Updated: May 1, 2021
An extended inquiry into Columbia’s coveted pile of untouchable gold.
By Lyla Trilling
Imagine Dorothy Gale’s surprise when she learned that her sparkly ruby slippers had, all along, been the key to returning home. With a mere click of those two-inch red pumps and an earnest “There’s no place like home,” her life was restored to its natural, Midwestern shape—undisturbed by adult men in lion costumes and opium curses. For Dorothy, it was excusable. Had she known that her shoes possessed the very thing that sent her on a movie-length odyssey back to Kansas, she would have clicked her heels. But she didn’t, so she couldn’t.
Covid-19 has fundamentally altered the collegiate ecosystem. The pandemic continues to restrict access to normal learning environments, forcing institutions of higher education to make sacrifices. Slashed budgets, decreased operations, furloughed staff members—the 2020-2021 school year is university armageddon. But amid the black hole of Zoom school and the tornadoes of canceled graduations, a pair of sparkly red pumps stands above the educational detritus unscathed: the University’s endowment. At Columbia, these sparkly slippers are worth $11 billion. As our higher education apocalypse continues to unfold, we have to wonder: When will Columbia click its heels?
In November of 2020, with a fully online spring semester approaching and no promise of a tuition decrease, Young Democratic Socialists of America’s Columbia chapter began organizing a tuition strike. Its widely-circulated petition demanded a 10% tuition decrease, investment transparency, increased financial aid, and good-faith bargaining with unions. And while Columbia made a few paltry concessions, its stance on tuition remained unflinching. For undergraduates, the spring semester would cost the exact same as the fall—51%-84% more than the average private four-year university.
In December, President Bollinger sent out an email responding to the financial anxiety among large swaths of the student body. With his usual pandemic-era sophistry, he lamented wage freezes, hiring pauses, and revenue losses resulting from student deferrals. (The latter issue was especially odd considering the announcement of a fully online fall came just two weeks before the start of the semester, months after the deferral deadline had already passed.) He boasted increased financial aid, stipends for storage and emergency travel (a maximum of $500 for those who applied), and rent freezes for certain students in Columbia housing. At the very end of the email, he offered a haphazard explanation for Columbia’s refusal to tap into their $11 billion endowment:
We recognize and respect the frustration that some members of the community have expressed in recent months, and we have heard the concomitant recommendation that we consider raising the payout from the University’s endowment or drawing funds that would reduce the endowment’s principal. We cannot take either step. Though ultimately managed as a pool, our endowment is composed of thousands of discrete funds. Each of these funds must be expended according to the purpose expressed by its donors, with the goal of providing funding in perpetuity. Some of these funds are dedicated to financial aid; others support specific forms of research. Together, they form a pillar of support that we are obliged to sustain over time to ensure the University’s financial future.
The endowment, which increased by $310 million during the pandemic, is apparently more of a symbolic pillar than an actual structure of support. Bollinger’s email, though largely insipid, illuminated how the endowment fund is actually managed. Yes, donors can wish that their funds be directed toward a certain cause or area of study, but the endowment is “ultimately managed as a pool.” So when a donor throws their $500,000 into a fountain and wishes for the Northwest Corner building to adopt their sexy, monosyllabic surname, Columbia’s tacit obligation is to respect that wish and thank them for their worthwhile contribution. That singular donation, which is managed with the rest of the endowment and invested as a single unit, becomes just another brick in the $11 billion “pillar of support.” This pillar, according to Bollinger, will provide funding “in perpetuity.”
An argument stands that an endowment is not a piggy bank; one cannot merely crack it open in case of emergency. In some ways this is true—most endowment funds are restricted. Donations intended for financial aid, for example, cannot be redirected toward university real estate ventures without legal consequence. These funds will sit patiently in the endowment, accumulating interest, and one day, maybe, they’ll fulfill their intended financial purpose. Instead of shoveling donations into the endowment, where they will undoubtedly stay for years on end, Columbia could spend their money directly on the areas of their institution that need it most.
Take, for example, Roy and Diana Vagelos’s $250 million dollar gift to the Medical School in 2017. After the news of their donation went public, the New York Times published an article titled “With $250 Million Gift, Columbia Medical School Looks to End Student Debt.” Most articles written about the Vagelos’s gift boast similarly twinkly titles—“7 Top Medical Schools with Tuition Free Programs,” “Columbia first in nation to offer debt-free graduation”—distinguishing Columbia as a champion of the needy, a philanthropic innovator. But the content of the Times article points to a bleaker future. “It will take several years for the endowment to begin generating the income to fund the full range of scholarships,” it predicts. “In time, the school believes that the gift, combined with additional donations still being sought, will allow all of its students to attend without incurring debt.”
In time students will graduate without debt. Media coverage of the Vageloses’ gift did not explicitly express this temporal restriction—$250 million went into the University endowment, and if invested properly, this money could, years from now, relieve students of the $90,000 annual burden of medical school. The most important part of this article, however, is mentioned only in passing—donations are still being sought. This subtle but desperate appeal for money shows that the Vageloses' gift is still not enough, a delusion confirmed by the current status of the program. The Vagelos scholarship, which still requires a financial aid application, is a scholarship like any other—exclusive and narrow, pitting needy against neediest. When only a year later, NYU offered full-tuition scholarships to the entirety of its medical school, regardless of need or merit, the scope of graduate scholarship was proven infinite. The only thing truly extraordinary about the Vagelos Scholarship Program is its complete ordinariness.
In 2008, when the housing bubble burst, returns on university endowment investments reached an all-time low. Harvard’s $40 billion endowment suffered $8 billion in losses—how could the university function with a meager $32 billion in the bank? Lucky for them, the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act had been passed only two years prior. The UPMIFA modified its more rigid predecessor in endowment regulation, loosening spending restrictions and authorizing affected colleges like Harvard to increase their endowment payouts by 22% to compensate for losses. How was Harvard allowed such a dramatic reshuffling of their finances? The UPMIFA contains a deviation doctrine, also called the law of cy pres, which allows a modification of the terms of a donation if unforeseen financial circumstances occur. But universities do not measure unforeseen circumstances by the financial wellbeing of their community. Columbia’s 2020 endowment returns were 1.7 % higher than the year before—2020 was not an unforeseen circumstance.
Last year, a Spectator article cited the UPMIFA as the reason for the tuition strike’s inevitable failure. Funds couldn’t be taken out of the endowment because “under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which regulates endowments, funds within the endowment must only be spent on their allocated purpose.” But it is, in fact, precisely because of this act that endowment funds can be reallocated. The UPMIFA’s new deviation doctrine dictates that endowment funds can be redirected, not only in a financial recession, but also to combat wastefulness. If the amount of money in a given fund exceeds what is needed for its particular purpose to the point of excess, the money can go elsewhere. The importance of this tiny clause cannot be overstated: $11 billion in savings is beyond the point of waste, and Columbia has, since 2006, possessed the ability to increase student aid in both their graduate and undergraduate communities. But for institutions of higher education, whose goals have been reduced to infinite expansion, financial excess is a foreign concept.
In the mid-1950s, the decaying city of St. Louis, Missouri commissioned the architect Minoru Yamasaki to design the most ambitious public housing project to date—a complex of 33 high-rise buildings collectively known as the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects. The complex, equipped with indoor plumbing, fancy interior finishings, and electric lighting, quickly earned the nickname of the “poor man’s penthouse.” But only a few years after its conception, the projects began to decline rapidly—becoming infamous for crime, structural decay, and increasing vacancies. In the early 1970s, state officials commenced a demolition project, detonating the 33 buildings with explosives over the course of three years. And just like that, $36 million of government spending ($397 million, adjusted for inflation) evaporated into thin air.
The Pruitt–Igoe crisis puts into focus the question of utilitarian spending: Are wealthy forces actually responding to the needs of the people? To answer this question, look at the solar-powered soccer field in Africa that R&B singer Akon built with Shell Oil, or the GoFundMe that “youngest self-made billionaire” Kylie Jenner created for her makeup artist after a near-fatal car accident. Pruitt-Igoe failed because poor people in the slums of St. Louis didn’t need plastered walls and rec centers. They needed jobs, childcare, and welfare—they needed a solution to a broken system that no amount of French-inspired architecture could solve.
When considering Columbia’s refusal to withdraw money from its $11 billion endowment to support its students and workers, we must ask: Where do these funds go instead? Though Columbia boasts financial transparency, its yearly 50-page financial report is virtually incoherent to anyone who has not devoted their life to studying financial documents. So we must reckon with what we can actually see—a 17-acre, $6.3 billion expansion project northward, Columbia’s ongoing project to build up Harlem into a glimmering haven of floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Manhattanville Campus, which began construction in 2008, is infamous among Columbia’s neighbors for its displacement of Black and Latinx communities in Morningside Heights. When the project is completed, it will impact all 32,000 West Harlem residents. The campus is equipped with a science building, a recreation building, and an arts building, with fun little add-ons like gallery spaces and movie theaters. Since 2018, Columbia has been constructing new dormitories on a slice of land slated for the redevelopment of a neighborhood public school.
Columbia is not unique in this regard. As student debt skyrockets, universities like Harvard and Yale (with $40 billion and $31 billion endowments, respectively) continue to expand their campuses—building elaborate new science buildings and stunning replicas of their original gothic dormitories. Still, we are expected to believe that these impossibly wealthy institutions cannot afford to make concessions during the greatest global emergency since the Spanish Influenza—and we almost do, until we remember that Columbia’s new science building has a rock climbing gym, and $23 million was spent on Bollinger's personal house renovations.
Since 2007, the largest donations in educational philanthropy have gone to the same handful of elite, already-wealthy universities. In 2016, Malcolm Gladwell aired an interview with Stanford’s president emeritus John Hennesy for his podcast Revisionist History. In it, Gladwell asks Hennesy, “How much is enough for an institution like Stanford?” to which Hennesy replies, “How much is enough? Um, I think, if our ambitions don’t grow, then I think you do reach a point where you have enough money—and I would hope that our ambitions for what we want to do as an institution, both in our teaching and our research, grow.” Stanford currently has an endowment of nearly $30 billion; how much growth is left?
The crisis of higher education rests on the tension illuminated by Hennesy’s response. The mission of education is quickly disappearing behind the competition for prestige. In order to emerge victorious in the educational arms race, universities need more engineering buildings, more sports courts, and more research facilities—and they need to build them better and faster than their competitors. Columbia’s endowment is relatively small compared to those of other Ivy League schools—which partly accounts for its decision to expand its Manhattanville Campus. Manhattanville is Columbia’s “in'' with its cooler, more elite, larger counterparts. If Columbia isn’t displacing its neighbors at the cost of institutional distinction, can it still call itself an Ivy League?
In a dark, windowless basement on 113th Street, a group of undergraduates chatter away on their respective phones, attempting to raise money for the university. Among these students is Maya Bluthenthal, CC ’22, one of over 50 students who work at the alumni call center. “It used to be really fun vibes,” Bluthenthal told me. Before the pandemic, the alumni center employees sat around chatting, playing games, and watching TV to supplement the scintillating task of what Bluthenthal described as “endlessly dialing.”
Bluthenthal is a self-proclaimed mid-tier employee, but when she was trying (which most of the time, she wasn't) she could easily raise $1,000 in a three-hour shift. She described the typical shift as a schmooze-fest of sorts, where undergraduate callers are instructed to establish fun, personal banter with alumni. “Say they were on scholarship or something,” Bluthenthal told me. A caller might say, “That’s actually another reason why we’re calling today—a big part of how we’re able to continue offering students scholarships like the one that made it possible for you to be here is through getting alumni support from people like you.” According to Bluthenthal, most people just donate to the general fund of whatever school they went to: Columbia College, General Studies, SEAS—schools that are already rich.
Among the many problems with this form of fundraising is its narrowness. For a caller to request a contribution to a scholarship fund, the donor must first bring up an interest in financial aid of their own accord. In a call that is capped at 10 minutes, this usually doesn’t happen. So people continue to donate to the famously restricted university funds, and this money continues to strengthen Columbia’s “pillar” and its gracefully aging bronze patina.
Bluthenthal’s financial well-being wasn’t dependent on the money she made working at the call center—but for others, it was. “For some people, the call center is their main form of income,” Bluthenthal told me. “It’s a lot of low-income students that work at the call center because it’s just easy cash to make.” Bluthenthal worked two shifts a week—most students worked four to five. By the end of the year, these students could make $100,000 each for the University, if not more, while the students themselves earned barely above minimum wage.
At the helm of University fundraising operations stand the students who need the money most. But the funds they raise rarely contribute to the causes that benefit them. John, CC ’22, another former alumni caller, told me that call center workers were aware of this dichotomy. “It’s something that’s probably in the back of all of our minds as we call. But I think that even though it does raise that red flag to all of us, it is attractive because it’s like the highest paying job on campus.” Indeed, despite his qualms, he requested to remain anonymous to keep open the possibility of reapplying in the fall. Beyond the enticing pay, the call center also offers incentives that most campus jobs—swiping IDs in a library or manning the Butler copy machine—do not. John listed a biannual raise, for example. The call center is the most attractive on-campus job because it promises upward mobility: more money for making more money.
John’s call center gig was part of an agreement with his mother—in college, he would be responsible for his own upkeep. “My financial background is not one that, you know, allows for me not to be employed and still have things like food, clothing, and necessities.” John chose the call center, not because of his passion for Columbia’s alumni network, but because it is one of the few reliable campus jobs that pays well enough to fund his basic needs. Even then, John worked more hours than almost all of his peers. “I needed the money,” he told me.
Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum requires its students to take Contemporary Civilizations, a course that concerns itself with the essential values of great societies. With each new philosopher—Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Mill—Columbia instills the same value in the student population: education. Education, according to almost every great Western thinker, is the key to a thriving society. As students at Columbia, we youthfully embody this value. We are the ones who will go on to create a utopic future of educated souls. Herein lies Columbia’s fundamental contradiction: At a school that forces its student to internalize the value of learning, education is becoming increasingly financially inaccessible.
“We’ll get a lot of young alumni who are hip to the news or liberal or whatever—and they’ll be like, ‘You guys literally have the biggest endowment,’” Bluthenthal told me. For these special alumni, the call center higher-ups had perfected a response. “This is verbatim what we were supposed to say to people on the phone,” John explained: “The endowment is not something that directly goes back to helping students. Columbia kind of uses that as a rainy day fund just in case a building burns down or something really, really big happened.” Do 7.9 million unemployed Americans not constitute a rainy day? Columbia won’t even throw us an umbrella.
History has proven educational philanthropy to be a steady stream—it continues to flow during even the largest of droughts. In Giving USA’s annual philanthropic report, education is consistently listed as the second most donated-to cause, raking in around 12% of all yearly charitable donations. The widespread practice of collegiate frugality, then, is always unwarranted. If Columbia had used the Vageloses’ money to eliminate tuition, they could rely on yearly donations to sustain their goal. But they hold on to every last dollar, leaving their students to pick through their fountain of wealth in search of a penny for aid.