Among their notable contributions was $10 million to Howard University in early 2020 to endow scholarships for students in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Theirs was, until then, the largest single-donor gift the historically Black institution had received in its century-and-a-half history.
Politics was something they largely avoided, figuring they had better things to do with their fortune. “I think pre-Trump we kind of took our democracy for granted, frankly,” Bruce Karsh, who rarely gives interviews, told me. “We were pretty apolitical, I guess, and we’ve supported candidates on both sides of the aisle. We made some contributions, but very small, and not meaningful.”
All of that began to change for them in 2017, when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, the college town where the couple met four decades ago as law students at the University of Virginia. In 2018, they gave $43.9 million to U-Va.’s law school — its largest gift ever — to fund scholarships and set up a center there to promote the rule of law and democratic ideals.
But their anxiety about the state of democracy only grew in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, when President Donald Trump refused to accept the clear fact that he had lost, and then egged on a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters.
“It just made us decide that we were going to go bigger and deeper, because this was a much more serious problem than we had thought, even two years earlier,” Bruce said.
On Friday morning, the University of Virginia will announce that the couple is giving $50 million, which the university has promised to match, to establish what will be known as the Karsh Institute of Democracy.
The institute will aim to elevate the practical understanding and promotion of democratic principles. One of its missions is to coordinate the expertise currently spread in a disjointed fashion across more than a half-dozen programs on the campus.
The new effort will be run by Melody Barnes, who directed the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama and who before that was chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
I can’t think of a more fitting place for such an endeavor than this storied public university. It was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe — three U.S. presidents who hailed from Virginia — were all present when the cornerstone for U-Va.’s first building was laid in 1817.
What Barnes envisions is a vital center of scholarship and debate, a place that will bring together political leaders across the ideological spectrum with historians and economists, scientists and educators with artists and cultural leaders.
The goal, she explained, is to “start to put ideas into the bloodstream, in such a way that they start to shape the way that policymakers, and business leaders, and grass-roots leaders in the public are thinking and talking about them, so that they can in turn then shape legislation and policy and practice."
The fragility of our system of laws and rights has rarely been more apparent than at this moment. Every day, we see people who describe themselves as “patriots” mobilizing to overturn election results and make it harder for people to vote.
It is an urgent situation, which is why more than 100 scholars of democracy signed a “statement of concern” this week calling upon Democratic senators to suspend the filibuster and pass a national set of voting protections.
But it is also true that the corrosive forces that have undermined confidence in democracy did not begin with Trump, and have not shown any sign of subsiding with his departure from office. So it is worthwhile to examine them with a longer lens than a two- or four-year election cycle.
Set against the ugliness of the current political climate, can even a $100 million investment in the study, teaching and promotion of democracy really make a difference?
“I think you have to start with educating people,” Martha Karsh said. Thomas Jefferson, who more than 200 years ago designed the “academical village” where this experiment in revitalizing democracy will take place, would no doubt agree.