February 3, 2008, 12:48 PM ET
Studying Philanthropy at Stanford
I spent an interesting day last week at Stanford University, where I gave a seminar on recent trends in philanthropy for the newly established Center on Philanthropy and Society. The Center was launched by two organizational sociologists, Woody Powell and Debra Meyerson, who work especially with Rob Reich, a young political scientist who has recently begun to write a series of intelligently provocative pieces on egalitarianism and philanthropy. The Center maintains a seminar series (which is why I was invited), but so far as I can tell it mainly exists to support the research of graduate students in any field who are interested in some aspect of philanthropy. I was impressed by the intelligence and commitment of the grad students who came to my seminar.
The effort strikes me as important for at least two reasons. First, it represents one of the newest efforts to institutionalize the study of philanthropy in the academy. I have been working in the field since the mid-1970s, which is when the new wave of interest in philanthropy began, and I have long hoped to see the field accepted as important by the major universities. New centers have emerged over time (at the CUNY Graduate Center, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, IUPUI and UCLA, for instance) and a good deal of new scholarship has been produced, but progress has been slow and scholarly results mixed, at best.
Second, the establishment of the Stanford Center highlights the importance of convincing bright young scholars (graduate students and faculty of Rob Reich’s quality) that the field is one that can sustain first-rate scholarship. Beginning new interdisciplinary (or, better, non-disciplinary-based) fields is always difficult, but it is hardest in the social sciences and humanities. So when elite universities take up the torch for a new field, it is encouraging — it is also heartening to know that Joel Fleishman and Ed Skloot are starting a new center on philanthropic foundations at Duke University. Perhaps the momentum is picking up, and a real “field” of philanthropy will finally emerge.
I am sure that we need to understand philanthropy much better than we do if we are to comprehend the changes that the enormous surge in personal wealth in this country are making. We have recently witnessed Congressional criticism of the field, based mostly on a recurrent neo-populist suspicion that the special legal advantages that great wealth sheltered in philanthropic perpetuities confers upon the rich is a threat to democracy. Seems to me that is worth thinking, and worrying, about.