December 20, 2011; Source: Bloomberg Businessweek | Charles Feeney, the billionaire philanthropist behind Atlantic Philanthropies, made his money with duty free shops, but he must be appreciative of his education. A graduate of Cornell University in 1956, Feeney just gave his alma mater a gift of $350 million. The funds are toward helping the university win a contest offered by New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, the prize of which includes free land on Roosevelt Island plus $100 million in city-provided infrastructure improvements to create an engineering campus. With the help of Feeney’s massive gift, Cornell and its partner, the Haifa-based Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, beat out a couple of dozen other bidders—including Stanford—for the rights to build a new campus on the Island, which the mayor’s office said will have 2,500 students and 280 professors by 2043. The Cornell/Technion campus will begin offering classes as early as next year, though the campus won’t officially open until 2017, and its 1.3 million square feet of space won’t be fully built out until 2027. Making the rounds today, which included an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the normally impassive Bloomberg seems ecstatic about the deal, which is estimated to generate $23 billion in economic activity, $1.4 billion in tax revenue, 20,000 construction jobs, 8,000 permanent jobs, and 600 “spinoff companies” (with 30,000 jobs of their own) over the next three decades.
Maybe this project will be everything it is cracked up to be and more, but a $350 million donation from Feeney to one of the wealthier universities in the United States is quite a statement of class division in charitable giving. Compare Feeney’s $350 million to one school to the endowments of all 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)? By our estimation, Feeney’s generosity to Cornell is larger than the endowments of every single HBCU in the nation, except perhaps Spelman, in Atlanta, with an endowment of $350 million in 2010, and Howard University, in Washington, estimated around $400 million. This year, Cornell’s endowment regained its pre-recession level of $5.8 billion
There is nothing wrong with Feeney’s amazing generosity to Cornell, or, at a smaller scale, the $15 million gift to Princeton University announced last week by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (Bezos is a 1986 graduate of Princeton, which has an endowment currently estimated at $17.1 billion). Nonetheless, it still feels like even among institutions of higher education the 1 percent get richer and the 99 percent trail.—Rick Cohen