Monday, October 24, 2005

For Liberty, For Justice, and for ... Yale?

“I love Yale…. [but] why bother giving to it? My resources are very far from limitless, so why not give where it makes a difference?” That is the question posed in a wonderful New York Times article on Sunday by Republican multi-millionaire entertainer Ben Stein to, among others, Democratic human rights advocate/scholar and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh. It is a deeply interesting question.

Yale has an endowment of $12.7 billion. Through its investment team it earned about 17 percent per year, or one billion dollars every few months. Stein notes that with such staggering profits, those gains dwarf whatever pitiful little gifts that he might offer. By comparison his donations of several thousand dollars to other organizations that promote animal rights or assist widows of deceased American vets does far more good. “There are only a few tens of thousands of us alums, so what we give has to be totally insignificant… Why give them money, then?” Donating thousands of dollars is “virtually meaningless to Yale, so why bother giving to it?” Indeed. (Full disclosure: I am not a Yalie, but am married to one).

If we care deeply about human rights or similar public concerns, Stein raises the serious question of why we should divert funds to fantastically rich organizations like Yale Law School instead of human rights organizations that can directly and materially benefit from every single dollar we donate. Yale University earns from its endowment about 6 million dollars a day, or about $4,000 per minute. Rather than give to Yale, why shouldn’t Yale alums give to an organization like International Justice Mission? When I was in India this summer working with IJM, it was clear that a few thousand dollars would pay the annual salary of an Indian human rights lawyer working daily to free those in bonded labor or child prostitution. So with $4,000, an alum could give one minute to Yale, or one year to IJM? Why give money to the anointed “little princes or princesses” at Yale Law School (Stein’s term) instead of the true nobility of our profession who desperately need our support?

Now I do not mean to paint with a broad brush and suggest that all gifts to all law schools are similarly suspect. Certainly gifts to many law schools can make a dramatic difference in the life of that school. For example, Yale’s endowment earns in a few months the total endowment of my current employer. If one of our alums makes a gift to help fund our newly established human rights initiative that is fighting religious discrimination in remote parts of the world, it will materially and dramatically improve the experiences of our most inspired students and their clients. I would suspect most schools are in a similar situation. (The average university endowment is $361 million, and the median is $72 million).

Rather than make a donation to the fat and happy Yale Bulldogs, why shouldn’t Yale Law alums donate a real live bull to the desperate and starving through Heifer International? Better yet, why not have the Yale Law School Dean (whom I greatly respect) spend countless hours campaigning for their alums to make donations to human rights organizations in the school’s name out of a deep sense of institutional gratitude and an abiding commitment to human rights? The capital campaign could announce that Yale would donate one dollar of every two dollars raised from alums to a truly needy non-profit organization of their choice. That may be the best way for Yale to continue to win Ben Stein’s money.

Related links:
For Loyalty, For Irrationality, and For Yale