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Being nice to students has its rewards

<em>Illustration: Simon Letch</em>

Illustration: Simon Letch

The extraordinarily rich engineer John Grill did a fine thing handing over $20 million to his alma mater, the University of Sydney. A number of the institution's big wigs were assembled for the announcement last month, basking in the glow of this munificence. The money will go to a centre for executive leadership training, to be created in Grill's name.

Eighteen months ago the university bestowed one of its honorary doctorates on Grill in recognition of his exceptional work in the field of engineering.

Dr Michael Spence climbed into the saddle as the university's vice-chancellor in 2008. Since then the institution has raised more than $220 million from gifts, bequests and other private handouts.

Harvesting money is one of the main tasks of a modern head of an academic institution, and Doc Spence is so good at it that the university senate has given him another five-year contract as VC and principal.

We don't know the fine details of how Grill's fortune is to be managed by the university, the proportion of interest of the capital fund that is to be spent each year on the new learning centre, whether unspent amounts have to be returned to the fund, how the money will be invested, and so on.

It's one thing getting these handsome handouts, it is quite another thing managing them.

It has not been plain sailing for another of Sydney University's notable donors.

In 2005-06, and earlier, the estates of George and Margaret Henderson bequeathed about $17 million to the Conservatorium of Music.

George Henderson was behind the development of one of Australia's biggest pastoral holdings, before it was sold to Dalgety in 1963. There were 19 properties in his company, spread across NSW, Queensland and Western Australia.

He also helped to establish the Flying Doctor Service and the Far West Children's Health Scheme.

He lived at ''Rannoch'', near Blayney, NSW. In 1951 Henderson married Margaret Doyle, the first female radio announcer on the ABC. Together they were great lovers and patrons of the arts, particularly classical music and opera.

They would frequently travel from Blayney to Sydney for concerts. Out of this grew a commitment to leave a large part of their respective estates to the Conservatorium of Music and to establish student scholarships in operatic singing, piano and violin.

George died in July 1991 and his wife in 2002. The Con was absorbed into the University of Sydney in 1990.

One of the trustees of the Henderson estates is George Henderson's niece, Mary Turner.

In 2008 she began asking Spence for audited accounts of the Henderson bequest, relating to how much income has been generated and allocated, the fees charged and the amounts augmented to the capital sum.

Initially she got some figures from Spence, but they were not audited for her purposes of assisting the trustees to ''determine whether the bequests are being applied in accordance with the terms of [the] wills''.

Spence explained: ''The university does not undertake audits of individual bequest accounts as it is not practical or feasible to do so.''

Ultimately, some audited numbers did arrive, and they showed that by 2007 the market value of those funds had grown to $21.5 million. In addition there was another $2 million received from the Tax Office by way of dividend imputation credits.

By the following year, however, the total funds had shrunk to $17.8 million. The university also charges a fee to administer these funds.

The funds now contain between $16 million and $17 million and the trustee wants to know what measures have been taken to keep the capital sum in a preserved trust.

The former dean of the Con, Kim Walker, is in the process of suing the University of Sydney.

An affidavit from Mary Turner about her concerns as to the university's alleged lack of transparency about the Henderson bequest has been filed in that damages action.

Unhappy trustees are the last thing a beneficiary wants.

So George and Margaret were generous to the university through their endowment of the conservatorium, but Sydney University was not their alma mater. It was a pure love of music and wanting to help talented students that motivated them. This was not a gift with an eye on a big tax break.

Chuck Feeney, the Irish-American duty-free billionaire, has been doling out vast chunks of his fortune, some of it to Australian universities, through his organisation the Atlantic Philanthropies.

His alma mater, Cornell University, has received almost $1 billion worth of his philanthropy.

Feeney is part of the Warren Buffett, Bill Gates give-till-you-drop club. These are people with so much money that it has become meaningless unless it is being funneled into projects they feel are worthwhile and will live on beyond them.

They all have their own foundations and it is more than likely that the gifts of money would be tightly regulated by those organisations.

I suspect these gifts are not quite of the blank cheque variety.

In July it was revealed that the Welsh-born venture (''vulture'') capitalist Michael Moritz would be giving the equivalent of $114 million to his university of Oxford, and for the worthwhile initiative of establishing scholarships for the poorest 10 per cent of undergraduate students who attend that university.

This is in memory of Moritz's father, who also got a degree from Oxford on a scholarship, after getting out of Nazi Germany as a teenager.

In the age of impoverished tertiary institutions, universities are more than ever dependent on plutocrats who want memorials to their fathers, glory for their goodness, tax breaks, or the enrichment of the species.

One thing halls of learning should, by now, have discovered is the importance of providing a happy experience for students and being really nice to them.

You never know when that wretch who limps along in the bottom half of the class will endow you with riches beyond the dreams of Croesus.

Twitter: @JustinianNews

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  • "Together they were great lovers and patrons of the arts, particularly classical music and opera."

    Oh Richard...their patronage is worth mentioning but really...

    Read more:

    Date and time
    November 02, 2012, 8:05AM
    • The windfall gains that philanthropists bring to universities are laudable. The revenue that makes that makes or breaks an Australian university comes from international students, who pay full fees. Our universities need to take better care of these students, to ensure that these students get the most from their experience.

      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 8:26AM
      • Agreed. The ongoing commitment of international students to their university should be the easiest of things to secure, and yet most Australian universities treat these students poorly in terms of providing them with basic services. I know many former international students who would dearly love to remain involved with their university but feel that they have been well shafted once they have been drained of cash for their education and sent packing.

        Date and time
        November 02, 2012, 9:31AM
      • Thats because students (international and domestic) are nothing but customers to universities. They have zero regard for providing a great cultural and educational experience, its all about the bottom line.

        Date and time
        November 02, 2012, 10:36AM
    • Richard, you are very well informed. There are a lot of issues behind this article, including how universities with around 50,000 students (Sydney & UNSW) are to forge ties of loyalty with graduates. In the pre-Dawkins days, the government drip was reliable and there were fewer competitors. That's changed. The main problem for universities is recurrent funding. If you were to visit Sydney, UNSW, Macquarie or UTS, you would think they were rolling in money. New buildings everywhere, quite a few the result of generous donations. But these places are not rich. Recurrent funding puts them in thrall to the Federal Govt., and they are in a race to the bottom to attract enough students. The result will be an impoverished university experience. Not many future donations in that.

      Date and time
      November 02, 2012, 8:55AM
      • Executive leadership training! What, how to get even more money and benefits than they already do? How to leverage their share options for maximum dividends? How to make sure their payout when the company fails and workers lose their jobs because of their mismanagement is even bigger?

        Date and time
        November 02, 2012, 11:06AM
        • Agreed - usually the business school is noticeable by its salubrious environment in comparison to the rest of the university that is often shabby - undoubtedly its well funded by the uni itself in order to attract more well heeled and fee paying would-be executives.

          Strange that someone would give them yet more when other areas of the uni that are not rolling in filthy lucre have nothing.

          Date and time
          November 02, 2012, 2:58PM
      • Of course it is important to be nice to students and to provide them with happy times. It is also important to give them a solid useful education. In TAFE where I am working I have done both - been honest and up front about what students need to do to be successful, have gone out of my way to teach them skills and knowledge which has included working from home and during a hospital stay one time. I have many positive letters and emails from appreciative students. Yet I am also considered no longer viable and have been made redundant. Not so the Director of Strategic Services on double my salary, not so the hundred or so of IT technicians and not the nuge marketing department. No they are all safe in their jobs and someone like me - as one student said - a real teacher - is no longer viable.

        South Brisbane
        Date and time
        November 02, 2012, 12:23PM
        • If only the VC was as good at managing staff and dealing with the uni's woefully inadequate IT setup as he is at "harvesting" Richard. Being closely associated with academics who have seen the latest round of slashing and burning of staff, those remaining are coping with increased workloads over and above what was already unreasonable. So are their families who are apparently left out of HR equations. The criteria for getting rid of staff were dodgy but hey, that's executive management at its best, isn't it? Keeping students happy by the way, so often entails acceding to demands for distinctions and high distinctions for assignments that are often barely worth a pass. It also means being available evenings, weekends, whenever via email and/ or phone. Maybe this executive management centre will turn out leaders who will change this work/ life imbalance but I won't be holding my breath.

          Date and time
          November 02, 2012, 12:26PM
          • Sydney University has been calling asking me for donations. It infuriates me. My Master of Commerce degree cost me $30,000 and was of terrible quality - 99% of the people in the class could not speak English well enough to make a credible contribution to group assignments. In my eyes the University owes me money and not the other way around.

            Date and time
            November 02, 2012, 12:32PM

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