Betting on Cross-fertilization

  • Education
  • 2013

Graduate school is typically a monkish undertaking, in which many participants become comparatively isolated from peers during their deep dive into a chosen academic subject. To balance this a bit, investor Charles Munger helped fund graduate-student housing at Stanford which ganged students into four-bedroom apartments in hopes that the communal interactions coming from living together would overflow into useful professional discussion. This was a success.

Munger then gave the University of Michigan the largest gift in its history—about $110 million worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock—to go even further in this direction. With his 2013 donation, Michigan built a 632-bedroom apartment building that houses graduate students in an innovative way. Every student has a soundproof bedroom and study area and a private bath, but these are grouped as seven-bedroom flats sharing extremely large and comfortable living rooms and kitchens. “Almost every occupant has to share an apartment with six others,” notes Munger. The idea is to give Michigan grad students (who come from 113 countries) easier opportunities to build relationships with fellow scholars, with the expectation that this will not only be pleasant but also encourage useful informal exchange of ideas.

Munger made a similar investment in the co-location of thinkers at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A creation of physicist-turned-businessman Fred Kavli, who donated hundreds of millions to science philanthropy before his death in 2013, the institute brings together top physicists from around the world for professional discussion outside of any teaching or research responsibilities. “Away from day-to-day responsibilities they are in a different mental state,” says director Lars Bildsten. “They’re more willing to wander intellectually.”

Physics is famously a field where insights can bubble up from insights in everyday life, or casual conversations with peers, and Kavli encourages this in its daily programming. However, there was no physical counterpart in the way the visitors were housed. Until 2014—when Munger pledged $65 million to build a permanent residence hall where it will be easy for visiting physicists to mingle informally after hours.

Then in 2016 Munger made his biggest pledge yet to his pet cause of academic housing that encourages collaboration and intellectual success: $200 million to the University of California, Santa Barbara. The entire University of California system was under pressure to expand enrollments and housing to meet high student demand, and Munger agreed to help. But he insisted that the buildings created with his donation must follow the same social-life-friendly design principles applied in his dorms at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.