Today, another very rich man has given an enormous amount of money to a very rich university that doesn’t really need it. This gift is supposed to make the world better. But it is a very big waste.

Phil Knight, the billionaire founder of Nike, is giving $400 million to Stanford—a school that already has an endowment of more than $22 billion, and that just last year received more donations than any other school in America. This is the academic charity equivalent of giving a donation to a Michael Bloomberg election campaign: it’s not necessary, and it could do a lot more good elsewhere.


Knight’s grand idea is to establish an endowment for a graduate program that will “attract the best graduate and professional students from around the world.” They’ll receive a full ride to come to Stanford and “commit to working on important issues in small, multidisciplinary teams.” (In a hilarious demonstration of the self-awareness level of the average billionaire, the example Knight uses as a problem that these students might study is Mark Zuckerberg’s failed $100 million gift to the Newark public school system. Judge not lest ye be judged, Phil.)

The theory at work here (other than pure rich person ego) is that, by funding the education of these Very Smart Students at a Very Good School, the money will have an incalculable effect on Saving the World, because these students will go out and do Great Things. There are a few problems with this theory.


1. Since these scholarships will ostensibly go to some of the best students in the world, you are not giving something to someone needy who otherwise would not have had it; you are simply redirecting talented students to Stanford, rather than to whatever other schools they would have gone to. In this sense, the gift subsidizes Stanford’s reputation more than it subsidizes the education of these students, who certainly would have found other places to go and study.

2. Phil Knight believes these students will go on to do great things for the world. Will they? Who knows? It is impossible to say. If, however, he donated the same amount of money to, for example, the fight against malaria, we can calculate that he would save more than 100,000 human lives.

3. The reputation of Stanford University is not more important than 100,000 human lives.

Charitable donations can quite literally save lives in a measurable and immediate way. Stanford University is rich as hell and does not need an enormous donation. Poor people who might otherwise die do. Even if Phil Knight believes that giving money to education has a great multiplier effect, he could give the money to educate poor people who otherwise would not get educated, rather than to the most elite students in the world.

“But any donation is better than no donation!” Yeah. And a smack in the face is better than a kick in the balls. That doesn’t mean it is the standard to which we should aspire.

Stop giving money to rich universities. Stop it.

[Photo of an unwise philanthropist: AP]