A different approach to university giving

In Short

It is time to rethink gifting to institutions of higher ed in a way that provides educational value, critical thinking and positive engagement with Jewish people and Israel.

Many funders seeking to make a large impact on a campus opt to give one large gift or make a long-term commitment to supporting a specific field or line of research at the school. This can effectively drive a specific initiative, but it typically does not impact the entire college or university (Ruth Gottesman’s $1 billion gift to Albert Einstein College of Medicine, enabling the school to operate tuition-free, is an example of a gift both amazing and atypical). 

A university is an ecosystem made up of multiple groups. The administration controls tenure and censure, while educational departments create curricula and (hopefully) maintain standards of academic accuracy. Student organizations range from those officially recognized by the university to informal efforts by students with shared interests or goals. Google the number of employees at a university, or try to count the number of departments and student organizations that get financial support and use of university facilities, and you’ll understand how complex it is to change such an institution and impact its culture, and the strength of leadership required by a university’s president and board. (The rapid growth in tuition fees will also be less of a mystery.)

I’ve spoken with a lot of students, educators, board members and professionals from campus-focused organizations since Oct. 7, and I spent 13 years working with them before that. Antisemitism in these spaces is not new, nor will it be eradicated easily. There is no one answer for most institutions of this scale, but the most important thing to do is start digging for solutions — and the second most important thing to do is continue trying, focusing on the long game. 

To change an organization comprised of many entrenched systems within a reasonable time horizon, what you need as a funder is a portfolio of actions. You can start with a whole portfolio, or choose a core element to focus on and expand as you learn more. 

As an example of a bottom-up, single-item-start approach, I recently spoke with a friend who expressed interest in getting involved with the issue of antisemitism on campus in some way. “I have been very involved with my university for years,” he said, “and I was thinking of just paying for some antisemitism awareness training with professors.”

“What do you think?” he asked, without a lot of confidence.

“Great, amazing,” I responded. “If they don’t have it and you can make it happen, what a great place to start and help immediately, and learn more about what’s next.” There is also a benefit to talking directly with administrations about specific rules being broken and what needs to be enforced for a safe and respectful environment for students, staff and faculty, including TAs. 

But because so many of us are looking to do something and don’t have the bandwidth or connections to engage one-on-one with a campus, it might be helpful to consider a top-down portfolio approach and a set of options to choose from. Here is an example of what such a portfolio might look like as a starting point: 

Focus area: Educational programs providing experiences and personal connections

Category 1: Experiential programs about Israel and/or with Israelis   

  • Trips for non-Jewish emerging leaders, led by their Israeli peers at 40+ top-tier graduate programs in business, law and policy (e.g. Itrek)
  • Scholarships for Israelis to attend top-tier graduate policy schools and engage with peers about Israel (The Israeli Policy Fellowship)
  • Active projects and internships with Israeli companies (Tamid)
  • Helping to bring Israeli faculty to colleges and universities globally to teach courses on Israel (The Israel Institute)

Category 2: Addressing antisemitism through training 

Israeli universities are a powerful point of leverage and connectivity between students and universities globally. With greater funding, Israeli universities have more opportunities to finance important scientific, health, policy and social interest research — opportunities to invite additional global collaborators. For instance, the Milken Innovation Center in Jerusalem runs a fellows program with Hebrew University, bringing in top-tier students who are interested in development finance from across the world, including students from University of California, Berkely; Princeton; NYU; Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland; University of Pretoria in South Africa; University of Botswana; and Teri University in India. 

It is also worth noting that full tuition at University of Haifa, Bar Ilan University and other Israeli institutions of higher education is about $4,000 per year, compared to $80,000 per year in the US. Around $16,000 can support a full four-year scholarship for one student; a $1 million gift could support a cohort of 62 people for a full ride for four years. Helping Israeli universities expand study abroad programs, bringing more students from around the world to spend a semester in Israel, is another opportunity for impactful investment. 

Another important portfolio to develop is one around co-existence. Working on co-existence can be difficult, but it is important — and strikingly missing from most campus conversation. What’s the ROI on supporting coexistence? If our children can’t live together, what is the implied outcome? 

An analysis of seven of the top Jewish federations’ donor-advised funds shows that from 2014 to 2022, almost $650 million in grants ($80 million annually) went to 25 top-tier colleges and universities, most of which have significant endowments. This doesn’t include funds from major direct donors, nor gifts from personal foundations.  

Imagine what would happen if we redeployed just some of our capital to these direct-giving portfolios? For those who need to deploy a lot of capital and wonder if the smaller organizations can handle it, the answer is yes — and maybe your gift can help them scale up further. Could $25 million, $50 million, or $100 million be deployed annually? Yes. These and other organizations won’t go spending it on areas where they cannot envision direct impact, because they are mission aligned. 

I’ve seen it work hundreds of times.  Give resources to someone willing to talk with someone else about Israel, someone who can take others by the hand to Israel or who can have a conversation about a difficult issue, and they can support change and provide an invaluable educational experience. Support an experience or project between people of different backgrounds and opinions, and positive relationships are developed. The talent is out there but it needs funder support: the capital, the vote of confidence, the emotional support and the resources necessary for scaling their work. 

This talent needs funders to come to the table. If you don’t know why they aren’t calling you, it’s because their day-to-day work has never been so intense. If we want change, we need to find those organizations, support them and help them build up. 

Rafi Musher is the founder and non-executive chairman of Stax LLC, a global strategic consulting firm. He is also co-founder and board chair of itrek, and serves on multiple other boards as well.