Hedge fund manager John Paulson had $400 million to put toward a philanthropic endeavor. The only question was where to donate it.
His final decision: a small school in Cambridge called Harvard University. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
Harvard was elated at the gift, the largest in university history. Paulson, a Harvard Business School alumnus, said in the announcement Wednesday that there was no cause more important.
But New Yorker writer and “Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell could think of a few.
After all, Harvard is only the world’s richest university, with a $36.4 billion endowment that’s larger than the gross domestic products of Jordan, Bolivia, Iceland and about 90 assorted other countries. Surely there were other institutions that needed Paulson’s support?
For Gladwell, who typically types an average of five tweets a month, it was a practically unprecedented screed.
And Gladwell wasn’t the only one frustrated by the gift. Vox reporter Dylan Matthews used the news to update a story on why wealthy people should stop donating to Harvard.
“Giving to Harvard is not philanthropy,” he wrote, noting that the majority of students come from families with incomes of over $125,000 and that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the recipient of Paulson’s donation, serves already well-funded fields like robotics and computer science. “It’s not helping people who need help, and it’s obscene that Paulson is getting a massive tax write-off for it.”
At Quartz, writer Matt Phillips suggested that public charities like universities be required to meet a minimum payout ratio in order to qualify for tax exemptions. A small investment team, MG Squared Investments, offered a range of other ways Paulson could have spent the money: Associates Degrees for 63,877 Americans, feeding every child in D.C. for two years, mosquito nets that would save the lives of 119,760 children overseas.
Inevitably came a backlash to the backlash. Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, said that donating to the school does help the world’s poor — by promoting research that can reduce poverty.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen made a similar argument:
T. Boone Pickens, founder and chairman of B.P. Capital, was less defensive than amused, he told Business Insider.
“My first thought was, hey, wait a minute, get the critic up there and ask, ‘Wait a minute, pal, how much have you given?'” he said of Gladwell. “You may find out he has given, but I have a hard time imagining anyone being critical of a charitable gift.”