The Effects and Efficacy of UChicago’s Donations

 /  April 15, 2021, 9:28 p.m.

Charles Harper Center

When addressing multidimensional problems, donations can take one of two routes. They can fund efforts to fight the issue or sponsor research into the issue. In the context of University benefaction, UChicago confronts inequalities by either providing aid to disadvantaged groups or financing the research of issues affecting them. Both types of benefaction have their strengths, but which does more? As we sort through the weekly (e)mailbag of UChicago’s donation lineup, the question we must ask is, does it do more good to directly fund those in need, or to study the systems that put them there?

This year’s $25 million Kiphart donation for the expansion of global health and social development research was incredibly generous, but is throwing research money at the University the best way to improve West African health care? In The College’s press release, President Robert Zimmer stated the intended use of the Kiphart gift was, “to address health inequities and their root causes in West Africa and in low-and middle-income communities around the world.” And yet, their operational plan for the $25 million dollar sum is to fund a new research center on 60th street. Not only does this plan seem counter to the donation’s on-the-ground intentions, it creates new problems for the surrounding community. UChicago has held a historical grip on the Hyde Park and Woodlawn real estate markets, continuously developing land in both neighborhoods into graduate schools, research institutes, and even buying the Jewel-Osco in 2019. Construction on the Kiphart center would continue a trend that has displaced hundreds of low-income Black residents and upended the surrounding community. 

The Kiphart Center 

The Kiphart family first became involved in global health philanthropy decades ago when they funded the construction of a well in Ghana. This well prevented local girls from having to sacrifice their education for daily water retrieval walks and expanded access to clean water for that village. The well had an immediate impact, but their recent philanthropic endeavor to the University has a more longitudinal focus. As Deborah Gorman-Smith, dean of the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, said in an interview with UChicago News, “The Kiphart Center is unique . . . it brings together experts in global health and situates it in a school focused on the many factors that we know are related to health, with the vision to achieve transformative breakthroughs.” The Kiphart Center’s goal is not frontline action but research to improve global practices.

The Kiphart Center will undoubtedly accomplish important work, but it is hard to imagine that an impact report or scholarly paper will be of greater benefit to West African health infrastructures than tangible supplies and care. The University has clear motivators for using donations on-campus—prestige, national rankings, faculty reputation—but reputation does not outrank results. It costs $8,000 to install a water well. The NIH places the cost of a malaria vaccine at $25 a dose. The Kiphart donation may not have been designed to single-handedly save every life in Africa, but it surely could have prevented the untimely deaths of thousands if it were donated to local aid and hospitals instead. Global Health and Social Development are altruistic causes, but channeling money into a research center is tip-toeing around the simpler, more salient solution: directly funding healthcare in West Africa.

The Rustandy Donation

The Kiphart Family chose the research route to donating, whereas Tandean Rustandy MBA ‘07 straddled the line of research and direct aid with his donation four years ago. In 2017, Rustandy donated $20 million dollars to found a namesake center at the business school; unlike the Kiphart endeavor, Rustandy’s center is centered around the subjects of his donation. He said in an interview, “I’ve been blessed by God so what I have I need to give back, and I want to give to an institution that can create so much—not just for the US but for all the world. That is why I want to give this gift to the University of Chicago and to Booth,” Rustandy said. His donational goal was to continue UChicago’s production of future leaders, so students are at the focus of the Rustandy Center.

Rustandy’s gift was a massive influx of money, but what separated it from other University benefaction was that his donation went directly to its intended cause. Coming from a small Indonesian town, Rustandy’s goal was to build more spaces—like those he had benefited from—at Booth for the incubation of future leaders, indiscriminate of their background. Rustandy did not found a research center to study social mobility or pipelines towards success, he became the pipeline for future leaders.

The Rustandy Center for Social Sector innovation uses its resources to host programming like the Edwardson Social Entrepreneurship program: a signature initiative to help Booth students bolster their start-ups and break out into the job market. The center also allocates part of its operating budget to fund Chicago Booth faculty and PhD students’ academic interests, and awards the $20,000 Lauren and Keith Breslauer MBA ’88 Social Impact Scholarship annually to rising second-year students with career interests in social entrepreneurship. 

The Right Way To Donate

It is ventures like The Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and programs like the Rubenstein Scholars Program and Sawiris Scholars Program that use donor money to directly support real people. These, especially the latter, are the most effective forms of University donations because they address systemic inequality by alleviating financial inequity. The Rustandy center funds engagement programming at the Booth School of Business, and the Rubenstein and Sawiris programs make attendance possible. 

Like the Kiphart family’s investment in the construction of wells in West Africa, the Rubenstein and Sawiris programs provide direct and instant benefits to their recipients. Rather than trying to remedy tuition-insecurity among students through scholarly research, these programs immediately relieve students of their financially-impoverished situations. The Sawiris Scholars Program, which is centered around funding full-rides for Egyptian students, brings accomplished international scholars to study in Chicago, free of cost and with visa coverage. Odyssey scholarships have afforded over 5,300 low-income students the ability to attend UChicago without worry over debt, and the grip that it would hold on their financial futures. The David M. Rubenstein program, which sponsors the tuition of sixty law students every year, is a motivator for double-marooning among pre-law undergraduates, and breeds future leaders that the University can later credit-claim. 

The University wants to do good, and look good while doing it; the best way to accomplish this is to invest in their students. In the same way that building a well is more effective than research into West African water insecurity, University donations are best spent directly. With direct impact spending, the University, and its donors, can address systematic inequalities, and better them, by leveling the field for all players.

Meta donations, like the Kiphart’s for Global Health research, are necessary for society to progress, but they are a luxury. It is a luxury to be able to sit and ponder an issue rather than to be out in the field, brick-and-mortar mitigating it. Published papers and centers improve the College’s reputation and the worldwide knowledge ecosystem, but physical and financial support are what improve lives. The University has to involve itself, in some way, with donations, otherwise direct-aid would completely bypass the school. However, University intervention and involvement needs to demonstrate efficacy. There is a ceiling to how much academic initiatives can diminish poverty, and a research institute will never have the direct impact of accessible clean water or a full scholarship. There is a best way to give and that is by prioritizing people first and systems second.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the GNU Free Documentation License. No changes were made to the original image, which can be found here.

Chelsea Seifer


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