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March 11, 2016

Opinion: A Big Donor's Legacy May Look Different to Future Generations

Today's nine-figure gifts to universities and other institutions – and the names attached to the resulting buildings and scholarship programs to honor billionaire donors – might become tomorrow's ideological or economic flashpoints, a Wall Street Journal essayist suggests.

Christopher Caldwell likens Nike co-founder Phil Knight's recent $400 million donation for a Stanford program to attract and cultivate young leaders to the Rhodes scholarship – and he notes that students at colleges in England and South Africa have loudly called for statues of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from their campuses because of his history as a colonizer of southern Africa. Yale and Princeton have seen similar controversies over honors for historical figures viewed in contemporary terms as racists.

While there is no suggestion that Mr. Knight or other modern-day megadonors "have violated any of the tenets of today’s public morality regarding race," Mr. Caldwell writes, views of their giving in years to come could be tarred by rising populism; criticism of their business practices; or the view that massive gifts to elite institutions such as Stanford, and the tax breaks they engender, perpetuate and widen economic inequality.

"If the youth of the year 2066 want to fly into a rage against today’s philanthropists, they will not lack for reasons," he says.