Quiet Quitting: Cutting University Bequests Out of Wills

Quiet Quitting: Cutting University Bequests Out of Wills
(Left to right) Claudine Gay, president of Harvard University; Liz Magill, president of University of Pennsylvania; Pamela Nadell, professor of History and Jewish Studies at American University; and Sally Kornbluth, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington on Dec. 5, 2023. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Michael Ryall
Siri Terjesen

The problem of a higher education system pursuing goals that are increasingly at odds with those of the general population it is expected to serve has been the focus of extensive analysis and commentary. In the face of this ill-advised trajectory, it is not surprising that society’s reactions are intensifying. For example, organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Alliance Defending Freedom actively defend and promote free speech and students’ rights on campus. State legislatures in places including Florida and Ohio are moving to enact comprehensive education reforms. As well, in the market for education, we see traditional, de novo, and restructured alternatives increasingly on offer.

The shocking lack of support by university communities for Israel following the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023, triggered another avenue of pushback: the cancellation of donations by wealthy philanthropists. For example, hedge fund billionaire Leon Cooperman pledged never to donate again to Columbia University, and Apollo CEO Marc Rowan urged fellow donors to join him in reducing to $1 their donations to the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, Ken Griffin announced a pause in donations to his alma mater, Harvard, because of the university’s mishandling of anti-Semitism.

This is related to a phenomenon about which we have not seen much discussion: “quiet quitting” on the part of university benefactors. The phrase “quite quitting” arose in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to refer to situations in which an employee loses commitment to an employer and, rather than actually quitting, puts in the minimum effort required to keep from being fired. In the context of university donors, quiet quitting refers to people who tell a university that they will leave bequests in their wills but later remove the university without notice.

Quiet quitting by donors may well put a significant dent in university operations, particularly among Ivy League institutions that have been the public face of recent anti-Semitic demonstrations. Bequests are the most common form of planned giving to universities and are often among the largest gifts received. Universities have long eyed the potential for wealth transfer from the baby-boomer generation (born 1946–64), which presently owns an estimated $129 trillion in assets. Yet many would-be donors now find it impossible to reconcile their nostalgic images of college life—from meeting a significant other or a best friend many decades ago to pursuing intellectual curiosity—with images from today’s college campuses of violent protests supporting Jew hatred.

The added issue for universities, beyond the actual loss of donations, is not finding out about it until the moment when an individual philanthropist passes and—lo and behold—there is no gift. Fundraising departments within universities take credit for “deferred gifts” in the year of the commitment. Although such gifts are not included on university balance sheets under accounting rules set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (precisely because they are contingent upon the uncertain contents of someone’s will at the time of death), they are carefully tallied and tracked. Universities count on a certain percentage of their deferred gifts to materialize based on historical ratios.

Unfortunately for university financial planners, quiet-quitting donors are uninterested in announcing their decision, nor are they obliged to do so. No one wants to trigger some awkward conversation with a university development officer who is trying to win back a donation. To what extent have historical conversion ratios been disrupted in the wake of Oct. 7, 2023? The “quiet” part of quiet donor quitting makes it impossible to say.

Michael Ryall is professor of strategic management and director of the Executive Virtue Development Lab at the University of Toronto.
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