Should You Donate Huge Sums to Harvard? Malcolm Gladwell Doesn’t Think So

The journalist attacked John A. Paulson for giving the university $400 million.

Malcolm Gladwell by Pop!Tech on Flickr

Malcolm Gladwell photo by Pop!Tech on Flickr

Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell sparked a debate about the merits of donating huge sums to wealthy universities this week when he took to Twitter to sneer at billionaire John A. Paulson’s $400 million gift to Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Paulson’s gift is the largest Harvard has ever received, but Gladwell, for one, seemed unimpressed.”It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need,” he tweeted. “Wise choice John!” The mocking continued:

Gladwell’s point, in case his eight tweets didn’t make it clear, is that Paulson should have donated the money to an institution more strapped for cash. Others quickly picked up that argument where Gladwell left off. Writing for Vox, writer Dylan Matthews urged billionaires to find another cause. Engineering and applied sciences are worthy fields, he said, but they have a lot of private funding, as does Harvard. Better to find a public university that needs the money, or better yet, a charity that helps the world’s poorest people.

There’s been, of course, a response to this backlash, with some leaping to defend Paulson’s choice. Donating to a world-class engineering school will lead to innovations and developments that improve everyone’s lives. And as Business Insider points out, Gladwell’s framing of Paulson’s donation as an “Either help Harvard or donate to the poor” sets up a false conflict. There’s no reason he can’t do both. Paulson has given to other causes, including a $22 million gift to the Children’s Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Still, Paulson’s gift is just the latest in a string of enormous donations to Harvard in recent years. Maybe it was only a matter of time before people started looking critically at the Cambridge university’s fitness as a target for some of the most public and generous philanthropy that makes headlines these days. Either way, billionaires looking to grab headlines by donating to the school will now have to realize that not all of the press they receive will be glowing.