Here Are The 15 Biggest Donations Ever To U.S. Colleges And Universities

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It’s a fraught time for American universities. Many are grappling with maintaining students’ safety following polarizing protests against the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas. Wealthy donors to several Ivy League schools have cut off future funding or threatened to do so amid disagreements over how places like Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania have responded to the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas–and students’ actions since then.

Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman, a Harvard alum, and private equity billionaire Marc Rowan, a University of Pennsylvania alum, have been two of the most vocal critics of their respective alma maters, with Ackman urging the ouster of Harvard President Claudine Gay and Rowan calling for U Penn’s President Elizabeth Magill to step down. Magill did resign a week ago, on December 9, after blowback regarding what critics said was over-lawyered, evasive testimony before Congress (alongside Harvard’s Gay and MIT President Sally Kornbluth) on December 5.

Since the October 7 attack, two billionaire donors to Harvard–Idan Ofer of Israel and Victoria’s Secret founder Les Wexner–have publicly cut ties to Harvard, while two billionaire donors to Columbia University–Leon Cooperman and Henry Swieca–have said they were cutting off further donations to the institution. But so far, it’s still just a handful of donors who’ve said publicly they are throttling their gifts.

That isn’t likely to matter too much to these Ivy League universities, all of which have endowments in the double-digit billions and plenty of others willing to pour money into them. Overall, American colleges and universities have proven quite skilled at luring in donations; in the fiscal year through June 2022, donations to U.S. higher education institutions hit $59.5 billion, up 12.5% from the prior year, according to a survey by the Council of Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). And it found that 95% of the donations of $5,000 or more were made by just 5% of donors.

In the midst of raised tensions around universities and some of their donors, Forbes compiled a list of the 15 biggest donations ever to U.S. colleges and universities. Some are outright gifts that have been paid in full, some are pledges over many years, some are bequests and some donations are shrouded in secrecy over payout timeline details.

The list is intended to highlight single gifts to individual educational institutions, and thus does not include donations spread out over several institutions or to students like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1.6 billion Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a 20-year pledge made in 1999 to award scholarships to outstanding minority students attending any accredited U.S. college or university. Nor does it include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s ongoing support of The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a scientific research organization that spans two universities.

What’s notable: how much the size of the gifts has ballooned in the past decade or so. All but one of the 15 biggest donations–which include three gifts of $1 billion or more–were announced in the past 11 years. Back in 2001, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty set the record for the largest donation to an institute of higher education with a $600 million pledge to the California Institute of Technology, where Gordon Moore obtained his PhD. As the size of the gifts rise, it surely raises the stakes in terms of what donors expect from the university in return for their gifts.

“It’s really about trusting an institution to use the funds to the effect of the cause you’re seeking to advance,” says Cara Giacomini, vice president of data, research and technology at CASE. “A donor expects that the university is going to take very good care of that gift, that the funds will be used for the purposes they were intended, and that the impacts of giving that donation are going to be realized.” Donors will only continue giving if they trust that the university is making the right decisions with their money.

Seven of the 15 largest donations to higher education have gone to public institutions, which typically have significantly smaller endowments than private universities. Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife Penny made two separate $500 million pledges to the University of Oregon, his alma mater; plus a $500 million pledge to Oregon Health and Science University. The basketball arena at U of Oregon bears the name of the Knights’ son, Matthew Knight, who died in 2004 in a scuba accident at age 34; its Hayward Field track stadium underwent a $200 million multi-year remodel, with Phil Knight and his wife Penny as the lead donors.

There is an element of “the rich get richer” here, both in terms of the donors and university coffers. As a group, the eight billionaires on this list who are still alive are worth $323 billion, up from a combined $59 billion in 2011. (All 740 U.S. billionaires tracked by Forbes are worth nearly $5.2 trillion, up from $700 billion two decades ago–when there were 222 U.S. billionaires.)

Meanwhile, all but one of the seven private colleges or universities that received these mega-gifts have some of the biggest endowments in the country, with Harvard topping them all at $51 billion. (The outlier is tiny McPherson College in Kansas, which has an endowment of $58 million, though it is set to grow with a new gift.) “If we give to the same universities in the same ways, I would say we could expect the same results,” says Elisha Smith Arrillaga, vice president of research at the Center For Effective Philanthropy. “If you give to different universities, you might get different results.” One example: the donations that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has made to support HBCUs, which are traditionally underfunded.

The largest single gift to any U.S. college or university to date was Michael Bloomberg’s historic $1.8 billion donation in 2018 to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, which he earmarked for undergraduate financial aid. The gift enabled Johns Hopkins to become what it described as a loan-free institution. “Beginning in the fall of 2019…we will replace all undergraduate student loans with scholarships, and we will reduce overall family contributions to financial aid,” Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said in an open letter announcing the gift.

Two of these 15 mega-gifts were made anonymously. McPherson College, located northwest of Wichita in McPherson, Kansas with just over 800 undergraduate students, is known in part for its automobile restoration program. It announced in July that an anonymous donor who had started with a $500 million pledge in November 2022 had raised the donation amount to $1 billion. The first $500 million pledge was a “double match gift” in which the donor agreed to give $2 for every $1 raised, up to $500 million. It’s very likely that the anonymous donor is seed genetics billionaire Harry Stine, a McPherson alum and previous donor to the college. When Forbes reached out to Stine about the anonymous gift, Stine replied, “We do not know anything about this,” and ended the sentence with a smiley face emoji 🙂.

The other large anonymous gift was $550 million in 2021 to Western Michigan University from unnamed alumni–– the largest single donation to date to a public university. Speculation around that gift centers on Ronda Stryker, whose grandfather Homer Stryker founded what is now $113 billion (market capitalization) medical device firm Stryker Corp. She is the only known living billionaire who graduated from WMU. In 2014 Stryker and her husband, William D. Johnston, a university trustee, revealed that they were the donors behind a more than $100 million gift to WMU made in 2011 to launch the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine at the university. Neither a university spokesperson nor the Stryker Johnston Foundation responded to questions about whether Stryker and her husband Johnston are the donors behind the $550 million pledge.

Most of these mega-gifts were made to fund specific programs or needs, with scientific research and climate change research attracting billions of dollars. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have pledged $519 million to Harvard University to launch and support the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence–at a time when Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms is investing heavily in AI and powering AI chatbots for Instagram users. Venture capitalist John Doerr and his wife Ann promised Stanford $1.1 billion last year to launch a new school focused on sustainability. While Zuckerberg and Chan attended Harvard (Zuckerberg famously dropped out), neither of the Doerrs attended Stanford. Of the 15 gifts listed here, only seven have come from alumni. We reached out to representatives for all the living donors to see if the recent issues surrounding donor-university relations had led them to have a change of heart regarding ongoing giving; none said they had changed their plans.

Mike Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins for undergraduate financial aid stands as the largest single gift ever to a U.S. college or university. The Bloomberg LP cofounder, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1964 with an electrical engineering degree, has given more than $3 billion over his lifetime to the university. Johns Hopkins said the funds would go exclusively toward financial aid. “No qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account,” Bloomberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed announcing the donation. Bloomberg, one of the biggest lifetime givers as calculated by Forbes, has donated more than $14.4 billion over his lifetime, including to causes such as gun control and climate change.

Stanford announced the creation of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, its first new school in 70 years, in May 2022 with a $1.1 billion gift from John Doerr, chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and his wife Ann. The university said the funds will go toward creating an institute focused on finding technology and policy solutions for global climate challenges. Donations for the School of Sustainability also came from notable alumni such as Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang and his wife Akiko Yamazaki. Neither John nor Ann Doerr graduated from Stanford, but together they have previously given to several of Stanford’s schools and research institutes. Doerr built a fortune investing in tech—most notably leading Kleiner Perkins into Google in 1999. A spokesperson for Stanford declined to comment on the payout timeline of the Doerrs’ donation.

The smallest educational institution on this list, McPherson College—located in the town of McPherson, Kansas—received an anonymous donation of $500 million in November 2022, which the donor increased to $1 billion in July this year. The first $500 million gift challenged the college to match McPherson has said that the gift, which will be paid over time or paid in full when the donor dies, will fund academic programs and make attending the university more affordable for its students, as well as renew initiatives on rural health.

Speculation has centered around the donor possibly being seed-genetics billionaire Harry Stine, who graduated from McPherson in 1963 and has been a longtime donor of the university. His son Myron also graduated from McPherson. When reached by Forbes, Stine didn’t outright deny giving the gift.

This fruit- and nut-farming billionaire couple cofounded and run the Wonderful Company, which grows almonds and oranges in California’s Central Valley; plus they own Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and the Fiji brand of bottled water. In 2019, Caltech announced it has received a $750 million pledge from the couple for research in environmental sustainability in areas such as solar energy, biofuels, decomposable plastics and biosphere engineering. The 80,000 square foot Resnick Sustainability Center will host an interdisciplinary research organization that also involves NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is not far from Caltech’s campus in Pasadena, California. As of the end of 2022, the Resnicks had donated $95 million of the pledged amount.

Herbert Irving (d. 2016) started out with a frozen food distributor he founded with his brother-in-law in the New York area in the late 1940s and in the 1960s created national food distributor Sysco Corp. by joining with other regional distributors. Sysco has grown to be a $76 billion (revenues) company. Irving never appeared on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans, though he should have. Herbert was 98 when he died in 2016. Columbia University and its affiliated NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital announced a $700 million bequest from Herbert’s widow Florence (d. 2018) in 2017 to advance cancer research and clinical programs, a gift that later grew to $725 million.

In 2001 Intel cofounder Gordon Moore and his wife Betty announced a $600 million gift; at the time it was the largest donation ever to a U.S. university. Half of the $600 million was a gift from the couple over five years and the other half was a gift from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation made over 10 years for educational and scientific programs “to be mutually agreed upon,” Caltech said when it announced the gift. The donation funded the creation of the Center for Molecular Medicine and the Tectonics Observatory, among other initiatives. The Moores donated an additional $100 million to Caltech in 2014.

Gordon Moore, who died in March at age 94, graduated from Caltech in 1954 with a PhD in chemistry and physics. Moore cofounded semiconductor firm Intel in 1968 and famously predicted that computer processing capabilities would double every two years, which became known as “Moore’s Law.” He became a trustee at Caltech in 1983 and chaired the board from 1993 to 2000. His wife Betty Moore died earlier this week, on December 12, at age 95.

Western Michigan University announced in June 2021 that unnamed alumni had donated $550 million to the university–the largest gift for a public university in U.S. history. The donors committed $300 million to the Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, $200 million to the university and $50 million for the university’s athletics programs. The donors are giving the funds in installments to the university’s endowment over an undisclosed amount of time. So far the university has distributed $18 million of the gift for these purposes, a university spokesperson told Forbes, a majority of which it used to fund need-based scholarships and create academic and support services to increase student retention.

The Meta Platforms cofounder and his wife Priscilla Chan, who met while they were students at Harvard (before Zuckerberg dropped out to build Facebook), announced in 2021 that they were funding the launch and ongoing operations of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence. The institute is named for Zuckerberg’s mother and maternal grandparents and is based on the premise that artificial and natural intelligence are “intimately interconnected.” The Institute will recruit and train future generations of researchers as the field of AI develops. Their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will spread the $519 million in funding for the institute over 15 years.

In early December, the Washington Post reported that Harvard disinformation researcher Joan Donovan filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Harvard shut down her research and eliminated her job right as Harvard was receiving the Kempner Institute donation. Harvard disputed Donovan’s claims, saying that it could not find a faculty sponsor for the research, and that it offered her a part-time position. Brandi Hoffine Barr, spokesperson for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said, “CZI had no involvement in Dr. Donovan’s departure from Harvard and was unaware of that development before public reporting on it.”

In 2013 the Knights said they would give Oregon Health and Science University $500 million if the university could raise the same amount in less than two years. The university reached its fundraising goal in 22 months and in 2015 received the Knights’ gift.

The funding supported a program for early detection of lethal cancers at the Knight Cancer Institute and enabled the institute to recruit 25 researchers and hire another some-250 scientists and physicians focusing on cancer detection.

“These last 22 months have shown what is possible when people of vision focus on a single goal,” Knight said in an announcement from OHSU in 2015. “We are more convinced than ever that cancer will meet its match at OHSU, and we are proud to play a role in this history in the making.”

Hedge fund billionaire Jim Simons and his wife Marilyn, through their Simons Foundation, announced in June they would give an unrestricted $500 million gift to the endowment of Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, where Jim Simons chaired the math department before launching his hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. The gift will go toward perpetual funding of student scholarships, professorships, research and clinical care. The gift represents a major step up for Stony Brook, which reported an endowment of $471 million in June 2022. The foundation will give Stony Brook the gift split over seven years. The first $200 million of the gift will be matched by New York State with $100 million and the Simons have asked that it be fully matched. The Simons Foundation will give another $100 million to the university in 2027 and distribute the remaining $200 million over the following three years.

Bay Area real estate billionaire Sanford Diller, who died in 2018 at age 89, granted $500 million to UC San Francisco in 2017 through the Helen Diller Foundation—named after his wife Helen (an active philanthropist who died in 2015)—and now led by his daughter Jackie Safier. The university said it would use $200 million for an endowment to recruit and retain faculty clinicians and researchers at the UCSF School of Medicine. Another $200 million was earmarked to fund student scholarships at UCSF’s dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy schools. With the last $100 million, the university created an unrestricted fund dedicated to innovations in healthcare.

A few days after Bay Area real estate billionaire Sanford Diller’s death in 2018, UCSF announced that the Helen Diller Foundation committed to giving an additional $500 million to construct a new hospital at its Parnassus Heights campus, which is expected to be completed by 2030.

The Nike founder and his wife Penny’s first $500 million donation to the University of Oregon helped it create a new science campus, called The Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, which supports research in a variety of fields within biomedical and applied science. The Knights are scheduled to give $50 million each year to the university for 10 years. Knight famously ran track at the University of Oregon and created Nike running shoes with his former U of Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman.

The Knights announced a second $500 million gift to the University of Oregon, five years after their initial $500 million pledge, to expand the Knight Campus for Acclerating Science Impact. The university said it would use the funds to construct a second building and add additional faculty positions. Like the previous $500 million gift, the Knights have pledged to donate the sum over a period of ten years.

Patrick Ryan, the CEO and founder of specialty insurance and brokerage firm Ryan Specialty Group, along with his wife Shirley, are Northwestern’s largest benefactors, the university says. Patrick Ryan graduated from Northwestern in 1959 with a degree in business and for more than 40 years was CEO of life insurer AON before founding Ryan Specialty Group in 2010. His wife Shirley graduated from Northwestern in 1961 and cofounded Pathways Center, a pediatric clinic, which she chaired for more than three decades. Their $480 million gift will go to redeveloping Northwestern’s football stadium and creating new research programs in neuroscience, biomedical sciences, business and applied microeconomics. Neither Northwestern nor a representative for the Ryans would comment on the timeline over which the gift is being paid out.

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