinding 50,000 people. Who would do such a thing?

Singer’s crude utilitarianism starts from the assumption that cures for trachoma already exist and must simply be allocated according to his God’s eye view. But a civilization that actually produces cures for dread diseases can be neither so single-minded nor as predictable as he thinks. It has room for, indeed demands, both art and medicine, both exploration for its own sake and the deployment of knowledge for the relief of man’s estate. Reducing that civilization’s complexity to a single metric would destroy its richness -- the restless curiosity, passion and inspiration that foster practical progress and make life more meaningful. The self-denying asceticism of a Mother Teresa can at best comfort the impoverished and dying. It cannot make them less poor or sick.

Fortunately, philanthropists are not as “rational” as some of the philosophers who benefit from their largesse. They give partly out of a desire to do good, but also out of sentiment (the Ballmers' support their alma maters) and personal interest (Steve Ballmer cares about computer science). The result is that a wide variety of causes get funded. Some are undoubtedly a waste of money. But it’s hard to know in advance (and often even in hindsight) which ones those are, and in any case, individuals will disagree about what’s important.

The public critique of charity can be useful, because people with money to hand out tend to get too much flattery and too little disagreement. But that judgment shouldn’t simply replace the tastes of philanthropists with those of critics. And critics should remember that excellence, as well as need, is worthy of support.