I was offended to recently receive an email from the Queen’s Principal, sent to the entire Queen’s community, that was essentially a publicity piece for a billionaire. The email informs us that Stephen Smith has made a $100 million donation to the Queen’s faculty of engineering, and lavishes praise upon the man, celebrating his “visionary generosity” and “extraordinary gift.” Placards and monuments for “Smith Engineering” have already gone up around campus. Situations like this one illustrate the problems inherent to philanthropy.
At heart, philanthropy is about power. Even when a donation stems from true personal commitment to a cause, the philanthropist retains an element of power and control. Philanthropy allows one person to decide which cause is worthy of funding. But wealth alone does not qualify an individual to make the decision about which university, or which faculty at that university, deserves $100 million. The funding of education should be a collective and democratic project, not an individual one.
Philanthropy allows a person to buy themselves influence over the institution to which they donate. It is said that Smith’s donation will enable a “transformation” of the Queen’s faculty of engineering. I wonder what conditions were attached to Smith’s donation, and whether Smith will have a say in how the faculty is transformed. Any amount of control over a university by an individual, simply by virtue of their wealth, is inappropriate.
Philanthropy stifles open discussion and debate. When a person provides a large sum of money to an institution, the institution’s ability to criticize that individual or their ideas is restricted. This is clear from the Principal’s email, in which the University prostrates itself before Mr. Smith. Philanthropy introduces a power dynamic that limits necessary dialogue. It discourages us, for instance, from interrogating the societal structures that allow an individual to amass such enormous amounts of wealth. This is not the kind of university, or society, that I wish to be a part of.
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