In the “Your-Alumni-Fund-Donations-at-Work” category, it is intersting to read this article in The Transcript. The Greylock Assistance Project (GAP) seems to be private effort to raise money for public school related activities at Mount Greylock High School. Such efforts are common in Massachusetts and help to provide extra funding for things like sports teams, drama and even teaching positions, especially for towns in which a majority of voters don’t want to raise as much in taxes as some citizens think should be spent on the schools. So far, so good. We then read that:

A one-time, $250,000 gift from Williams College given earlier this year is expected to restore 5.2 of the 10.8 teaching positions cut from the fiscal 2004 budget.

The gift from Williams also made it possible for GAP to focus its fundraising efforts athletics and activities, GAP Ad-hoc committee member Lisa Hiley said.

The money raised by GAP for the fall means that football, soccer, cross-country running, extra band activities, the Shakespeare and Co. student production, as well as academic clubs such as the Junior Classical League will be offered to students.

This is somewhat troubling. Why is Williams College giving money to Mount Greylock High School? The latest mailings from the alumni association certainly don’t highlight this use of our contributions. Is Williams really so flush with cash that it can afford to give to other causes, however worthy? Of course, the counter-argument is that Williams is an important part of the local community and that part of being in a community is contributing to the local institutions. This is perfectly reasonable. I certainly feel better about Williams giving to Mount Greylock than giving to some, equally deserving, school in California.

But there is also the potential for a conflict of interest. Who decides where the college donates money? Senior members of the administration. Where do the children of senior members of the administration go to high school? For at least some, the answer is Mount Greylock. Indeed, we can read about the exploits of Matt (son of Morty) Schapiro on the Mount Greylock tennis team here.

So, is it any wonder that Morty Schapiro and other senior people at the college might think that the worthy goal of providing a better education at Mount Greylock High School is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of the College’s money?

Followers of recent financial scandals on Wall Street will note the similarity to the case of Jack Grubman and Citigroup and the 92nd Street Y. You can read many of the details here, but the relevant part of the puzzle was the alledged use of Citigroup’s corporate philanthropy to facilitate the educational goals of star employee Jack Grubman. The basic claim is that Citigroup gave money to an elite Manhattan pre-school in order to better the odds of admission for Grubman’s twin children.

The central problem for both Citigroup and Williams is that any act of philanthropy is a) good in and of itself; b) potentially useful to the larger goals of the insitution (Williams benefits from having better faculty and better faculty are more likely to come to Williams if the local school system is good); and c) potentially beneficial to specific senior employees with decision-making authority over the philanthropy (Morty Schapiro benefits if his son’s tennis team has nicer facilities).

Of course, we at Williams Blog Central think highly of Morty Schapiro — and not just because we want a job from him some day! — so it is out of the question that Williams might have given to Mount Greylock for reason c). But the conflict of interest doesn’t go away just because one has faith in the specific people involved. If you disagree, ask yourself how things would change if Williams gave $250 thousand every year, or how about $2.5 million, or even $25 million. Whatever the amount, reasons a) and b) would still be true.

Perhaps the safest policy would be for Williams to give no cash contributions of any kind. This doesn’t prevent Williams from being a good neighbor (letting the Mount Greylock tennis team use our courts for its big tournament, for example), but it would certainly decrease any potential for problems.

If it were me, that $250,000 would have instead gone to merit scholarships for under-represented minorities. Surely that is a better use of the College’s limited resources . . .

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