Let's All Watch David Geffen Light His Money on Fire

David Geffen, philanthropistEXPAND
David Geffen, philanthropist
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At 72, David Geffen is in a mad race against time to secure his immortal renown. The multibillionaire, who already has his name affixed to a medical school, a playhouse and a museum of contemporary art, has lately gone on a philanthropic naming-rights spree. Earlier this year, he paid $100 million to put his name on Avery Fisher David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York.

Now he's coughing up another $100 million to create the Geffen Academy at UCLA, a private school primarily for the children of UCLA faculty. Why is he doing this?

As he told the L.A. Times, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA sometimes has a hard time attracting top faculty "because of the costs of educating their children."

It's taken as a given that medical school faculty won't put their children in public school, which is free. But what about the many private schools available to well-heeled Westsiders?

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Professors at the Geffen School of Medicine make $200,000 and up, according to this UC salary widget. So surely they can afford to send their kids to Harvard-Westlake, John Thomas Dye or even (gasp) Crossroads? And if not, wouldn't it be cheaper for Geffen to just pay their private school tuition, rather than spend $70 million to construct a brand-new new school (plus $30 million for an endowment and operating costs)?

It would, but there would be at least two problems with that. First, admission to private school is not guaranteed, so UCLA faculty would have to actually go to the trouble of applying and getting their kids into these schools. That would not be an issue at Geffen Academy. And second, Geffen wouldn't have his name on a shiny new building.

But what about that price tag? Seventy million dollars seems like an awful lot to build one school, serving just 600 students. Eli Broad is currently talking about spending $490 million to build 260 new charter schools. Now those schools can, of course, count on public funding, which a private school can't. But still. Give $70 million to Green Dot, and they could probably build more than one school.

Speaking of Broad, a lot of people are troubled by his proposal to double the number of charters in L.A. Unified. But in comparison to Geffen, he looks like Andrew Carnegie. At least Broad is concerned with the quality of education delivered to the mass of public school students. Geffen looks at the same problem, and then tries to find a way for a handful of well-to-do UCLA faculty to never have to worry about it.

Even so, if it were primarily about delivering a high-quality education to those students, then you could at least say that his heart was sort of in the right place. But it's not. It's about making sure the Geffen School of Medicine can compete for talent with Harvard and Johns Hopkins.

This is a mindless pursuit of prestige. It fundamentally does not matter whether the Geffen School of Medicine is ranked the third-best medical school in the country or the 13th. The sad irony of the whole thing is that this is happening inside UCLA, which is supposed to stand as a symbol of excellence in public education, not as a country club that doles out elite-level perks to its well-paid faculty.

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