You may have seen the news in June that Harvard University's Engineering School has been pledged the largest gift in its history, “Hedge-Fund Manager Paulson to Donate $400 Million to Harvard” and “Harvard receives its largest gift.” The university will also be re-naming its engineering school after the donor (who, interestingly, did not go to Harvard nor has an engineering background).
The news of the donation generated an enormous number of comments and controversy spanning a range of opinions across various web sites, social media forums, news articles, and elsewhere. Some said giving serious money to support engineering was a good thing to do; others said it was ridiculous to give Harvard any more, as they already have so much; and others wondered if the gift could be put to better use in other ways for engineering education and research.
I've been giving the situation some thought now that the initial wave of reaction has passed, and I'm arguing with myself. On one side, it's generally good to give money to engineering schools and programs, since there are many ideas to be pursued and investigated, and lots of areas where more progress would be welcome; I am partial to the potential of both integrated photonics and biologic MEMS devices, for example, but not enamored with coding and apps.
On the other side, Harvard has a $30 billion endowment, so they don’t really need the money in the usual sense as much as other institutions do, although I am sure they can find ways to use it. (Someone once remarked that an alien coming to Earth and looking at Harvard would logically conclude it is a financial institution which happens to run an education enterprise as a side-line business.)
Furthermore, I don't know that spending more money is what's needed to drive progress. We've all seen the perils of too much money actually impeding innovation, and how it may actually discourage creative solutions to tough problems. “Follow the money” also means too many hands will trying to get a piece of the pie, so projects may soon be burdened with bureaucracy and those non-productive folks who somehow smell out the presence of money, even though they add little value.
In reality, we know that the lack of money may actually be an incentive or stimulus. I am sure we can all cite examples of amazing work done with little money, because the innovator had to be creative, improvise, and think outside the box. In David McCullough's recent biography of the Wright brothers, he notes their self-funded multiyear quest for flight cost them only about $10,000 – roughly of about ten years of the modest profits from their bicycle ship – or what we might consider as ten years of one person's salary, a truly modest amount is the world of R&D.
My other concern is that I have seen what creative engineering students can do at other quality engineering schools which have less “aura” than Harvard – and there are many such schools. For example, look at the student projects and reports in the STEM on steroids shows hands-on engineering alive and well from schools around the country, and you'll see a lot of very impressive work being done by many of the teams. Perhaps spreading this money around would be an enabler for students who have different technical backgrounds, application ideas, design perspectives, problems to address, and untried approaches than can be expected at any single institution, regardless of how well-intentioned that school may be.
While I have mixed feelings about this mega-donation to Harvard, I learn towards taking some or most of that $400 million and using it to support solid engineering programs at multiple schools, especially if they have different areas of expertise and focus. The challenge, though, would be to not spread that money around so thinly that it doesn’t have real impact, or that whatever impact it does have dissipates after a few years. Still, there a saying that “money problems are much better than 'no-money' problems” (and it can get your name over the door) and it's a nice dilemma to have.
What's your view on this $400 million donation to Harvard's engineering school? Is John Paulson's very generous act smart, foolish, naïve, insightful, self-serving, or well-intentioned?