In an age when school officials and college presidents are known for mildness and conformity, Benno Schmidt has stood out as a blunt-talking man of action. He first came to prominence in 1973, when at age 29 he became one of the youngest tenured professors in Columbia University’s history. He had begun his career as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and went on to become dean of Columbia’s law school.
From there he moved in 1986 to Yale, where he had earned his own undergraduate and law degrees, to assume the presidency of the university. During his controversial tenure, the school’s endowment grew from $1.7 billion to nearly $3 billion, the highest rate of growth among the major private universities in the country. He also presided over one of the largest building programs in Yale’s history, established a model partnership between the university and the city of New Haven, and helped build a number of new interdisciplinary programs. As president, he was an outspoken advocate of freedom of expression and the value of a traditional liberal education, and was also known for his willingness to call for cutbacks in faculty and the number of departments.
He left Yale in 1992 to chair the Edison Project, a private company that partners with public K-12 school systems. More recently, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tapped him to lead efforts to reform the ailing City University of New York, where he now chairs the board of trustees. He recently spoke with Philanthropy about the ways private funding can help to improve education at the K-12 and collegiate levels.
PHILANTHROPY: What role do you see for philanthropy in higher education?
MR. SCHMIDT: I concluded after about six months in the presidency of Yale that only private philanthropy could provide an avenue of innovation there. That of course was before the explosion of endowments. When I became president in 1986, the Yale endowment had lost half its purchasing power over the previous 20 years, and in those tightened circumstances the only way I could envision serious innovation on campus was through private funding. It was extraordinarily difficult to reallocate education resources within the university unless those resources came through new private giving. I think this is true for most colleges today.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you give us a few concrete examples of philanthropy that generated important, innovative effects in higher education?
MR. SCHMIDT: One example of change we have tried to bring about involves the City University of New York, which is the third largest public university system in the world. Nearly 500,000 students study at City University, about half as degree candidates and about half in adult education and certificate programs.
Six years ago the senior colleges of City University were losing enrollment. The full-time faculty had decreased in size over the ten years before by 40 percent. The graduation rates were sinking. More than half of the students enrolled in the senior colleges failed at least one of the remediation tests they were given, which tested whether an incoming college student could do roughly eighth-grade level work in reading, writing,and mathematics. There was a general perception of a collapse in standards.
This contrasted sharply with the City University’s great years. I would remind you that CUNY graduates have achieved more Nobel prizes than the graduates of any university system in the world save the University of California, and there have been periods when the deans of the Harvard, Yale, and Columbia law schools were City University graduates. That was true when I was a young professor at Columbia. CUNY had been a great institution, but it was in real trouble.
We decided we had to try to reverse the tide at the City University in a dramatic way. We did certain things that were rather radical. For example, we eliminated all remediation in the senior colleges in two stages. It was widely predicted that enrollment would fall by more than half, that the City University would cease to enroll large numbers of minority students, and so on.
PHILANTHROPY: Did that happen?
MR. SCHMIDT: Since we eliminated remediation and raised academic standards, enrollment has grown every year, and we now have record high numbers in the senior colleges. Each year the student body has had larger numbers of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students being admitted and enrolling than ever before.
PHILANTHROPY: What role did philanthropy play?
MR. SCHMIDT: We realized that part of what we wanted to do could only happen with the help of philanthropy: We created an Honors College at City University. It’s a highly selective program that admits students into any of the senior colleges of the City University. Tuition is free. We didn’t think we could support this with state appropriations. So we had to find a handful of foundations and donors who would support this effort. Most people thought top students simply wouldn’t apply to City University. The newspapers called it, “Last Resort U.,” “Remediation University,” and so on. But we raised several million dollars to fund the Honors College.
PHILANTHROPY: With what results?
MR. SCHMIDT: It’s now five years old. We started with a group of about 100 students. We now admit 200 students a year. They’re chosen from over 2,500 applicants, whose average SAT scores are now above 1350. Most of these are students who could gain admission to the nation’s most select colleges.
Now we certainly wanted to have a couple hundred top students coming into the senior colleges, but the more important thing to achieve was to have the best students in New York public high schools consider attending the City University.
Today, rather than “Remediation U.,” a recent headline in the New York Post said, “CUNY draws top students. Graduates of the city’s elite public high schools are flocking in record numbers to City University.” Another article recently in the Daily News said, “The City University is once again the poor man’s Harvard.” And so thanks to the Honors College and our general commitment to high academic standards, the number of applicants to the City University from Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and the other elite New York public high schools is many times greater than six years ago.
PHILANTHROPY: How much support did this require?
MR. SCHMIDT: So far about $15 million of private funds has supported the Honors College momentum. Think about the consequences. For instance, several hundred students who apply to the Honors College but are rejected decide to attend CUNY anyway, because by applying to the Honors College those students have gotten to know our senior colleges, the range of offerings, and the fact that City University offers a great education if you look into its curriculum and faculty.
Roger Hertog, whom many of your readers probably know, is the biggest donor so far to the Honors College, and with his support, that of the Mellon Foundation, Sy Sternberg, and a few others we have quickly made an important difference in both the reality and the perception of the City University as a place of high standards and academic excellence. Not a bad return on investment for the donors and of course for the people of New York.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you tell us how the original idea came about?
MR. SCHMIDT: Roger Hertog did not invent this, but he was there when a group of trustees and the leadership of the university were trying to drive standards in the right direction. Roger wanted to figure out how he could help. We encouraged him to put his support into the Honors College because of the tremendous leverage we thought it could have on the kind of students we attract.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you give us another example where private support for higher education made a difference?
MR. SCHMIDT: Here’s a completely different example from Yale. When I arrived as president, I discovered to my surprise that one of the most serious conflicts within the faculty of arts and sciences was in the biology department. You have to remember I came from a law school background and had a rather large blind spot—I went to an Ivy League college and was a humanities major—so you can imagine how little I knew about science. [Laughter.]
To oversimplify it a bit, the conflict was between the people in the department who studied biology at the cellular and molecular level versus those in so-called organismal or ecological biology, who studied whole organisms, species, ecosystems, and so on. The molecularists were the most powerful force intellectually within the department. Most National Institutes of Health and other federal funding supported the work of the molecularists. The organismal and ecology biologists were receiving hardly any grant money, and they had great difficulty bringing in younger faculty.
I agreed to try to help the organismal and ecology people hold their own in the face of this tremendous movement towards molecular studies. By the way, I strongly believed in the study of life at the molecular level. When I was president, we built two major molecular biology laboratories, one at the medical school, one in the college. But I was able to find a donor, a gentleman named Ed Bass from Fort Worth, who was interested in the study of biology at the organismal and ecological levels.
PHILANTHROPY: Was that the same Bass who gave Yale $20 million to fund classes in Western civilization and eventually had to take the money back because the school wouldn’t hold up its end of the bargain?
MR. SCHMIDT: No, that was a brother. There were five different Basses who made big donations at about this time, all strong supporters of higher education with varying interests. Ed Bass started with a $25 million commitment to fund organismal biology and ecosystem studies, and his subsequent giving has added considerably to that. The results have been dramatic. There’s now a separate department for organismal and ecosystem studies. They and the molecular people finally decided to have an amicable divorce. But this whole intellectual area of work, which is quite important and was in danger of languishing at Yale—and in many other life sciences departments—is now flourishing because of Ed Bass.
That represents a remarkable achievement. A donor who’s willing to make a serious investment in an intellectual area that needs to be built or reinvigorated can make a difference. I do not see how the Yale trustees or the Yale president could have achieved the same thing without that gift.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you give any examples of privately driven change you see on the horizon?
MR. SCHMIDT: Sure. One effort that I think will prove to be transformational and where again philanthropy is playing a major role comes from an idea that’s recently been endorsed by my friend Checker Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He points out how interesting it would be if colleges measured the effectiveness of what they do, rather than having to rely on various more or less unsatisfactory surrogate ways to guess how much they are actually teaching students.
A group that I’m involved with has started doing what Checker has proposed. The Council for Aid to Education has developed a battery of tests to determine how much students have learned in the general education areas: Can they read and write effectively? Can they manage quantitative analysis? Do they know how to construct a solid paragraph, a persuasive essay? Do they know how to make an argument? Do they know how to break an argument?
These tests, developed by some of our leading psychometricians, are being given now at 60 campuses across the country. By the end of the year we expect over 100 campuses will be using these tests. The effort is the result of seed money from the Carnegie, Hewlett, Lumina, and Ford foundations. Some of the philanthropic approaches are quite interesting. The Ford Foundation, for example, has provided money to ensure that all the historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions are part of the first group of campuses who take these tests. The Teagle Foundation is providing support for liberal arts colleges to participate.
A college will be able to compare its results to an array of similar colleges. A college can also compare majors and programs internally to see how English majors, say, stack up against history majors, or science majors. Colleges can test longitudinally and compare students’ progress over time. Incidentally, the National Science Foundation has given CAE funding to develop its first set of discipline-specific tests in science and engineering.
Why do I think this is transformational. For the first time colleges will be able to measure their affect on students, starting with general education goals—which all colleges consider essential. Accurate and comparable measures of student learning will enable academic planning and analysis at levels of sophistication never seen before. Institutional effectiveness and accountability can be greatly enhanced. If you want to find out about this effort, look up cae.org.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you think most college presidents would say is the worst-performing part of higher education today?
MR. SCHMIDT: I have no doubt what the answer would be: schools of education and education programs. Most schools of education and similar education programs have been a massive and wasteful failure.
PHILANTHROPY: What can be done to reinvent those schools and programs?
MR. SCHMIDT: If I had a clean slate, my first principle would be to abolish all undergraduate majors in “education.” Students may quite properly want to pursue graduate work in education, but they should first earn a degree in a specific discipline. No faculty member would hold his or her appointment in a school or department called “Education.” The beginning of reform would be to insist that faculty members in education programs hold appointments in a real discipline. Then “education” programs would be carried out by excellent professors like Carolyn Hoxby at Harvard, a superb labor economist; Diane Ravitch, the great historian; Eric Hanushek and Terry Moe at Stanford, John Chubb at Brookings; the psychologist Howard Gardner—in other words, education programs would be taught by people from many different disciplines who are interested in education. We ought to be interested in education. It’s an important area that colleges and universities should contribute to, but with a solid research foundation rooted in the disciplines.
PHILANTHROPY: How could a philanthropist assist this reform?
MR. SCHMIDT: Someone should probably start at a university that doesn’t already have a school of education. Start somewhere with a blank slate that you can build on and create an education program with its roots in serious research and practice, instead of the malarkey that now prevails in many universities. If a smart donor helped to give higher education a model program of education, something that was serious and successful, a lot of universities would fall in line. This is another area where philanthropy could once again be an important source of innovation in higher education. The best donor will always be asking, “How can I get the most out of my philanthropic dollar and accomplish something that wouldn’t just happen anyway in the ordinary course of inertia?”