Someone Has Been Giving Away Money

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.
—Virginia Woolf

Someone has been giving away money. Big money. Loads of money. Multiple million-dollar gifts to multiple colleges/universities led by women. Six million dollars here. Ten million dollars there. Five point five million dollars there. Women presidents, the anonymity of the donor, and the fact that the institutions are (for the most part) public universities in the United States. That’s about it for common denominators. As of today around $70 million has arrived (as cashier’s checks and in other forms) to fourteen or so schools. Often aimed at scholarships, sometimes for women and minorities, portions of the money is truly unrestricted giving (except for one caveat: don’t ask, don’t tell, who the donor is).

Recipients, all women-led institutions, include University of Maryland University College, University of Southern Mississippi, California State University—Northridge, University of North Carolina at Asheville, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Binghamton University in New York, Michigan State University and University of Iowa. Hunter College is the most recent to identify themselves as a recipient.

That these gifts have gone mainly to public institutions, reminding anyone who may have forgotten that this is where many pursue their educations (Kalamazoo College is the only private college to receive a gift). Several of the presidents have been involved, over the years, in a program focused on developing women’s leadership in higher education called HERS and perhaps there are other patterns discernible as well. (After all, social psychologists have taught us that we seek patterns and make attributions whenever groups are set before us, even when those groups are truly random at their origin.)

And yes, the Associated Press has contacted Oprah Winfrey and others; all deny involvement (maybe that means that she is still available to join the effort!) As the New York Times put it: “Anonymous Donor Gives Millions to Colleges, but not a Cent for Publicity.”

Anonymous giving, of course, is not as odd as it might appear on campuses where “naming opportunities” seem so central (the University of Colorado, for example, has even attached a donor’s name to a bathroom). The Katrina disaster, as another sort of example, drew many anonymous gifts. And yet, most gifts over $1 million are not anonymous. This proactive anonymity is, indeed, unusual.

Women’s role as donors has also been raised to renewed visibility, by both the gifts and the temptation to speculate. Notions that women are disproportionately inclined toward anonymity, toward giving for people rather than for buildings, toward concern for the lives and education of other women, are all worth thinking about anew. Of course, in this regard, we should ask whether only women would give for women, minorities for minorities, etcetera. Identity-based politics meets identity-based giving? Certainly the history of AIDS/HIV philanthropy belies such equations. And, we should certainly challenge those who say that fundraising around gender equity, justice, and programming in higher education is impossible. Lessons learned from anonymous gifts. Isn’t it interesting when anonymity raises the profile of giving?

So, no, this is not an essay about trying to figure out who this donor is (or who these donors are). And yes, this does have to do with religion. How? Well, it turns out many people who give away money in the United States do so in small amounts and within religious contexts. But there is more to the tale (as a friend pointed out to me). Almsgiving is a part of many religions: from zakat in Islam to tithing in Christianity to tzedakah in Judaism. And, in some religions the emphasis is specifically on the anonymous donor. Moreover, a recent study has shown that

Despite the significant downturn in economic conditions in recent years, the percentage of U.S. adults opening their wallets to charitable organizations has hardly diminished. More than four in five Americans continue to say they donated money to a charitable cause or organization in the past 12 months—now 84%, compared with 87% in December 2005.

Gallup trends on these measures show virtually no change since 2005 in the percentage of Americans making donations to nonreligious causes (76% in 2005 vs. 75% today), but a slight dip, from 64% to 59%, in the percentage supporting religious entities.

Tensions abound between religious reasons to give (and to give anonymously) and social demands for accountability in giving (the call to name oneself in order to model generosity); likewise for philanthropy, and to cite one article as between one’s community and oneself as well as between one’s God and oneself. As Robert Wuthnow and Virginia A. Hodgkinson et al. reminded us in Faith and Philanthropy in America links between religion and philanthropy have a significant (and underinvestigated) history in our country. So too does the relationship between religion and higher education.

Tax writeoffs and self-aggrandizement, supporting the status quo and responding to crisis are not the only rationales for giving. Hope, and hope for transformational change, is as well. These particular anonymous gifts have accomplished much more than the dollars might indicate, though that is also significant. The gifts have raised the (in)visibility of women leaders in higher education and reminded us of the place of higher education once had in social mobility and, thus, social justice. It calls us to make that true again; to remember education as a public good.

The gifts remind us, as well, that despite the presence of some (very prominent) women leaders in higher education (most notably in recent years the appointment of Drew Faust Gilpin at Harvard), overall numbers remain low. And, as critiques of identity politics make evident, it is not just women that matter; both women and men who emphasize transformative social change and imagine an inclusive future are crucial. Yes, getting an education is a feminist (and womanist) act, and increasing access for women is too. So might be the hiring of a feminist president.

While the glass ceiling metaphor may no longer be entirely descriptive, as Alice Eagley and Linda Carli have noted in their recent book, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders, the route to leadership, and indeed to education, remains a labyrinth for all women, and for men of color. It certainly does for the poor. Hurrah for those who make it more possible to navigate the terrain. Hurrah for this feminist (and womanist) giving. Hurrah for Anonymous.