Michael Bloomberg is a typical rags-to-riches American success story, becoming one of the world’s richest men over the last generation or so.
Like universities, he is in the business of disseminating knowledge and information, in his case mainly through instant access to vast quantities of financial information to investors. But he also has made a name in politics, sometimes as a Republican, sometimes as a Democrat, and even as an independent.
In three ways, Bloomberg has been a huge friend of higher education, in some cases without the universities appreciating his contributions.
First, of course, is his tangible financial contribution. Bloomberg has probably given more money to American universities than any other individual, and his multibillion-dollar gifts to Johns Hopkins University (his alma mater) are easily the largest made to a single institution in history (even after adjusting for inflation). But he has also donated huge sums to other schools — Harvard and Cornell particularly come to mind.
Here’s a point that tax-the-rich progressives of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) variety rarely acknowledge: Historically, most of the wealthiest Americans have given large portions of their fortune to private charity — often more than to their own children. Look at Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. When Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s widow, Helen, died, her estate went largely to charities. Bloomberg is following in that great tradition, promoting charitable purposes probably at vastly lower administrative costs than government bureaucracies do.
But Bloomberg also has prodded higher education in two policy initiatives that I think are quite beneficial. (Full disclosure: many years ago I did some writing for Bloomberg, receiving little or no financial compensation.)
At the 2014 Harvard commencement, he derided increasing efforts to restrict free speech within the academy: “If you want the freedom to worship as you wish, and speak as you wish … then you must tolerate my freedom to do so.” He added, “Isn’t the purpose of a university to stir discussion, not silence it? It’s morally and pedagogically wrong to deny other students from hearing a speech.” He recognized that freedom of expression and the sharing of diverse viewpoints provide intellectual vitality, promoting both learning and tolerance.
Contrast Bloomberg’s perspective with the one too often found in today’s top universities, which no doubt prompted his Harvard remarks.
To pick one example, the University of Pennsylvania seems determined to get rid of Amy Wax, a brilliant professor who has been a mainstay at Penn Law for decades and has received prestigious recognition (the Lindbeck Award) for fine teaching. Wax apparently is too anti-woke for the school’s law students.
This stance makes Penn appear contemptuous of its great founder, Benjamin Franklin, who once said, “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech, which is the right of every man.”
In recent days, Bloomberg has been a voice of common sense on another higher education issue: using standardized tests like the SAT and ACT to help make admission decisions. To quote Bloomberg in a recent opinion piece, “The crisis in U.S. K-12 public education continues to deepen, and decisions by many colleges and universities to abandon SAT and ACT scores are making it worse. Instead of demanding more accountability from high schools, colleges are expecting less.”
As late as 2017 the national composite ACT average score was 21.0; in 2022 it had fallen to 19.8, the lowest in over three decades. High school has declined abysmally, partly but not entirely because of the recent pandemic. Therefore, objective standardized test information about student academic training is more important than ever. Yet many schools, including such bellwether institutions as Harvard have stopped requiring it but continue to base admissions on such factors as affirmative action rather than merely academic achievement.
Mike Bloomberg, a pioneering innovator in providing financial information, also has good advice on improving the quality and quantity of intellectual discourse in universities. We should listen to him.
Richard K. Vedder is a distinguished professor of Economics at Ohio University, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and a member of the board of the National Association of Scholars. He is the author of “Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.”
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