So I’m in the midst of a book project I thought would not begin for a few years at least…and I’m trying to write everyday. But I’ve got a lull that can only be filled by research, so I’m going to fill my word count today with a bit of old news gone uninterrogated.

In September it was reported with massive fanfare that Henry Louis Gates, Chair of the Department of African American Studies Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University received a donation in the sum of $15 million from private equity mogul Glen Hutchins. The donation is believed to be the largest donation ever given to a black studies department research institute, and will go to establish the Glen Hutchins Center for African American Research. The Center will house nine  of the Department’s  African/African-American research institutes (including the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute). The relationship between the two seemingly developed from a chance encounter:

Mr. Hutchins said he had long admired the professor’s work from a distance, and Mr. Gates’s reputation had inspired him to seek out the symposium. Professor Gates said he remembered little about the encounter until two weeks later, when Harvard’s development office called asking how he had managed to collect $1 million in donations in one shot. That donation was the first by Mr. Hutchins to Harvard.

Since that encounter, the two have become friends, going out together on fishing trips and having lunch at the Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan. At Silver Lake’s offices in Manhattan, members of the staff refer to Professor Gates by his nickname, Skip, and, when he arrives, get him water and fruit. At the professor’s offices in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Hutchins is regularly greeted with a cup of fresh cappuccino.

Together at Silver Lake’s offices this month, the two constantly joshed each other and spoke glowingly of the Harvard program’s accomplishments. At one point, Mr. Hutchins pointed out the view across Central Park, his arm draped over the professor’s shoulder.

More here. Although Hutchins consulted with Gates as to how the money would be used and how the Center would develop, it was named after Hutchins at Gates’ insistence. For some of my academic colleagues Gates dropped the mic. I think Mark Anthony Neal wrote on facebook #gamerecognizegame.

I get that. But I’ve got a very different perspective.

Before I get to that though, I want to dismiss one critique that I can see some making.

Given Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s recent decision to give $70 million to USC to establish a new undergraduate center (The Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy) for business innovation in the arts, one could ask…why get this money from Hutchins? Why haven’t any number of prominent African Americans stepped up to donate money to the department?

Along somewhat similar lines someone could make the argument that a spot like Harvard is the last place such a donation should go, given how flush with capital they already are. In fact Dr Dre was roundly critiqued by some black scholars for putting his money in USC as opposed to Howard or a range of other HBCUs.

I have to admit The Glen Hutchins Center for African American Studies just doesn’t sound right to my ears, while The Nasir Jones Center would. But the problem isn’t the fact that Gates received the money from Hutchins as opposed to an African American, nor is it that Harvard received the money as opposed to Howard. These critiques take the model of university endowment politics as a given, only suggesting we change the race of the donor, or the racial designation of the school.

What model am I talking about?

For the last few decades most universities “make money” (placed in quotes because most universities are technically non-profits) through the interest of of their endowments. Harvard has the largest endowment in the country at around $32 billion. Donations are a significant source of endowment loot, and schools like Harvard have large development offices purposed to increase the size of the endowment through donations. Some of these donations–like Jimmy Iovine/Dr Dre’s to USC, and like Glen Hutchins donation to Harvard–are targeted, given with a very specific purpose in mind (a building, a center, scholarship funds for students). Others are given to the university with no strings attached.

Over the past decade or so we’ve seen a number of universities engage in large fundraising campaigns. My alma mater is about to begin its second major capital campaign of the century after having raised 3.2 billion between 2004-2008. My first employer is more than halfway past its goal of 2.2 billion for its current capital campaign. My current employer is in the midst of its own campaign. And they aren’t alone. In fact it wasn’t hard for me to find a strategy guide to developing capital campaigns.

Dwindling state resources are responsible for at least some of this, at least in the case of public schools like Michigan. However in general what we are witnessing is the “natural” effect of capital expansi0n at the expense of the public. And the effects can be corrosive. As schools like Harvard tend to both attract and graduate one percenters the focus on alumni donations tends to increase inequality between universities–as much as alumni of HBCUs rail against their own for not donating to their schools there is no way they can ever hope to raise the type of money a Harvard or a Michigan can through capital campaigns alone. In general they increase the agenda setting power of private financiers over how universities are run. They likely increase the role of alumni preferences in student admissions. And to the extent university athletics and university capital campaigns are related (athletics at schools like Michigan tend to drive support for the school), I believe they tend to increase the power athletic departments have within schools. Finally they increase the push towards entrepreneurialism in all areas of the university.

In the specific case of black studies, relying on this capital campaign model will increasingly separate departments centers like Harvards from others as they will consistently out fundraise its competitors. Other departments centers will increasingly find themselves forced to generate campaigns of their own–turning every stone over in order to find their own Glen Hutchins. And to the extent that departments centers in GENERAL will be forced to generate campaigns, black studies departments centers will find themselves comparatively punished when they aren’t able to do so. This will effect their sustainability. Further though to the extent they are able to sustain themselves, they may find their academic mission compromised as they modify aspects of their program, from their name to more substantial changes, as a result of the strings attached to their money, or even more perverse as a result of their BELIEFS about POTENTIAL strings attached to POTENTIAL monetary streams.

The end result is a black studies that looks nothing like what we imagine black studies is supposed to look like.

I think that what we have is a situation in which centers and departments damn near HAVE to hustle for resources.

But what we should move to is a situation in which these centers and departments should be funded as public priorities. Particularly given the historical record. And by “public” here I mean by the university itself, above and beyond capital campaigns. I’m not going to knock Henry Louis Gates’ hustle–he is who we thought he was. But we should applaud the type of capital campaign work he and others perform only to the degree they support this project.

[Editor’s note–Tommie Shelby kindly corrected me to note that I confused the Center Gates heads with the Department of African and African American Studies. The two are very distinct entities–the department hires faculty, teaches courses, and awards degrees, while the Center does not. My mistake.]