Music mogul David Geffen is very, very bad at being a philanthropist. His past donations have mostly taken the form of massive gifts to prominent universities and cultural institutions, rather than to poor people or important research or even less famous, more financially desperate universities and arts centers. And his charitable giving usually comes with a major branding component. This past March, he committed $100 million to renovate a concert hall at Lincoln Center — but only after the center paid $15 million to the family of Avery Fisher, the hall's former namesake, so that Geffen could have his name plastered on it. It's like renaming a sports stadium, except that Geffen gets a massive tax write-off for it.
But his latest gift really takes the cake. Geffen is giving $100 million to UCLA to set up a private middle and high school on its campus. You see, the UCLA Lab School only serves students — many of them faculty brats — up to the sixth grade, and poor old UCLA has "not been able to attract certain talent because of the costs of educating their children." In particular, Geffen worries that UCLA's medical school — excuse me, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA — isn't able to compete with Harvard and Johns Hopkins because of the lack of a nearby private high school.
The LA Times's Larry Gordon adds that Geffen "declined to discuss his views on public education in Los Angeles." You don't say.
Geffen might as well have just set $100 million on fire
It's hard to know where to start in explaining why this gift is such a grotesque waste. For one thing, it genuinely doesn't matter to anyone without a sentimental attachment to UCLA whether its medical school is competitive with Harvard and Johns Hopkins. The faculty members that Geffen is trying to recruit away are certainly doing important research that will save lives — but they're doing it wherever they teach. Why should anyone care whether that happens at UCLA or at Johns Hopkins? Unless one genuinely believes that the climate of southern California can effect a meaningful boost in the productivity of biomedical researchers, relative to Baltimore or Cambridge, improved recruitment for UCLA accomplishes precisely nothing for the world at large.
But at least the faculty brats will get a free education, right? Other than the existing free education they could get by enrolling their children in the LA public school system? Nope! The education won't be free. "Many details about the school remain to be decided, including tuition and admissions criteria," Gordon reports, but half of the school's 600 students will be children of UCLA employees, and about 40 percent of students will get financial aid. So even if nobody gets tuition assistance except UCLA faculty, a fifth of the faculty kids who get educated at the school will pay full freight. Their parents will benefit not in financial terms but through improved convenience. The problem being solved isn't that other private schools are too expensive; it's that they make it too hard to pick up and drop off kids.
It's worse than that, though. Gordon writes that UCLA employees already have a convenient, free option: "A special agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District allows children of UCLA professors and other employees to attend several well-regarded public schools in and near Westwood, no matter where they live." The city government has gone out of its way to give UCLA faculty access to good, conveniently located public schools. But that's not enough for David Geffen, for some reason.
The only rationale for the school that has even the patina of plausibility is the claim by UCLA chancellor Gene Block to Gordon that it will provide a place for UCLA's education school to test different learning and teaching methods. That indeed sounds admirable. But you know where else UCLA education researchers can do that? The UCLA Community School, a public school that, unlike the Lab School or the new Geffen Academy, is able to test learning methods on children of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. And while the Lab School can only test on students up to sixth grade, the Community School is K-12.
If David Geffen had a sincere interest in improving the quality of research on K-12 pedagogy, he would've given to the Community School, or perhaps paid for the establishment of a new school like that for UCLA or another school with top-tier education researchers. But Geffen does not, obviously, have any kind of sincere interest in improving research. He just wants to help a school with his name on it win a pissing match with Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
This is worse than not giving at all
That said, it doesn't seem particularly likely that investing in pedagogical research is the most cost-effective donation Geffen could make. Instead, he could give $100 million to distribute bednets in sub-Saharan Africa, a highly cost-effective way to save lives. He could give $100 million directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda through GiveDirectly. He could give $100 million to deworming efforts that spare children ailments that can cause immense pain and poverty. He could give $100 million to the Open Philanthropy Project or the Gates Foundation or another group doing careful, rigorous work to determine the best ways to use charitable resources to make the world a better place. He could, in fact, do all of the above, because he's crazy stupid rich.
Instead he decided that what LA really needed was a new private school. "Yes, charity is better than no charity," Gawker's Hamilton Nolan writes in an excellent post on the Geffen gift. "But no, all charitable giving is not created equal." I'd go further than Nolan. This gift is actually worse than no charity. No charity at least doesn't actively undermine the LA public school system by encouraging affluent parents to defect from it — in particular affluent parents who are already being specially induced to put their kids in public school. Geffen is actively making education in Los Angeles worse because he wants the medical school named after him to rise in the US News rankings. It's indefensible.