In summary

The $135 million she gave to four California State University campuses bolsters the transformative effect of higher education.

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By Lillian Kimbell, Special to CalMatters

Lillian Kimbell is the chair of the California State University Board of Trustees,

As much as it may stir the innovative spirit for a civilian to rocket into space for a brief joyride normally reserved for trained astronauts, our greater admiration goes to the richest among us who devote their resources to boosting upward mobility right here on the ground.

Novelist and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (and ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) chose not to further enrich the endowment of an elite university in exchange for an eponymously named campus building. Instead, she gave a total of $135 million to several campuses of California State University, the nation’s largest and most diverse four-year public university — and a stepladder to upward mobility for the less privileged. 

With a unique combination of academic excellence and affordability, CSU’s campuses consistently earn top rankings from national media for social mobility, best value and most transformative colleges, among other accolades.

Scott has provided generous gifts to Cal State campuses at Northridge ($40 million), Channel Islands ($15 million), Pomona ($40 million) and Fullerton ($40 million). Individually, each gift represents the most generous ever received by the respective campus. Collectively, it is the largest one-time gift in CSU’s 61-year history. 

Significantly, each of the gifts is unrestricted. Scott is allowing the campuses to invest the money into the services and supports that best meet the unique needs of their diverse and talented students.

“Higher education is a proven pathway to opportunity,” she wrote in her blog post announcing the gifts, “so we looked for 2- and 4-year institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved.”

Scott’s generosity will elevate the lives of California students and their families for generations to come through the transformative power of higher education. And the ripple effects will uplift our communities and state in countless – and often unexpected – ways. 

We know that college-degree holders are more likely to donate to charity, twice as likely to volunteer and three times as likely to serve as school, community and religious leaders. They pay far more in taxes – but are far less likely to rely on public services. The higher the education level, the higher the voting rate. 

Degree holders are far more willing to run for public office, contact their legislators, engage in grassroots movements and attend civic meetings — investing in and shaping our democracy.

One struggles to find words to describe such generosity and compassion from a visionary with such a forward-focused worldview.

Thankfully, we have the words of the Sufi mystic Rumi, whom Scott quotes in her blog post: “A candle as it diminishes explains, ‘Gathering more and more is not the way. Burn, become light and heat and help. Melt.’ ”

She might also have added another line from Rumi: “A candle never loses any of its light while lighting up another candle.”

By lighting other candles, Scott’s investment where it really matters and where it can have the biggest, most meaningful effect hopefully will inspire others. Some of the wealthiest among us already are thinking along the same lines.

Snap Inc., for example, has assigned 3% of its equity value — $3 billion at the present valuation of $100 billion — to endow a fund devoted to preparing pathways into the creative economy for underprivileged kids in Southern California.

In the philanthropic space, Schmidt Futures and the Ford Foundation co-founded the Families and Workers Fund in 2020 to help those hardest hit by the pandemic. Dozens of diverse corporations have joined, building a $100 million endowment for the fund.

Perhaps Scott’s greatest gift is the inspiration for her magnanimity: “Generosity is generative,” she writes. “Sharing makes more.”

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