Like all good class agents, I am hard at work raising money for the alumni fund, writing holidays cards to my classmates, sending them e-mails, making phone calls and thanking them for their contributions. All good stuff. If you haven’t volunteered to be a class agent, you ought to give it a try. It is a nice way to re-connect with classmates (Hello Kim Daboo!) and give back to Williams, especially nice for those of us who can’t afford to write a million dollar check.

But wait! I have a better idea! Instead of asking Kim and others to give money to Williams, I am going to ask them to write a check to MASS MoCA. Let’s cut out the middleman.

MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) Director Joseph C. Thompson announced today the launch of the Berkshire Permanence Campaign — the regional phase of MASS MoCA’s overall Permanence Campaign, an effort announced in April of this year with a goal of raising $36 million for MASS MoCA’s endowment and program support. The regional campaign kickoff was accompanied by the announcement of a gift of almost $2 million from Williams College for the previously announced Sol LeWitt project.

Williams College President Schapiro said, “MASS MoCA and the LeWitt project offer an unprecedented opportunity for Williams students. As the only place in the world where scholars will be able to see, study and actually help make LeWitt’s work, MASS MoCA will be the destination for an international audience. Williams students will have this gem right next door and some will even have the chance to participate in the installation as apprentices. This support also cements a scholarly tradition of interchange between Williams and Yale University: Williams undergraduates and Masters degree recipients from the Graduate Program in Art History, offered in conjunction with the Clark Art Institute, comprise the single largest source of students to Yale’s PhD program in Art History. It will also put Williams students shoulder to shoulder with those from Yale, MCLA, Bennington, local high schools, and many professional artists working together to realize this great installation.”

Comments:

1) Issue one is always transparency. How much money has Williams promised over what time scale to which non-profits? How much money has it contributed over the last 5 years? (Recent gifts include $250,000 to Mount Greylock Regional High School and $1 million to North Adams Regional Hospital.) Who approved this decision? (That is, were the trustees involved or just senior staff?)

2) Why should I give money to Williams if Williams is just going to turn around and give that money to MASS MoCA? Here is my rule: Williams should donate no money to non-profits unless that money directly impacts its mission of being the best college in the world. Some charities make the cut. The best example is giving $10,000 (is that the amount?) to the volunteer ambulance service of Williamstown. But that is not so much a donation as payment for services rendered since so many students are transported by the ambulance. Outside of the ambulance and a couple of other tiny exceptions, Williams should not write checks for other non-profits. (And the same applies for other charities. If I donate $1,000 to MASS Moca, I want them to spend that money on, you know, contemporary art. Call me crazy! I would hate it if they turned around and then donated that $1,000 to Williams — or to MGRHS or to NARHS or to any other worthy acronym.)

3) Recall Morty’s shpiel from three years ago.

Williams exists to educate students. The greatest determinant of the quality of their education is the quality of faculty and staff. We can only recruit and retain the best if the local community is healthy. So when the College, after careful consideration, invests in the local infrastructure, especially in public education and healthcare, every dollar benefits our current and future students. This includes the pledges we’re paying over several years toward the construction of a new Williamstown Elementary School building and to the capital campaign of North Adams Regional Hospital as well as a cash infusion to forestall a potentially disastrous budget crisis at Mt. Greylock Regional High School.

This was mostly bunk three years ago because, as we have discussed endlessly, the quality of local schools and hospitals plays a de minimus role in faculty hiring because none of Williams peer schools have local schools/hospitals that are significantly better. But at least the argument by Morty above isn’t obviously ridiculous. Yet there is no way that can apply to the quality of the local contemporary art museum. To argue otherwise is absurd. MASS MoCA could close tomorrow or become the world’s greatest museum and neither outcome would have a meaningful impact on the quality of a Williams education.

4) Want to increase the chances that excellent professors will come to Williams and stay there. (Surely I am not the only one who misses Marc Lynch and Gary Jacobsohn.) Simple solution: Show them the money.

5) To think clearly about this, or any other expenditure, you need to focus on what else that money could be spent on. Or, specify where you would trim Williams current budget to come up with $2 million. Readers who think that this is money well spent should specify what expenses should be cut to pay for the gift.

6) Those who argue that this is fine, that the College is so rich that spending $2 million is not a problem sound a lot like the folks who told me that spending $250,000 on MGRHS was not worth worrying about. OK. But what level of gift-giving would concern you? What if the College gave $2 million every year to local charities? What if it were $5 million? You can be sure that there are dozens of local causes worthy of our support, organizations that both do good and make the local community more attractive. Where does the generosity of Williams end?

7) Below the break I recycle a post from more than 4 years ago about a charitable gift to MGRHS. My rantings, at least, are consistent.

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 . . .

As true today as it was back in 2003.

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