Well after numerous other schools have received nine-figure donations, Harvard has finally landed its first from an alumnus, David Rockefeller. The money will go to support study abroad and for new “study centers” at the Fogg Museum.
Rockefeller’s gift is a big deal for Harvard, and the university is making a hullabaloo about it, as it should. The Globe gets so excited about the Rocke-gift that the paper simply prints the entire Harvard press release. The Globe: Once a great paper.
But the real impact of this donation, at least in the short term, has nothing do with fine art or study abroad. The greatest impact of Rockefeller’s gift for the foreseeable future is this:
1) It breaks a psychological barrier. Harvard has lagged behind other universities, such as Yale and New York University, in landing truly large gifts from alums. Rockefeller’s gift can be portrayed as a vote of confidence in Harvard and an example that other grads should emulate.
2) It’s a watershed, unofficial kickoff to the fundraising campaign that has been planned, and postponed, for most of the ’00s.
3) It signifies the closing of one final door on the Summers era. According to published reports, Rockefeller had been preparing to make a similar donation in 2006, then decided not to after the forced resignation of Larry Summers. Conservative news outlets portrayed that as a show of anger at Harvard and support for Summers; it almost surely was not. People making contributions of that magnitude want to maximize its, and their, influence. Giving the gift during a transitional presidency (Derek Bok’s) would hardly have accomplished that. By waiting, Rockefeller increased his influence during the presidential search process and gets the pleasure of yet another Harvard president kissing his ass.
So this gift is terrific news for Harvard and very, very good news for Drew Faust. It is not a ringing endorsement of Faust; the gift would have come sooner or later, and all Faust had to do, very likely, was not screw it up. But at the same time, Harvard presidents get blamed for things that they have not done or are not their fault, so who can begrudge them taking credit for things which are not entirely their doing?