HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Follies of the Rich and Philanthropic

One of the irritating things about modern capitalism is the way media and the establishment see the need to treat rich people’s ideas seriously, even if the subject at hand is something they know literally nothing about.

Take, for instance, a recent story in Businessweek about Chamath Palihapitiya. A former Facebook insider, he’s now a venture capitalist with an eye for social entrepreneurship. The story has him creating a company called Brilliant, a “global online talent registry” that plans to identify “the world’s smartest kids” (the implication in the story is that it’s aimed at overlooked geniuses in developing countries) and then fund their way into university for a share of their lifetime income (presumably on the model of companies like Lumni and My Rich Uncle.

The assumptions that go into this idea are plain barmy. First, it assumes that developing-country education systems can’t identify geniuses on their own and second, it assumes that there is a way to identify such people through a set of on-line tests. The fact is, even if one could create a better set of aptitude tests than the ones ETS has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing over the last 60 years (and work out the massive invigilation issues involved), the likelihood is that an overlooked genius in a poor country has never been taught the skills that would allow them to succeed on such a test. But Palihapitiya’s rich, so this flawed venture gets laudatory coverage.

Or, take Seymour Schulich’s recent foray into scholarships. Though many of Schulich’s philanthropic investments have been excellent, his attempt to create a “Canadian Rhodes” (i.e., very prestigious scholarship) was not. Prestige does not, as Schulich seems to think, stem from giving out the biggest wad of cash. Bill Gates gave Cambridge an enormous whack of money to create the Gates Scholarship program, with stipends twice as large as the Rhodes, but does anyone give think of Gates Scholars as being in the same class as Rhodes Scholars? No, because the Rhodes prestige is based on a unique and rigorous selection criteria and process which has delivered over a century of distinguished alumni, not cash. Got that? Criteria, process, track record, with the third highly dependent on the first two.

So what does Schulich do? He farms out the criteria and process pieces to the United Jewish Appeal. I’m sure they are very nice people, but with zero experience in this area, the odds of them getting this right first time are pretty long, and there goes the Rhodes thing. But since Schulich is rich, no one told him he was making a poor decision.

God bless people in advancement. I sure couldn’t put up with that stuff.

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