By Nate Rieder
In my four years at USC I’ve witnessed an unprecedented amount of massive financial donations being made to the school. And while I’m happy to bask in the glory of our beautiful campus and state of the art facilities, the money that USC receives from its benefactors still makes me feel a bit uneasy. In these tumultuous financial times, there seems to have been a recent explosion of the rich and famous donating their time and money to truly make a difference in the most impoverished regions of the world. I’m referring to people such as Matt Damon who spearheaded an endeavor to bring water to third-world countries and Warren Buffet and Bill Gates who have promised the lions share of their multi-billion dollar fortunes to charitable organizations that work towards solutions to global issues. Of course I’m not saying that everyone with wealth should be expected to show this kind of selflessness, but these acts of true charity and kindness make the decisions of uber-rich alumni to donate such large sums to an already well-endowed university (have you seen Tommy’s package?) seem somewhat ill advised.
In 2006, George Lucas donated a ridiculous $175 million to the USC film school, resulting in a number of new buildings and facilities that opened in the next few years. This year we had the opening of a new Campus Center that came as the result of a slew of donations totaling $136 million. Fast-forward six months and the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences received a $200 million donation from David and Dana Dornsife. Oh, and the Communications school was also given a cool $50 mil earlier in the academic year. These are massive sums of money, and generous donations to be sure, but couldn’t these funds be put to better use by almost any other organization?
I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now, and I know it’s considered uncouth to question how other people spend their money – especially when they’re giving it away – but this whole process just doesn’t sit right with me. As I frequently do when considering an issue such as this, I engaged anyone and everyone who would listen in conversation and debate about it. And the answers I got as to whether this seemed rational and why people might donate so much money shocked me more than the donations themselves.
Of course I got the typical answers about how it’s important to give back to the institution that helped you to become a person capable of amassing so much wealth, but I was under the impression that USC was supposed to teach us how to make a difference in the world, not just on their balance sheet. Many people noted how donating a building is a way to achieve a sort of lasting notoriety: some even comparing it to having a child in terms of continuing one’s legacy. I certainly understand the psychological reasons for doing this, but they seem to reflect narcissism and egocentricity rather than charity or goodwill. Not a single person I spoke to went beyond explaining the reason that people would make this choice and looked at whether or not this reason was flawed. This seemed to indicate that self-aggrandizement and selfishness – even in the realm of charity – was so pervasive and commonplace that it does not even cause people pause when they encounter it.
One last response that I got was that it’s important to give back to institutions of higher learning because they help to create the people who will hopefully be able to solve our bigger problems in the future. Although it is true that most people who make major contributions to society attended college, wouldn’t it make more sense to target global issues at the source rather than hoping that a proliferation of shiny new buildings will somehow lead to solutions years in the future?
Maybe all of this wouldn’t bother me so much if the individuals who gave so much to USC were also giving similar amounts to other causes. But they aren’t. All of the donations that I mentioned were the biggest ever made by the people who gave them. Call me a cynic, call me an asshole, but I just feel that if one is fortunate enough to have more money that ordinary people can even fathom, they have a duty to try to use some of it to make the world a better place – not just to selfishly perpetuate their legacy through unnecessary, often gaudy new buildings that bear their names.