An algorithm for donating to universities

Adrian Furnham makes his case for a discerning approach to philanthropy

February 10, 2017
money, cash
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I have just torn up a cheque for £250,000, payable to a university I attended some years ago. Well, metaphorically at any rate. I have decided not to donate, despite constant, annoying injunctions to do so.

I am the graduate of four universities, two in the top five in this country. Overall, I enjoyed them all for different reasons.

With, of course, some exceptions, I was well taught by dedicated and clever dons. I have memories of brilliant lectures and tutorials from all four places: a sparkling psychometrician; a real Renaissance woman; a European intellectual from the old school; and various world authorities on relatively obscure topics.

They were bright, sceptical, well-informed, tolerant and thoughtful people who might not thrive today as they did then. Two, well retired, of this number send me emails expressing horror at what is happening in their old departments as the managerialism cure sweeps remorselessly on.

They were different times: yes, the past is another country. I, like my colleagues, felt privileged to be at the university, then neither overcrowded nor trumpet-blowing. They were days about exploration and experimentation – and I shall remain eternally grateful to many of my teachers and those institutions.

About a decade ago, these universities woke up to an idea that the Americans had known about for years: alumni can be a source of serious money. So the calls, letters and invitations started to come in. I have attended alumni breakfast meetings and cocktail parties. I am annoyed by cold-calling graduates, but pleased to receive updates on the other alumni of my day.

But the questions remain: who should I donate to…and why? How much should I donate, given the various family demands on my limited donnish income? What criteria should I use to inform my judgement?

One night some weeks ago, over some nice claret, a few friends started a conversation about the topic of being approached (so often) by universities. We were all graduates of one university, where we met, but most of us received degrees from various other universities. We compared notes and reactions to the donation dilemma. We were not all on the same page.

Then one of our party suggested that we could be a lot more scientific about our decisions. Why not, he proposed, devise an algorithm that would help us decide how much to give to whom?

A great idea! So we set about deciding on the variables and the formulae. First, we all agreed that £250,000 would be our starting position. Most were very successful City types not far off retirement. Then, the following ideas were mooted to justify, reduce or enhance this number.

1. Being paid more than the prime minister
How many people, such as the vice-chancellor, deans and other admin heads, are paid more than the PM for a self-evidently less demanding job? Deduct £10,000 for each person.

2. Science park/entrepreneurial activity
Is the university trying to liberate itself from government handouts and exploiting (and rewarding) the talents of staff and students? Science park: add £50,000. Strong evidence of entrepreneurial growth: add £20,000 per annum for each of the last three years of such growth.

3. A department of Classics and philosophy
Is this a proper university? The arts graduates were well aware of the problems with arts, but insisted that the sign of scholarship was a strong focus on less profitable study. Add £10,000 for each Classics and/or philosophy department.

4. Evidence of nepotism
Two of us remember being farmed off with a professor’s spouse who was not up to it. Others recalled whole families being employed in mafia-like cliques. £1,000 fine for each academic couple.

5. Treatment of ‘mavericks’
How does the university deal with academics who dare to challenge the politically correct or complacent status quo? Various high-profile cases were discussed. If the don has been sacked or otherwise humiliated for voicing a debatable issue, take off £25,000 (per person).

6. Honorary doctorates
Cynical awards to arms dealers and foreign potentates to get money, or pop/sports stars to get PR. £5,000 deducted for each one in the past five years.

7. Freedom of speech on campus
Attempts to ban people or periodicals that do not fit with some ideology. £20,000 deducted each time

8. Vice-chancellor proclamations
Statements on issues of excellence welcomed (£5,000 added for each) but not over bandwagon issues such as “inclusiveness” (£5,000 fine). Clear evidence of admissions, recruitment and promotions procedures tailored to exclude everything other than academic excellence (including grant-earning potential) to be welcomed.

We went on for some time, but the claret had more effect on passions and prejudices than reason. Of course, some of these data are difficult to determine. But there is, of course, the wonderful Freedom of Information procedure, which means that one could winkle out some of this information.

I discussed our fun evening with colleagues – who were horrified by our criteria. They are, apparently, the ramblings of angry, pale, stale, frail males stuck in a selfish neoclassical time warp! I suggested that it was not that difficult to change the algorithm. What were the alternatives? We had the usual suspects:

  1. Gender ratios at various levels (reward equality, punish inequality)
  2. The number of poor background/underprivileged students
  3. Student contact hours with staff per week
  4. Movement in the past five years on one of those university rankings 

All of these could be factored in. You don’t have to agree with our criteria – or the weighting. But it helps me to decide how to distribute one’s hard-earned income between competing interests.

Altogether a fun conversation, and an experiment I would recommend to colleagues.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London.

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Print headline: An algorithm for would-be alumni philanthropists

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