• August 31, 2015

The College as a Philanthropy. Yes, a Philanthropy.

College Philanthropy

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

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Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

After spending most of my adult life in private higher education, I've concluded that most of our students are unprepared for college. They may be academically ready and emotionally mature, but they don't understand what a college is or what its motives and mission are. Because they don't understand those things, they are often unprepared to meet our expectations. Worse, they are unprepared to receive the gifts we are waiting, and hoping, to give them.

The way students don't understand college was crystallized for me several years ago in a meeting with a student. She had come to see me to voice a complaint, which went roughly like this: "I've learned that a teammate on my sports team is receiving more institutional financial aid than I am, even though she isn't as good a player as I am, and she's not making as important a contribution to the team as I am. In the interest of fairness, I would like you to increase my aid."

This student's evident emotional turmoil made it clear that something bigger than wanting "more" was happening. It eventually came out, through tears, that her family was struggling financially, and she felt she needed to lighten her parents' financial burden. That was easy to address once the true problem was made clear.

The question the meeting raised, and the question I couldn't stop puzzling over afterward, was why it hadn't occurred to this student to come to me and say, "I have a problem, and I need the college to help me." Clearly it never crossed her mind that her relationship with the college would permit such a request for help.

Many subsequent events and conversations have confirmed that our students, and their families, and many others, don't understand what a college is. In an era of increasing competition from for-profit colleges, and facing heightened regulatory scrutiny, institutions with selfless motives and service missions would be wise to find their voices and make their intentions clear.

I've tried to find, and raise, my college's voice, and to address, in various settings, this issue of what a college is. The best opportunity I've found—because freshmen will still listen to the president at this point—is when I welcome our new class to the campus. Here is what I say, with variations, each fall:

We have a strong tendency in our society today to look at things from the perspective of the consumer. We want to be smart shoppers. We want to make a good buy. We love a bargain. We don't want to get a bad deal.

People often speak of "shopping for a college." Maybe you and your parents used that phrase in the past year as you visited colleges. It would follow from that perspective, wouldn't it, that you, the customer, are here to purchase your higher education?

Another way the consumer perspective shapes thinking about college relates to scholarships and financial aid. Many of you have received academic scholarships, which reflect your academic promise as revealed by your high-school grades or your ACT or SAT scores. And many of you have received scholarships related to your planned participation in the performing arts, service learning, and athletics. The consumer perspective would prompt you to think that the college is "paying" you to come here. That would make you a kind of commodity, a bundle of talents and experiences that the college has decided to purchase.

I want to be clear with you: You are not a customer here. You are something much better than that. You are not a commodity here. You are something way better than that. The reason you are not merely a customer or a commodity is that this college is not a business.

This college is a philanthropy. If you pay attention to the origins of words and you look at the pieces of that word, "phil" and "anthropy," you know that "phil" means love or esteem or high regard. And "anthropy" means humanity or humankind. The college is a philanthropy, an expression of love and esteem for humankind.

This college exists as a philanthropy because thousands of people, many of whom you and I will never know, have built it over the past 125 years. They built it for your benefit, knowing they would never meet you. The college's facilities, our endowment for scholarships, our mission—all of these have been built, and protected and sustained, for your benefit. They were built so you can gain a college education, find and pursue your passion, and commit yourselves to living a valuable life. In short, this college exists so you can become a better person and, in turn, help make the world a better place.

None of you, not even that very rare student who receives no financial aid from the college, will come close to paying what it is going to cost the college to educate you. You know what? That's OK. That's not a problem. In fact, that is the whole idea. Because you are not a customer, and the college is not a business. This college is a philanthropy, and we have a marvelous gift to give you—a far better education than you can afford, and the opportunity to work with people who truly care about you—and we are able to give this gift to you because of the financial support of thousands of alumni and friends and because the college's people have committed themselves to you.

If you have the money to purchase it, you can go into any McDonald's in the country and they will sell you a Big Mac. But you can't buy a Southwestern College education that way. How much money you have is not the point. If we were to run this college like a business, if profit were our motive, we would probably just focus on educating students who have a lot of money. And a lot of you wouldn't be here today.

But making a profit isn't our mission. Helping you is our mission.

What I'm trying to say is that you may believe you are here because you chose this college. And it is true, of course, that you have something to say about which college you attend. But it is more relevant, and truer, to say that you are here because we chose you. You certainly wouldn't be here otherwise.

So much for being a customer.

Now let me say a few words on the subject of students as commodities. I know that there are lots of messages in our consumer culture that encouraged you, as you advanced through high school, to think of yourself as a bundle of talents and experiences that could be "marketed" to colleges. Right? You were encouraged to participate in a wide range of activities to show that you were well rounded. And you were encouraged to excel at something specific—singing, basketball, writing for the school paper, debate—to show that you were talented. All of this would make you marketable. Right? And you would attract scholarships and financial aid. In short, you were supposed to see yourself as a commodity that colleges would compete over.

But the college is a philanthropy, not a business. And we are here to help you, not to buy you, and certainly not to pay you. The reason to sing in the choir is because you have a passion to sing. The reason to play football is that you love football.

I know—because I ask this question of freshmen every year—that you believe you will lose your tennis scholarship if you quit the tennis team. You think your choir scholarship will vanish if you decide not to sing in the choir anymore. But I've got news for you: You won't lose that scholarship. Your financial-aid package won't be reduced just because your interests or priorities change. Why not? Well, first, because you are supposed to change. That's why you came here. It doesn't make a lot of sense to punish you for it. Second, because we aren't using financial aid to pay you to come here. We are using financial aid to help you afford a college education. The college is a philanthropy.

Now, the fact that the college is a philanthropy doesn't mean that we're all soft and squishy and have no expectations of you. Quite the opposite. We expect a lot of you. We expect you to spend your time here exploring and developing your talents and abilities. There is something you are uniquely well suited to do with your life, something for which you have a passion, something valuable for others. Spend your time here looking for that. We expect you to take yourself seriously, and to take this opportunity seriously.

Our admissions process doesn't make many mistakes in evaluating the academic abilities of students. The students we choose to be here are able to do the academic work that is required to stay here. You can do it. We chose you on that basis.

Because the college is a philanthropy, because we are committed to your growth and development, because we love you, you are permitted to make mistakes here, you are permitted to be confused here, and you are permitted to change your mind and change your plans here. What you are not permitted to do here is waste our time. Because we have made an investment in you. Because we chose you to receive a fabulous gift. All we ask of you is that you honestly make your best effort to capitalize on this opportunity.

Of course, the college also has responsibilities and obligations. They stem from our philanthropic mission. We owe you our very best efforts, in instruction, in our campus-life programs, in the residence halls, in everything we do.

Please make the most of your time here. Let's grow together.

Dick Merriman is president of Southwestern College, in Kansas.


1. lcoulter - November 01, 2010 at 10:32 am

THANK you! (And do you have any openings at Southwestern?)

2. shallinan - November 01, 2010 at 11:32 am

Great words of wisdom to our students and colleagues. Go Builders!

3. barbarashell - November 01, 2010 at 01:43 pm

One of the most interesting perspectives on higher education that I have had the pleasure of reading in a great, long while.

4. tpul2014 - November 01, 2010 at 04:31 pm

Very nice, a breath of fresh air.

5. impossible_exchange - November 01, 2010 at 07:10 pm

Now how can we get admins, politicans, et co to understand this?

6. jabberwocky12 - November 02, 2010 at 06:31 am

Wow, I wish you had been the president of the university I attended.

On my first day, we got the following speech: "Everybody look at the person on your left. Now look at the person on your right. Now face me. Including yourself, there are three of you. At the end of three years, there will be only one of you. Deal with it."

(Strangely enough, though, he was right. The guy on my left flunked out at the end of first year, and the guy on my right flunked out at the end of second year. I don't know what people at the end of each row did :-).

Thanks for an inspiring piece.

7. missoularedhead - November 03, 2010 at 05:09 pm

wow. Thank you.

8. mandosally - November 03, 2010 at 05:17 pm

I appreciate the ideals of Dr. Merriman and only wish they were true in today's world of higher education. Colleges, both for profit and not, act just like businesses, charging ever-rising tuition and fees, and constantly keeping an eye on the bottom line. You cannot flunk a student, because you need their tuition. You need them enrolled to get federal or state funding. Add this to the student and/or his/her parents' perspective of paying tens of thousands of dollars to go to school, how can you expect him/her to NOT think s/he is a customer? How can you expect him/her not to believe they have bought their education? It's a no win situation. I don't like it at all, but fear it's the nature of things today. I hope for a return one day to what is described here.

9. nampman - November 03, 2010 at 06:03 pm

This is a perfect example of what college should (and can) be.

10. compdoc - November 03, 2010 at 08:52 pm

I agree with most other commenters that this is an inspiring view of what college should be and of what some colleges still are.

11. nancyswisher - November 03, 2010 at 10:51 pm

This is beautiful. Thank you. It is refreshing and validating to know that a college president says to students: "We love you." When I tell folks I love my students, they often look askance. You have inspired me to continue to believe that my role is to serve students on many levels while still prodding and poking and demanding that they achieve all of which they are capable - and to understand that they will change and make mistakes.

Lucky Southwestern College students!

12. jcollier - November 04, 2010 at 09:48 am

Of course education is more than just a commodity or service relationship.

However, if business and marketing are evolving to focus on all types of mutually-satisfactory exchanges between people, then we need more sophisticated ways to evaluate success in the exchange of knowledge and experience between our schools and our students.

Are we creating valuable, meaningful, and authentic experiences through our whole offering? Experiences that will resonate for a lifetime? Experiences worth the cost of admission?

I think Gilmore & Pine on Authenticity is worth a look ...


13. bernard27 - November 05, 2010 at 01:02 am

I disagree with many of you here. I'm a big believer and beneficiary from the intrinsic and empowering nature of education. However, it is naive here to say that colleges are not businesses. They are non-profit businesses driven by purpose rather than for profit but they should operate efficiently as any business should. If they didn't, they could not sustain the philanthropic output they aspire to nurture. If it were all about philanthropy why even ask for tuition, room , and board? Why not just do it out for free out of "Love" for the students a college has so purposely selected, admitted, and invested?

It is unethical to not operate as a non-profit business given the financial strain many endure for the benefit a college offers.

14. 11164868 - November 05, 2010 at 07:43 am

Bravo. College should be operated in a business like fashion, but they ARE NOT businesses. Not quite so sure I'd go as far as describing them as philanthropies. Unfortunately at my institution (large private in the mid atlantic), the university as a business culture still prevails as a result of our late President.

15. tjfarrel - November 05, 2010 at 07:45 am

Dear bernard27

You are the person who chose your spouse so that you could make that person better. Please find another line of work.

16. lotsoquestions - November 05, 2010 at 07:58 am

If the person who came to see you was not a student but an adjunct professor at your university and he or she also described the way in which it was difficult to watch other colleagues be paid over ten times more than s/he was for the same work and no benefits, what might you have told him or her? Would you have found additional money for this person? Just curious.

17. hallde - November 05, 2010 at 08:08 am

Well said! I don't believe the comments of bernard27 are in contrast to the author's point. We have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible, no question. But we should also continually remind our students, parents, legislators, and the public generally that we are driven by a mission of purpose, not profit. Most importantly, we need to "walk the walk" and align our resources with that mission and not fall into the profit (or other, such as the gravitational pull towards the scholarship of discovery at all colleges and universities) model.

18. perpetua - November 05, 2010 at 09:42 am

To lotsoquestions--your question is compelling, and raises a question that should be raised about higher education, but it doesn't pertain to the philanthropic mission of the college, which was not to provide secure employment and benefits for underemployed academics. And since this particular college serves the needs of undergraduates and a few masters programs, not doctoral students, it's philanthropic vision doesn't encompass the education and preparation of those underemployed academics, either (sad as that may be).

19. roettgwb - November 05, 2010 at 09:53 am

Well put, Mr. President.

20. quidditas - November 05, 2010 at 11:25 am

"The reason you are not merely a customer or a commodity is that this college is not a business. This college is a philanthropy."

I got my MA from a small liberals arts college with a faculty that to this very day famboyantly declares itself to not be a business.

And I agreed 100%. I always viewed my tuition (minus the coupon that my scholarship represented) as a charitable contribution.

I'm still not sure why this faculty insists on being viewed as a charity case but if that's what turns them on, so be it.

21. quidditas - November 05, 2010 at 11:30 am

"Now, the fact that the college is a philanthropy doesn't mean that we're all soft and squishy and have no expectations of you. Quite the opposite. We expect a lot of you. We expect you to spend your time here exploring and developing your talents and abilities."

Right. Which studens do pay faculty to GUIDE and EVALUATE. I'm thinking students SHOULD resort to the consumer model and it's faculty who object to being held to such customer service standards.

After all, I NEVER hear paying students contesting the business model--and, it does inhibit them from viewing you as a charity case.

22. victorl - November 05, 2010 at 11:34 am

That was the very best expression of what it means to be a "non-profit" college (public or private) I've ever read. Thanks for writing this piece. I hope lots of people read it! The cynical side of me doubts it will have the impact it deserves to achieve, but I'll hope for that, too.

Victor Lieberman

23. quidditas - November 05, 2010 at 11:40 am


You should view the below market work of adjuncts as their charitable contribution to the philanthropic mission of the college and its market rate faculty.

Thanks to the President for finally opening up the long needed discussion on "higher education as charity case."

24. more_cowbell - November 05, 2010 at 11:41 am

Philanthropy? Oh please! It's one thing to voice warm fuzzies about what we'd like universities to be like, but it's ridiculous to think that they aren't businesses. I'd like to know how much money this presdient gets for his "philanthropy work."

25. 22286593 - November 05, 2010 at 12:46 pm

This article is a wonderful example of how, sometimes, the idealistic solution is the most realistic solution. Indeed, the language of business and consumers appear "realistic" that kind of language will ultimately undermine quality of education and the long-run viability of universities. President Merriman's job is not to maximize the profit for Southwest College, his job is to care for the college so that it can educate its students and to serve the social good--just like a philanthropy. Whatever salary he draws, his compensation is based on goals that are more complex and less measurable than private corporations and their quarterly reports. I look forward to the next article that President Merriman's should write: "The Professoriate as a Calling (and not Just a Job)."

26. 12071647 - November 05, 2010 at 01:04 pm

I would argue that at some universities the customers are endowment-building CEOs and the product is "trained workers". University administrations develop new programs and restructure (or defund) old ones dependent on customer demand (the CEOs), then funnel students through these programs. Student shape their desires around available offerings, and faculty "governance" is an illusion.

27. john_d_foubert_phd - November 05, 2010 at 02:03 pm

Thank you for saying this, President Merriman. I will make this required reading for my class of future college administrators from now on. As well put a statement as I have ever read on what we do in higher education.

28. 11182967 - November 05, 2010 at 03:02 pm

Well-named, this Merriman. To #24, et al: When I was in 10th grade I was imbued with the wisdom of cynicism, but I had the good fortune to outgrow it. Otherwise, I don't see how I could have had a career in higher education. And I'm always puzzled at people in our profession who denigrate the hope and optimism that is a necessary underpinning for our challenging, underpaid, overworked efforts.

29. msghighered - November 05, 2010 at 04:52 pm

Well said bernard27!

30. anonscribe - November 05, 2010 at 06:22 pm

This was wonderful. Thank you.

31. aajones - November 05, 2010 at 06:38 pm

Will be sure to share this (properly cited, of course) with as many students, faculty and staff as possible. What a gift you have given us!

32. div411 - November 06, 2010 at 05:11 pm

I once had the misfortune of teaching at LSU, which is neither a business nor a university. I taught a football player who DID lose his scholarship when he broke his leg and could no longer play football. Whatever the policy at Southwestern, it is not--or was not--the policy at the place I taught for ten years.


33. wendylynnelee - November 07, 2010 at 09:44 am


THANK YOU, President Merriman.

Second, such are valuable words indeed for those of us actively working to resist the corporatization of our universities. I teach at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, a 10,000 student state school in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) where many of us on the faculty (including some entire departments in the humanities and social sciences) are working to oppose a radical redrafting of general education that we believe would

1. Seriously undermine the place of the humanities, sciences, and social sciences in the university mission,

2. Reduce what counts as general education to a lowest common denominator called a general education unit (GEU),

3. Effectively convert students into the very consumers of Merriman's excellent post,

4. Transform faculty into salespersons competing with each other for "GEUs" and hence for students.

5. Discourage a very very good humanities, sciences, and social sciences faculty from performing scholarship and research since (a) such work is not valued as relevant to coursework--the pressure being to teach more and more lower division courses in order to be able to compete for GEUs, and (b) because the new model makes these disciplines the "service course providers" for the college of business, professional studies, and education--hence increasing workload and likely class size.

6. Rebrand Bloomsburg as on the "cutting edge" of the corporatization of higher education in the PASSHE, eroding the philanthropic vision of what higher education is for.

Our president aims to be on the national forefront of this "makeover," and he casts the re-writing of GenEd on his own Blog site as if the faculty were on-board with it. He simply ignores the intense debate, and thereby leaves the impression that we're all thrilled with this "cutting edge" revision of the university mission. We--at least a substantial number of us especially in the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences--are not. And as the tremendous volume of discourse on the faculty server clearly attests (possibly the greatest sheer volume directed to a single issue ever on the BU campus), to imply by omission otherwise is disingenuous.

Thus it is especially heartening to see a university PRESIDENT go to bat FOR education.

Thank you, again, President Merriman.

34. bernard27 - November 07, 2010 at 04:01 pm


I didn't chose my wife because I'm not that smart! We accepted God's calling for us to be together so that he could get the glory...so that our marriage would demonstrate his "Love" for the world. She relies completely on the relationship between God and I to make herself better.


You get the point. We should "walk the walk." If President Merriman, donors, and others are doing this out of "philanthropic Love" to bring glory to the power of education...why not educate for free, and be publicly transparent about the enrollment inputs you take in and the learning outcomes you put out? If you're confident about your philanthropy as opposed to a sort of corporatism, then your outputs will proudly advocate for it and you should confidently address any performance shortfalls out of "Love".

35. pscohl - November 10, 2010 at 08:20 am

Yes. And no. While students and their parents may be participants in (and recipients of) the philanthropic endeavor that is higher education, to call their "consumer" perceptions false is over-simplistic, and for many institutions, dangerous. With Southwestern College's tuition and fees of over $20,000 and, according to US News, student indebtedness of $27,973, most families would have a hard time viewing the expense of their educational investment as anythng but a "consumer decision." Moreover, with a 90 percent acceptance rate, a freshmen retention rate of only 68 percent, and a 6-year graduation rate of a mere 48.6 percent, it's no wonder that just 9 percent of alumni give back. Tuition-driven institutions need to be very mindful that "consumers" drive their ability to be "philanthropic." And, Southwestern College needs to look very carefully at what tangible benefits they are offering to their students, parents, and alumni lest their "product" faces further financial challenges.

36. ghostofunder - November 11, 2010 at 09:34 am

To varying degrees all colleges and universities have to employ some level of business practice in their administration. However, it's important that students and their parents (customers) realize that colleges and universities provide services that will last a lifetime, not products to be consumed or used then discarded.

A case in point. How many times have you heard from a student, or even the parent of a student, who is performing poorly that they are paying your salary and therefor you should raise their grade, forgive their absences, etc? Maybe it would be wise to remind them that you do, in fact, care about the student and her/his future in the outside world where under achievement is not rewarded. Better a student make their mistakes and learn these lessons in a caring atmosphere rather than in the 'real' world where the consequences are greater.

37. clockhert - November 15, 2010 at 10:42 am

I agree with pschol's comments and would like to add that by definition to be involved in a philanthropic organization is to be involved in an "activity of donating" one's time and talent. While I believe education can be considered a calling that many professionals devote their lives to helping teach students, discounting college student's attitude that that they are buying their education does not allow for a deeper understanding of the issue in why this attitude exists. When presidential compensation tips the million dollar point as published by an article in the Chronicle yesterday, it begs the question, is this institution a philanthropy or a business? http://chronicle.com/article/Compensation-of-30/125371/
When graduation rates struggle to hit a 50 percent mark within a 6 year period which subsequently burdens students with additional student loan debt, again the question of philanthropy or business is raised.
When tuition rates increase at a rate faster than inflation over the past decade, again the question: philanthropy or business begs an answer.
I understand the frustration with a generation of students who think they can simply buy their way in and "deserve" a decent grade, because they paid for it as pointed out by ghostofunder. While the underlying motivation of colleges and universities is philanthropic in nature the reality is the fee for entry is so high people can't help but look at it as a busines as well in order to better understand what they are receiving for their money.

38. electronicmuse - November 21, 2010 at 11:14 am

Hurrah! I'm in a milieu where I can't do so much as withdraw students from my class for failing to attend, evidently because doing so might create "green card" problems if they are international students. Maybe we should treat them as though they live in the real world and simply send a few of them home! In business, non-attendance would be perceived as "a quaint way of giving notice." Why should it be otherwise in higher education?

But, that would cost something at the bottom line, would it not? The best analogy I know is: your physician is a professional and you are the "client." But as a "client," you don't make the diagnosis, nor deliver the prognosis. The idea that students are "clients" is ridiculous.

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